It's early in the offseason, but the Red Sox have started to get a feel for how they can give their starting rotation an instant upgrade for next season.

During the General Managers' Meetings in Chicago this week, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein met with Steve Hilliard, the agent for standout right-hander John Lackey, MLB.com has confirmed.

Free agents can't negotiate with other teams until after Nov. 20, and when that happens, the floodgates are expected to open for Lackey, considered the best free-agent starter this offseason.

The Red Sox have a preliminary interest in Lackey, and after getting a gauge for how the market will play out this offseason during the GM Meetings, the two sides will likely be in touch more frequently when other teams can get involved.

Lackey, 31, had another solid year for the Angels in 2009, going 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA in 27 starts. Though he hasn't reached 200 innings each of the past two seasons, his ERA has been under 4.00 for five consecutive years -- including at 3.01 when he was third in American League Cy Young Award voting in '07 -- and only made less than 24 starts during his rookie year in '02.

Earlier on Friday, MLB.com confirmed Brewers general manager Doug Melvin also spoke to Hilliard regarding Lackey.

The Red Sox already have Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka penciled in for the starting rotation next year, and the addition of Lackey would give them one of the best staffs in the Majors.

Lackey will surely command top dollar this offseason. He is also a Type A free agent -- along with Randy Wolf -- meaning the Red Sox would have to surrender a first-round pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft -- or a second-round pick if the signing team is selecting within the first 15 selections -- along with a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds if Lackey signs elsewhere before Dec. 1 or is offered arbitration and declines.