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Gauging worth is an acquired skill

You're a baseball general manager. Let's say Theo Epstein, who runs a thorough, thoughtful operation. He has scouts in the field. He has opinions on virtually every player. At 29 years old, the Red Sox GM has already mastered the art of making a deal. You target the guy you need. You give up something, but you don't mortgage the farm system. After pulling the trigger on the transaction, you cross your fingers and hope it works out.

You hope that you haven't given up Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen. You hope that when you trade a young pitcher for a proven veteran (as Detroit's Bill Lajoie did in 1987 when he dealt John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander) that the kid doesn't become the next Dennis Eckersley -- as Smoltz has with the Braves.

But every GM has made a deal he'd love to have back. In Lajoie's case, Alexander helped the Tigers win the American League East title, going 9-0 down the stretch. Smoltz had shown promise, but who would have thought he'd become one of the game's top starters and then a premier closer?

When you're a playoff team, you hope the players you acquire factor in the postseason. On the Red Sox, Byung Hyun Kim isn't even on the ALCS roster because of a stiff shoulder and maturity issues. Scott Sauerbeck has been a nonfactor since being acquired from the Pirates. Jeff Suppan, left off the Division Series roster, has yet to pitch in the AL Championship Series. Serving a more significant role, but certainly not without his shortcomings, is Scott Williamson, currently the closer.

The Sox also made a late-season deal for infielder Lou Merloni, who has been behind Damian Jackson on the depth chart and going into last night hadn't appeared in the playoffs. David McCarty and Todd Jones have also had insignificant roles.

It's not that Epstein didn't make the right moves; certainly the aforementioned players helped the Red Sox. Kim saved 16 games and blew only three chances. As Epstein said, "Without Kim, we wouldn't have gotten here." Suppan went 10-7 with a 3.57 ERA in Pittsburgh and looked like a maturing pitcher who could help the team now and in years to come. Sauerbeck was considered one of the top situational lefthanders in the game. Williamson looked like a steal from the Reds, and though he had problems early as Kim's setup man, he has performed well as the closer.

"They've all been a part of it," Epstein said prior to last night's Game 4 against the Yankees at Fenway Park. "You just never know when you make a trade if it's the right thing or the wrong thing, but you have to go out and get the best available guy."

Epstein said of Sauerbeck, "He's been a stand-up guy. He'd be the first one to say that he's disappointed by the way he's pitched here, but he doesn't make excuses and he's earned a lot of respect for that."

There was no secret about the Yankees' intentions toward Sauerbeck, and at the time Epstein's move for the 31-year-old reliever was considered a coup. But Sauerbeck revealed he had strained an oblique muscle while warming up in Game 1 against Oakland, which pretty much knocked him out for the Division Series. He appeared in Game 2 of the ALCS in relief of Derek Lowe and allowed a two-run double to the switch-hitting Jorge Posada. The lefthander also disclosed he had received two cortisone shots on his throwing shoulder since being acquired by the Sox and feels the 157 regular-season appearances he's made the last two seasons contributed to his shoulder woes.

"Our entire organization, the coaches, the manager, the players, we could care less who's doing the job as long as the job is getting done," Epstein said. "Our bullpen has done an incredible job, and that's the bottom line."

Kim's unfortunate gesture during introductions prior to Game 3 vs. Oakland at Fenway was the beginning of the end of his season. Kim, who was acquired from Arizona for Shea Hillenbrand May 29, had become an adventure in the late innings, and his phobia vs. the Yankees was obvious.

When Kim also complained of shoulder stiffness, the team decided it would be best not to pitch him in the ALCS. Even if he had been on the roster, the chances of him pitching in a meaningful situation were slim. Kim, though, is working out his physical problems.

"We have dialogue like we do with a lot of guys and he's doing better," said Epstein. "It's a process, a maturation as a player and as a person, getting acclimated to a new country at a young age, and the whole thing is a procees. When all of it has been completed it will be worthwhile."

Suppan was 2-3 with a 5.20 ERA in six starts in September. Not good enough for Grady Little to consider him one of his top four starters. John Burkett proved more reliable.

Williamson, 27, had an 8.59 ERA in nine games in September, but once Kim was out of the running as closer, Williamson stepped in nicely. So for the next few years, Epstein will cross his fingers and hope that some of the young players he has traded don't become the next Smoltz or Bagwell, and that Williamson, Suppan, or Sauerbeck will contribute the rest of these playoffs.

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