Beckett on the Block, and other passing thoughts . . .

The speculation continues ramping up that the Boston Red Sox are looking to unload Josh Beckett, even if the front office are trying to downplay the speculation.

Beckett has 10-5 rights to veto any deal, though he’s commented recently that he’d rather stay in Boston but he’d accept it if the team no longer wants or needs him. The Atlanta Braves are thought to have kicked the proverbial tires on the righthander but shown no other interest in the former National Leaguer.

Beckett’s clubhouse presence—he’s believed to have been one of the ringleaders of the infamous chicken-and-beer contingency during last fall’s collapse—and fading fastball, not to mention his salary, are also thought to have many teams alarmed over a deal they might make otherwise. Beckett has won two World Series rings (Florida, 2003; Boston, 2007) in his career to date, but the 2011 collapse so stung that there are those who believe the Red Sox began trying to dump Beckett as early as the winter of 2011-12

Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan has an apparently on-the-money analysis of the whys and wherefores.

After Beckett found himself at the center of the Red Sox’s chicken-and-beer controversy that clouded their collapse in September 2011, his future with the team came into doubt. The hiring of Bobby Valentine as manager did nothing to allay fears; Beckett was leery of Valentine because of critical comments he made as a television broadcaster.

Beckett may have pitched his way out of Boston . . . emphasis on “may” . . .

Valentine’s tenure in Boston has been a disaster, with the Red Sox in last place and 51-51 after an extra-innings win Sunday against the New York Yankees. He never mended his relationship with Beckett, whose up-and-down season was perhaps best personified by the uproar over his golf outing following a missed start.

Teams’ hesitation to take on Beckett goes beyond his onerous contract. There is a simple fact at hand, one that makes [Beckett] more a risk than a savior: He’s not nearly the pitcher he once was.

Beckett’s fastball tells his story. Last season, it sat at 93 mph and topped out at 96.3 mph. This year, Beckett barely can reach his average velocity from last season. Over the last month, the hardest fastball he threw was 93.5 mph, and his average was 91.5 mph. Consequently, he’s throwing fewer fastballs than ever, relying more on a cutter that one executive said “is too hittable.”

The key to any Beckett deal is just how much money the Red Sox are willing to eat. One comparison that makes sense is A.J. Burnett, Beckett’s former teammate with the Florida Marlins. When the Yankees dumped him this offseason, they sent $19 million to cover more than half of the remaining $33 million on the final two years of Burnett’s contract. While Beckett hasn’t hit rock bottom like Burnett did – while his strikeout rate is a career low, Beckett still owns low home run and walk rates – his decent peripherals can’t save him from a string of mediocre performances and lingering concern about his effect on a clubhouse.

Of course, the Red Sox could look at the standings, see themselves only four games back of the second wild-card slot and considering holding on to Beckett for now.

“They’re trying to dump him,” an unnamed executive told ESPN’s Gordon Edes, “but I don’t think anyone would touch him without a big discount.” At this writing, the likeliest scenario may be that Beckett stays in Boston at least past the non-waiver deadline early Tuesday morning. Some observers have thought the Texas Rangers might be interested in bringing Beckett back to his native state, but Fox Sports says the Rangers merely mulled the idea before making their successful play for Yu Darvish: the Rangers “just not comfortable with him.”

MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE JUNGLE . . .

DON’T LOOK NOW . . . but the Cincinnati Reds might be the hottest team in baseball at this writing, and that’s without Joey Votto (DL, knee cartilage surgery): the Reds rode eight strong from Matt Latos Sunday to beat the Colorado Rockies, 7-2, and stretch their winning streak to ten. The last time the Reds won as many as ten straight was 1998; the franchise winning streak record is twelve, which they’ve done twice, the last time 1957—the year of the Cincinnati All-Star ballot box stuffing scandal.

PAPI’S HEEL—David Ortiz might have come off the disabled list Wednesday, but Big Papi said his right heel continues to bother him enough to delay his return for a small spell. Ortiz suffered an Achilles strain rounding the bases on an Adrian Gonzalez home run 16 July.

BREWERS BURY A BULLPEN COACH–Few bullpens have the kind of self-incendiary tendencies of the New York Mets’ bullpen in recent weeks . . . but the Milwaukee Brewers’ pen often makes the Mets resemble fire marshals. Which explains why the Brewers have unloaded bullpen coach Stan Kyles, who’d held the job since 2009.

The Brewers’ pen through this writing has a collective 4.80 ERA and the most losses and blown saves in the Show. General manager Doug Melvin hired minor league pitching coordinator Lee Tunnel to succeed Kyles.

The latest Brewer pen implosion allowed the Washington Nationals to win in extra innings Sunday–11-10 in eleven innings.

A prodigal son?

DROP OFF THE KEY, LEE?—The Texas Rangers, who once rode him into a World Series, are thought to be kicking the proverbial tires on Cliff Lee again. Lee went to the Rangers before the 2010 non-waiver trade deadline, then signed with the Philadelphia Phillies as a free agent on a five year deal.

Lee’s struggling this season (1-6, 3.95 ERA), but the one-time Cy Young Award winner (AL, 2008) is still considered valuable enough that the Phillies are thought to be asking for “a significant package” if they’re going to trade him. On the other hand, Fox also reports talk that the Phillies are more anxious to move Hunter Pence or even Shane Victorino, two position players, than Lee.

The remaining money on Lee’s deal, more than the package of players, seems to have warded off two teams who aren’t exactly impoverished. Lee’s owed over $90 million for the final three seasons, too big, Fox says, even for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees.

JUSTIN TIME?—The trade winds continue to blow toward the Minnesota Twins being willing to move mainstay and former MVP Justin Morneau. To get him, Fox Sports says, would probably require a Show-ready starting pitcher and a willingness to foot a decent portion of Morneau’s remaining salary (about $19 million) through 2013. The trade winds also have such Twins as Denard Span and Josh Willingham as possible trade candidates, which some reports say have added to tensions in the Twins clubhouse.

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