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Potential makes Matsuzaka worth taking the risk

Three winters ago, after being outbid by the Yankees for Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras, Red Sox team president Larry Lucchino complained about George Steinbrenner's seemingly infinite money supply and tagged the Yanks baseball's "Evil Empire."

I'm eager to see how Steinbrenner and his minions respond, now that the Red Sox have invested $103.1 million in Japanese pitching icon Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has never pitched in the Major Leagues. Maybe the Yanks will brand them the "Mad Theocracy," in honor of young Boston general manager Theo Epstein, who stared down super agent Scott Boras and got a deal done just before the deadline.

All I know is the best rivalry in sports -- sorry, the Bills and Dolphins barely register anymore -- just got a little more compelling. Yankees vs. Red Sox has actually waned a bit since their epic meeting in the 2004 ALCS. They didn't meet in the playoffs in '05 and the Red Sox didn't even qualify for last year's postseason because of their dubious starting pitching.

This is just what the rivalry needed, the arrival of a potential Red Sox superstar. Last year, it was Johnny Damon jumping from Boston to New York as a free agent. A year before, it was Curt Schilling going to Boston to snap the Curse of the Bambino. Around the same time, the Yanks got Alex Rodriguez after the Red Sox failed to seal the deal.

The was a lot of snickering when the Red Sox agreed to pay $51.1 million to the Seibu Lions, just for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka. Last week, the Red Sox signed Matsuzaka to a six-year deal for $52 million, bringing the actual cost to $103.1 million -- or a shade over $17 million a season for a guy who has never pitched in the Major Leagues.

Critics say it's a gamble. But at the risk of sounding like a Red Sox fan (go ahead, shoot me), it could be a bargain. It could resurrect Epstein's reputation as an executive boy wonder and help the Sox win a second World Series three years after ending an 86-year drought.

How can they pay $17 million a year for a guy who never pitched in the big leagues? You tell me how the Royals could pay $11 million a year for Gil Meche, who has never thrown 200 innings and had a 4.65 ERA during six seasons in Seattle.

How could the Cubs give four years, $40 million to Ted Lilly, who has a career record of 59-58 and a 4.60 ERA? Lilly is another fragile customer who has never pitched 200 innings in a season. How do you explain Texas paying $33.8 million for three years of Vicente Padilla?

They're all proven -- proven mediocrities. Yes, baseball salaries have gone cuckoo. There's not enough good pitching. But if I'm going to spend that kind of money, I'll do it on a guy with huge upside, not some six-inning slug who'll go 14-12 in a good year.

In Matsuzaka, the Red Sox are getting a rare talent, a polished power pitcher who could be an ace for years to come. Daisuke (it's pronounced "dice-kay") Matsuzaka is no reach. He has been great at every level. He led Japan to the title in this year's World Baseball Classic, going 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA.

Matsuzaka, a 26-year-old right-hander, led the Seibu Lions to their first Japanese Series title in 14 years. He began his career at 19, after a legendary performance in his country's high school championship tournament the year before. In his first meeting against Ichiro Suzuki, he struck out Suzuki three times. He has a powerful lower body, which brings to mind a certain Roger Clemens. Matsuzaka throws six pitches with impeccable command. His fastball is in the 96 mph range. His sinker should be investigated. Boras, admittedly not the most objective observer, called him "a surgeon with a chain saw."

Give him the baseball and bring on Yankees. I think I'm finally getting over the five-game sweep last August. Sure, the Yanks have won nine straight AL East titles. But the Matsuzaka signing, plus the acquisitions of J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo, could tilt things back in Boston's favor.

What have the Yankees done since getting crushed by the Tigers in the first round of the playoffs? They signed Andy Pettitte to a one-year, $16 million deal. Pettitte might even make it into June without hurting his elbow. There's also talk of bringing back Roger Clemens for one more go-around. Hey, how about Whitey Ford and Ron Guidry, while they're at it?

I'll take my chances on The Monster. That's right, Matsuzaka's nickname is The Monster. How long do you think it'll take the Red Sox to get him in front of Fenway Park's left-field wall -- the famed Green Monster -- for promotional shots? They might have to rename the wall if this kid is as good as the scouts claim he is.

He's a risk. So were Ichiro and the Yanks' Hideki Matsui. Those signings turned out OK. If Matsuzaka is even close to the pitching version of those two, the Red Sox -- and the best rivalry in sports -- just got better.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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