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A few tasty items to store away for the winter

Coming attractions this winter, based on conversations with those in the know:

The Red Sox will make every effort to sign Nomar Garciaparra for the long haul beyond next season, when his contract expires. They feel an obligation to New England to do so; the message they're getting from Sox fans is that keeping Garciaparra in a Sox uniform should be the club's No. 1 priority. Whether Garciaparra is as committed to staying remains to be seen, but as one Sox teammate said this weekend: "The Red Sox can't afford to be outbid for Nomar."

A popular rumor that persists in baseball circles is that Garciaparra will end up with the Dodgers, who have good young arms in their system and an outstanding defensive shortstop, Cesar Izturis, to offer in exchange, but the Sox will not shop Garciaparra unless they are convinced he doesn't want to come back.

The Sox, who already exercised Pedro Martinez's $17.5 million option for 2004, will attempt to re-sign the ace. They believe there is a dollar figure and length of term that makes sense, but are prepared for the possibility that Martinez will find both the money and years inadequate.

The Sox, with five years and in excess of $100 million still owed Manny Ramirez, will explore the possibility of moving their slugging left fielder, though they are not committed to doing so. It is their belief that Ramirez hasn't wanted to be here from Day One; as former teammate and close friend Carlos Baerga reminded people last week, a couple of months into his stay here, Ramirez said he would tear up the contract if the Sox moved him (something neither the union nor his agent, Jeff Moorad, ever would have allowed him to do). The Sox also believe that the resources tied up for the next half-decade in Ramirez would be better used elsewhere.

The Sox will make every attempt to sign another front-line starting pitcher, of which there will be a number of choice options: Bartolo Colon, Kevin Millwood, Andy Pettitte, Greg Maddux, Kelvim Escobar, and Sidney Ponson, among others. They're inclined to believe that Derek Lowe will be more effective as a No. 3 starter, and it will be intriguing to see whether they commit to Lowe, whose contract is up after 2004, as part of their long-term future.

With so many decisions to be made regarding the future of their own nucleus -- Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon are two others eligible for free agency after next season -- it remains to be seen how active the Sox will be in the pursuit of some of the other premier names that should be on the market.

The biggest free agent prize of all will be Expos outfielder Vladi Guerrero, but a roster with Garciaparra and Ramirez clearly wouldn't appear to have room for Vladi, and it's eminently debatable whether the high-pressure atmosphere of Boston would be the right place for him, even if Martinez re-enacted the big brother act he performed with Guerrero in Montreal. The Sox also have scouted top Japanese shortstop Kaz Matsui. Other prime talent on the free agent list includes shortstop Miguel Tejada of the A's, outfielder Gary Sheffield of the Braves, catchers Pudge Rodriguez of the Marlins and Javy Lopez of the Braves. Bullpen upgrades should be available, including a potential closer such as Eddie Guardardo of the Twins or Keith Foulke of the A's, or a setup man such as Tom Gordon of the White Sox.

An intriguing possibility and good fit for the Sox could be second baseman Luis Castillo, a John Henry favorite when Henry owned the Marlins.

It's also worth remembering that two of the biggest offseason moves made by the Sox involved two players who were not conventional free agents: Kevin Millar, whom Theo Epstein worked mightily to rescue from his sale by the Marlins to a team in Japan, and David Ortiz, who was not tendered by the Twins and signed with the Sox in January.

Stand by your Manny

Old habits have been hard to break for Shea Hillenbrand, and we're not referring to just his Boston media bashing. In 31 games since Aug. 1, Hillenbrand is batting just .198 (24 for 121) with 4 home runs and 19 RBIs, and has walked just three times. Besides doing what he does best ("The Boston media is loony. And you can put that in quotation marks: The Boston media is loony"), Hillenbrand offered a spirited defense of Ramirez. "Manny bought me numerous things when I first came up, meals, clothes, shoes," Hillenbrand told Scott Miller of CBS Sportsline, adding that Ramirez offered to buy him a car after his rookie season, an offer Hillenbrand said he declined. Hillenbrand said the last time he talked with Ramirez, the Sox outfielder was teasing him about not hitting. "He doesn't care," Hillenbrand said of the latest Ramirez brouhaha. "He doesn't care if people like him. He doesn't care to be a star person. He wants to go have fun, go play baseball, and support his family and friends. He's done a lot to help a lot of people in the organization." . . . Lou Merloni on the future plans of his good buddy Garciaparra: "He's not going anywhere." Merloni predicts good things for his previous team, the San Diego Padres, who are moving into a new ballpark next season. Merloni recently toured the facility and pronounced it spectacular, but he points to the talent general manager Kevin Towers is assembling as the reason he expects the Padres to be much improved. "Adam Eaton and Jake Peavy, three out of five starts they show what they have, and Peavy's what, 22 or 23? [he's 22; Eaton will be 26 in November]. Three out of five starts they may give you eight innings, two hits and a run. I was surprised they let Oliver Perez go [in the Brian Giles deal]. In two or three years, he's going to be special. Dontrelle Willis has more deception, but this kid has better stuff. When he's throwing his slider for strikes, which he doesn't do yet consistently, with a 94 mile-an-hour fastball from the left side, he has a chance to be special. But with two great starters in Peavy and Eaton, and solid Nos. 3 and 4 in Kevin Jarvis and Brian Lawrence, they have good pitching. Mark Loretta is the most underrated player in baseball. I watched him play every day, and he's a great all-around player. The Padres thought they could get something for him, but then they thought, `What are we doing? Why would we want to get rid of this guy?' So they gave him a two-year deal, which he deserves. And with Sean Burroughs and Phil Nevin and Giles and Ryan Klesko, that's a good lineup. They need a starting catcher over there, and they might go after a shortstop, though they may keep Mo Vazquez and wait for this kid they have in the minors, Khalil Greene." . . . Sox reliever Alan Embree, who was with the Padres last season, also had high praise for Peavy: "Peavy's legit. His mental makeup is unbelievable. He's just a competitor. I love to see him pitch. And Brian Lawrence is a poor man's Greg Maddux. And can Trevor Hoffman come back [from two shoulder surgeries]? I don't see why not. He's such a physical specimen. And he's one of my all-time favorite teammates."

Passionate defense

Embree, on the pressure of playing in front of Boston's demanding fans: "Everybody wants to make it into such a negative thing, but I don't see it as a negative. They boo you when you're bad because they want you to do good. It's nothing personal. They don't hate you. They hate the fact you failed that particular night. How you handle that depends on a guy's particular makeup. I've been booed and cheered, I've gone through the highs and lows, and I've survived, I'm still on a very good ball club. I can deal with being booed in Boston, where the fans are great fans, so passionate. It's not like getting booed in San Diego. If you get booed in San Diego, you're pretty close to the end." . . . Soccer star Mia Hamm gave a rare glimpse into her relationship with Garciaparra -- they plan to marry after the baseball season -- in an interview with USA Today. "I think there are certain parts of your life you hope to be at similar points. Personally, I am happy," she told the paper, adding that Garciaparra has "brought a lot of joy and love into my life. He's my best friend. I have support from someone I truly trust and deeply care about. He's just one of the greatest people I've ever met." Added Hamm: "I think we have very similar lives in that we're both athletes and both two of the stars at what we do. I think we're very similar as people; we're never kind of content with who we are. We always feel we can be doing better. A lot of the time, he says, `Maybe you should follow your own advice, maybe you should listen to yourself.' Without getting too much into it, I feel extremely blessed to have him in my life." . . . The newest passion in Henry's life? Virtual NASCAR racing on the Internet. "It's incredibly intense," Henry said. "I was going 200 miles an hour on an oval last week in traffic at Bristol. I went out on the 112th lap." Henry's setup at his home in Florida includes three 50-inch plasma TV screens. "I never was into it before, but now I'm a huge NASCAR fan," he said. "You have these 800 horsepower cars, and the simulation is so incredibly realistic and intense, I found myself clicking my seatbelt, I was so into it."

Bautista has it all

One of the pitchers the Orioles acquired in the Jeff Conine deal from Florida was Denny Bautista, a 20-year-old, 6-foot-5-inch righthander who began the season in Single A before being promoted to Double A Carolina. His fastball has been clocked in the upper 90s, he also throws a curveball and changeup, and Martinez is his cousin . . . George Steinbrenner doesn't always get his man: Cubs ace Mark Prior was drafted out of high school by the Yankees in 1998 but rejected a $1.4 million offer and went to Southern Cal instead. Prior has allowed just three earned runs in his last 46 innings and is 14-5 with a 2.36 ERA overall . . . Dodgers fans (and rotisserie league players) were stunned to learn just this week that slugging outfielder Shawn Green has been playing with a bad shoulder since spring training and probably will require offseason surgery. GM Dan Evans is back on the hot seat, as critics wonder why he didn't make a greater effort to add another power hitter if he knew Green was impaired . . . That old softie, Lou Piniella, was moved by the performance of Tampa native Doug Waechter, who grew up 4 miles from Tropicana Field and threw a two-hit shutout in his first major league start, with his mom in attendance. "It brought tears to my eyes," Piniella said.

Material from personal interviews, wire service reports, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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