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Waiting game for Epstein

Red Sox GM isn't tipping his hand

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein was not going to itemize his shopping list before heading for Phoenix and the start of baseball's general managers' meetings today. Not for him to say the club is in the market for a second baseman, bullpen help, and another starting pitcher or two.

Epstein, who goes to Arizona with more than $67 million already guaranteed to 11 players for the 2004 season, is not tipping his hand as to which players the Sox are targeting in a talent pool of more than 200 free agents, preferring to speak in generalities.

"I think it will be a pretty active offseason in general," he said in a conference call last week. "There was a record number of one-year contracts signed last year, so a lot of players are available. Obviously, with a changing market, it creates an interesting dynamic for the clubs, and I think action is a good way to solve those issues. I think it will be an active offseason.

"For the Red Sox, we look at the winter as an opportunity to get better. We're going to explore every single possibility to get better and put a winning team on the field in 2004, improve on last year's team if possible, and set ourselves up as a consistent perennial contending team.

"We're going to work hard and see what opportunities are out there, but we can't dictate things on our own. There are so many factors involved, it could be very active for us, or not that active at all."

One of those factors is roster flexibility, the reason Epstein took the dramatic -- and at least temporarily futile -- step of placing Manny Ramirez on irrevocable waivers, in hopes that another club would inherit the final five years and $95 million of Ramirez's contract. Epstein also gave indications he is willing to consider offers for any player on the current Sox roster, including Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra, players who are entering the last year of their contracts.

The GM meetings often set the groundwork for trades that take place at the winter meetings, which are scheduled for next month in New Orleans. In his search for a starting pitcher, Epstein may target one of the elite free agents on the market -- lefty Andy Pettitte, for example, who is expected to either re-sign with the Yankees or consider signing with his hometown Houston Astros, Kevin Millwood, or Bartolo Colon -- but it's just as likely he'll explore a deal for Montreal's coveted righthander Javier Vazquez or a young up-and-comer like Edwin Jackson of the Dodgers.

Similarly, Epstein may take aim at some of the top relievers on the free market, like Keith Foulke of the A's or Eddie Guardado of the Twins, but he also explored trading for Billy Wagner of the Astros before Houston moved the lefthanded closer to the Phillies, and could look at trade possibilities like Braden Looper of the Marlins, Matt Mantei of the Diamondbacks, or Antonio Alfonseca of the Cubs.

The days of the eight-year deals like Ramirez signed after the 2000 season appear to be long gone. Only five free agents last season signed contracts with an average annual value of $10 million or more, which could mean disappointment for such elite free agents as Marlins catcher Ivan Rodriguez, Braves outfielder Gary Sheffield, and Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo, a player who will draw some interest from the Sox.

But the Sox are just as likely to watch closely what Florida does with third baseman Mike Lowell, who is eligible for free agency after the 2004 season and might be too rich for the Marlins to sign, especially for a team with 10 free agents and arbitration-eligible players, including Lowell.

One of the most sought-after free agents on the market may be Expos outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, who at 28 was paid $11.5 million last season, but it remains to be seen how many teams actually will get in the bidding, especially for a player with some history of back troubles.

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