But in the case of Josh Beckett, the recipient of that four-year, $68 million extension from the Boston Red Sox, the question is maintaining that ace status.
There is no question that, at times, Beckett has been as brilliant as any pitcher in the game. In the process, he has led the Red Sox to the top of the baseball mountain, as he did in 2007, following a 20-victory season with a sensational, dominant postseason. But the fact is that since 2005, his final season with the Florida Marlins, he has pitched to the ace level every other season, in the odd-numbered years.
In the even-numbered years with the Red Sox, he was on the disabled list twice each season. Those are valid excuses for less-than-great seasons, but they don't move anybody any closer to ace status. Beckett's overall ERA with Boston is 4.07 in 123 starts. His record -- 65-34 -- says ace, but that ERA does not say "Roy Halladay."
Still, Beckett is relatively young -- he turns 30 in May. The Red Sox like him not only professionally, but also personally. And he is, for the purposes of the medium-term future and this investment, physically sound.
Making the announcement of the contract Monday at Fenway Park, general manager Theo Epstein said the Red Sox had "outstanding health reports" on Beckett.
"The commitment today demonstrates that," Epstein said. "We kind of put our money where our mouth is."
The Red Sox are doing what it takes financially to remain competitive with their primary rivals and baseball's economic big shots, the Yankees. Boston's player payroll for 2010 in still not in the Yankee's exact neighborhood, but it reportedly will be more than $160 million, which is as strong as second place needs to become in this sort of race.
Thus it is extremely important that the Red Sox have their top three starters -- Jon Lester, John Lackey and Beckett -- under their control through 2014. That kind of quality starting pitching is the fundamental "building block," as Epstein put it, for being able to compete in the American League East. He could not be more correct.
As to Beckett specifically, Epstein said: "We couldn't be more thrilled to keep Josh around. ... He's earned it."
Based on the contracts other top-of-the-rotation pitchers have recently received, Beckett could have reasonably expected a five-year deal on the open market. But what he wanted more than a fifth year on a new deal was to remain with the Red Sox.
As he saw it, he received with this deal, "four more years of stability, knowing I'm going to be with an organization that is going to be competitive year after year."
The Red Sox organization, as described by Beckett, is largely a Garden of Eden for baseball players. Deals like this one don't hurt the image of a generous management, but Beckett seemed to be completely genuine in describing his gratitude to the Red Sox.
"This organization tries to do everything they can to make our jobs as easy as possible," he said. "There are just a lot of things that go on here that make this an ideal place for a baseball player."
Figuring in this new deal, Beckett will be paid $110 million from 2007-14 by the Sox. The best way for Beckett to display gratitude for this kind of treatment -- and this kind of compensation -- would be to pitch to his best level for the remainder of this season, not to mention the remainder of this contract.
That is easier asked than done. But the expectations of the Red Sox in this instance are not unreasonable. Beckett is fit, he is stable and he is at a point in his career where his impressive talents should not significantly erode over the life of this contract extension.
The Red Sox have done what they can do in this instance, providing a winning environment and, now, a substantial new contract. What happens next in this saga is in the hands of the pitcher.