NAPLES, Fla. - Shortly after Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein stepped away from the podium on the second floor of the Naples Grande Resort last night, the whispers swept through the hotel's lobby.
The number was met with astonishment at every turn. It was, as reported by the Seibu Lions at an early-morning press conference in Japan, the millions of dollars (actually $51.11 million) Boston had agreed to post for the rights to negotiate a contract with star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Every Red Sox offseason seems to have an unimaginable story, and thanks to a sealed winning bid, which was reportedly as much as $18 million higher than Boston's chief competitor, this is the latest.
"We are pleased and excited to have acquired the rights to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka," Epstein recited from a prepared statement, citing the need for continued privacy as the Red Sox head into a contract negotiation, which has a deadline of midnight Dec. 14. "We have long admired Mr. Matsuzaka's abilities and believe he would be a great fit as a member of our organization. We look forward to meeting Mr. Matsuzaka and beginning the next step of this process with him and his representative, Scott Boras."
And with that, Epstein supplied few innocuous answers to a smattering of questions. Afterward, he was off to Phase 2 of the latest bizarre twist in Red Sox lore.
Just when you thought M.L. Carr offering a first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls for the rights to merely talk with Michael Jordan was bizarre, along comes the case of the man some are calling "D-Mat."
"It's not something for me to comment on," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, when asked if he was surprised at the amount of the bid. "When you're in a free-agent market, trade market, ultimately if you want a player, you put your best foot forward and try to get that player. That's what they did. They were able to secure him. They have the negotiating rights for him. My job now is to concentrate on the available market for me. That's what I'll do."
"I'll keep that to myself," said another competing bidder, Mets GM Omar Minaya, when questioned as to if he would ever have gone to the $50 million level. His team reportedly bid in the neighborhood of $30 million.
"You just don't know. Those bids, you put a number down that you think the number is how he's going to fit for you. This process is one that there's so much unknown as far as what other clubs are going to do," Minaya said. "Am I surprised that we didn't win? No. Am I comfortable with the number we bid? Yes. The bottom line, for us, that was the number we thought was the best number."
The 26-year-old Matsuzaka was flying to Los Angeles last night and will most likely move on to Boston later in the week to meet with the Red Sox. It is estimated that Boras will be asking for a contract worth between $10 million and $13 million per year. If an agreement isn't reached in the month-long negotiating period, then Matsuzaka's rights will still belong to Seibu and the Red Sox won't have to pay any of the posting fee.
If Matsuzaka does agree to a deal with Boston, the Red Sox have five days to sign the $51.11 million check, which would not be counted toward the luxury tax threshold. It would be far and away the highest posting fee ever paid for a player from Japan, with the previous high coming in 2000 when Seattle paid $13,125,000 million for the rights to negotiate with outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.
"You can always improve on a process. The question is regarding a need to do so," said Lou Melendez, Major League Baseball's vice president of international operations, who was the first to see the sealed bids. "It's worked very well over the last six weeks. Ichiro was just as high profile, but it didn't get the attention this did.
"The process has worked well up to this time, and it remains to be seen if it needs to be changed going forward. And that would have to be done jointly with the Japanese."
So would it be worth it for Boston to actually pay out what could be a total from anywhere from $80 million to $100 million for a pitcher who has yet to play a major league game?
A sign that the Red Sox have already planned on getting a return on their investment is that the club has scheduled some of its sales and marketing people to spend up to a month in Japan trying to unearth possible revenue streams.
And in terms of an on-field payoff, few Matsuzaka naysayers could be found within a hotel lobby full of agents and baseball executives.
"There are a lot of 'wows,' when it comes to this kid," said Arizona Director of Player Personnel Jerry DiPoto, who scouted Matsuzaka on three occasions before his Diamondbacks entered the bidding process. "He's 26, he's got a full arsenal of pitches and with excellent command. He really does everything you want to see a young pitcher do. If he hasn't been the best, he's been the second-best pitcher in Japan over the last eight years."