NAPLES, Fla. (AP) – Here’s the $51.1 million question: Did the Boston Red Sox bid all that money to sign Daisuke Matsuzaka or merely to block him from going to the New York Yankees?

“I can understand why there might be some speculation,” Houston Astros president Tal Smith said Wednesday, a day after Boston won the right to negotiate with the Japanese pitcher. “The Red Sox are the only ones that can answer that.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of factors from a standpoint of ethics and integrity and so on,” Smith added.

“I don’t think anybody should question it as it stands in advance. You have to feel that they’re acting in good faith.”

Matsuzaka stands to become the priciest pitcher in baseball next year if the money the Red Sox would pay the Seibu Lions and the salary they would pay Matsuzaka are lumped together.

Currently, the highest average salary among pitchers is the $16 million Randy Johnson is getting from the Yankees. Even Matsuzaka took note of Boston’s big bid – double what some thought the winner would pay.

“I was very surprised when I heard the figure,” he said Wednesday before flying to the United States. “It shows that they really appreciate my ability. I know there will be a lot of pressure, but that’s something I’m used to and something I enjoy.”

Let’s say Matsuzaka agrees to a four-year contract worth $8 million annually.

Adding the posting fee and the contract, Boston would be paying $83.1 million over four years, an average of $20,775,000. The only player with a higher average salary is Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez ($25.2 million).

“I’m going to first assume that this whole process is done in good faith,” Boras said.

Boston general manager Theo Epstein spent more energy sidestepping questions than answering them at Tuesday night’s news conference to announce the Red Sox had won Matsuzaka’s rights. He pretty much repeated variations of the typed statement the Red Sox released.

When asked whether Boston bid that high to prevent Matsuzaka from going to a division rival, he responded: “This was a bid to acquire the rights to negotiate with Mr. Matsuzaka and we hope to acquire the services of Mr. Matsuzaka. Again, we think he’d be a great fit with the Red Sox organization.”

Epstein wouldn’t even say if potential marketing money was part of the equation in Boston’s bid.

“I don’t think this is the appropriate time to address that matter,” he said. “After the process is complete and over in full, we can address that.”

The Yankees weren’t even No. 2. The Mets finished second at between $39 million and $40 million, a baseball official said on condition of anonymity because the losing bids weren’t disclosed. The Yankees bid between $32 million and $33 million, another baseball official said.

All the attention on Matsuzaka is a sign of how much money the sport is generating – about $5.2 billion this year – and the lack of pitching available. Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt are the top free-agent starters.

“I think it’s a pretty soft class as a whole,” said San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers, who acquired two relievers from the New York Mets in a trade Wednesday. “It sounds like a lot of clubs this year have spending ability that they haven’t had in years past.”

Simple economics predicts what will happen. More dollars chasing scarcer inventory results in only one thing.

“It means the price is going up,” Towers said.

Boras doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage in these negotiations. If the Red Sox don’t sign Matsuzaka, he returns to the Lions. In Japan, a player who attempted to leave only to be foiled might not be received too well by Seibu fans.

Standing in the space-age looking lobby of the hotel where general managers are meeting, Boras described Matsuzaka as one of the greatest pitchers of his generation.

“Because he throws 95 miles an hour and he has four pitches, he is the player who comes here with a resume that transfers,” Boras said.

That view was echoed by Arizona Diamondbacks general partner Jeff Moorad, whose team bid between $10 million and $20 million.

“This is the kind of pitcher who only comes along once every 10 years or so,” he said, sounding more like an agent – his old job – than an owner. “Our talent evaluators believe that he may be one of the best five pitchers in the world.”

But whether a player can adapt to the cultural and lifestyle changes isn’t known in advance. Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui did fine. Hideki Irabu struggled and Kaz Matsui flopped.

“That varies depending upon the individual,” Smith said, “whether it’s an American player going to play in the Caribbean or a Latin player coming here or a Japanese player. I think it’s all different.”

AP-ES-11-15-06 1956EST

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