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The importance of Josh Beckett’s shoulder

02.09.10 at 10:12 am ET
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Josh Beckett's work ethic cannot be overlooked. (AP)

Curt Schilling was on to something when analyzing the merits of Josh Beckett’s makeup and how that should be valued when looking a the pitcher’s next contract. Numbers aside, Beckett’s worth is greatly enhanced by the fact that he has established the model the Red Sox want their up-and-coming hurlers to emulate.

His between-starts regimen has not only left an impression on the coaching staff (strength and conditioning coach Dave Page identifies Beckett as the hardest-working pitcher he has been associated with) but also other members of the starting staff. Jon Lester saw what Beckett was doing, saw how it translated, and now approaches his craft in a similar manner. And two years ago, when the Sox wanted Clay Buchholz to learn the same lessons, they encouraged an offseason get-together with the two pitchers to get the process rolling.

There won’t be the stand-on-the-table proclamations from Beckett, but when an organization full of young pitchers can learn from how a staff ace handles himself in ever nook and cranny of a professional hurler’s job description, that goes a long way, and don’t think the Red Sox aren’t acutely aware of it.

That said …

When it comes to Beckett’s next contract, the tipping point isn’t likely going to revolve around work ethic, big-game productivity, favorable comparisons or clubhouse importance. It’s not going to even revolve around whatever time the pitcher has missed due to injury since arriving in Boston. Perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting a deal done for Beckett could be something that hasn’t once surfaced as a talk radio topic of conversation in any of the past four seasons — the pitcher’s right shoulder.

The notion that you haven’t heard anything in regard to Beckett’s pitching shoulder is another check on his side of the ledger. He has worked hard to make sure this hasn’t become a hot-button topic. It can, in fact, be identified as one of the biggest reasons the 29-year-old’s professional approach has morphed into what it is today.

There’s been a skin avulsion, back problem and oblique/intercostal muscle ailment. But at no time has Beckett lost time due to his right shoulder, which, if you know the backstory, amps up the intrigue appreciably.

The first time Beckett’s shoulder was diagnosed as being a potential problem was back in 2000 when a doctor affiliated with the Marlins was telling the then-19-year-old that labrum surgery was inevitable. For a player just kicking off his career, the procedure (which is far less advanced than it has become) would have been a severe setback.

But at the urging of his agent, Michael Moye, Beckett sought out a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews, who steered the pitcher away from surgery, paving an entirely different kind of career path. It also made him very aware of how important it would be to do everything he could to prevent the issue from getting worse.

“I probably would have had surgery on my labrum, and that was back when they were still shrinking capsules, so it wouldn’t have been good,” Beckett said back at the end of the 2008 season. “But my agent said we should get a second opinion before we do anything. That’s when I saw Dr. Andrews and he told me to rest it. He always took the cautious route first. ‘Let’s rehab this thing to see if we can get it stronger, and if it doesn’t we’re not losing anything.’ He spoke my language, too, and a lot of doctors don’t. When I went to the rehab clinic (after seeing Andrews in 2000), that’s when I knew.”

While blisters proved the biggest stumbling block for Beckett throughout his time with the Marlins, the shoulder concerns wouldn’t go away. After Beckett missed his final start of the 2005 season with shoulder stiffness (although there was some debate as to if the absence was related to injury or the team saving potential bonus money), the company Beckett was attempting to secure insurance from informed him that they would insure every part of his body but his shoulder.

By the time the Red Sox approached Beckett with a contract proposal midway through the 2006 season, the insecurity of not locking in insurance still was weighing heavily on the pitcher.

“I think if I had that insurance policy it would have been a little easier to go to [the Red Sox] with a hard number,” Beckett said in 2007. “The way it happened was that we both sat down and hammered out something that made us both happy. I got that insurance with the contract.”

While the subject of his shoulder never exited Beckett’s psyche, there has been encouraging signs since coming to the Red Sox. He was told after the initial rejection by the insurance company that he could get insurance if he pitched 600 innings from the time of his arrival in Boston if there were no shoulder issues. (He has pitched 792 regular-season innings for the Red Sox.) Beckett also underwent an MRI following the 2007 season as part of the process to potentially getting insurance, which he also identified as not raising any new red flags.

So, he has done his part and kept the shoulder intact. But now comes the part Beckett can’t control: How will the Red Sox view the long-term prognosis?

Most are jumping to the conclusion that, barring any physical or performance setbacks, Beckett’s payday will begin with the number just dished out to John Lackey (five years, $82.5 million). When it comes to going strictly by the numbers (and age), the two are extremely comparable. But, because of all of the aforementioned bits of intrigue, these are far from two identical negotiations.

It might simply come down to the simple question of whether or not the Red Sox are willing to have faith that Beckett’s approach toward his shoulder is good for at least another five years. Answer that and you’ll most likely decipher where the starter will be pitching in 2011.

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