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Triple play would be tough to turn

All sides deny 3-way deal for Sox to get Rodriguez

PHOENIX -- There was a certain inevitability that the Alex Rodriguez-to-Boston rumors, which first surfaced nearly two weeks ago, would spring back to life at this week's gathering of general managers, and they did. A report in New York Newsday, citing a National League source, had the Red Sox talking about a three-way deal with the Rangers and Angels, one in which the Rangers would send A-Rod to Boston, the Sox would send Nomar Garciaparra to Anaheim, and the Angels would send David Eckstein and prospects to the Rangers.

The denials came fast and furious. Sox GM Theo Epstein said he wouldn't talk about another club's player, but two club sources said no such talks had taken place. An American League executive with direct knowledge of the Angels' plans also denied such talks had taken place, and said that the Angels would like to hold onto Eckstein and that their top priority remains a premium starting pitcher.

And John Hart, general manager of the team that currently employs A-Rod, was the most emphatic.

"We have the player, we like the player, and we're going to retain the player," Hart told a small cluster of reporters. "I don't want this to be the Alex Rodriguez watch here as we go along, because that's simply not the case."

There is cause, however, not to abandon the A-Rod watch. Hart has approached both the Red Sox and Yankees about Rodriguez, according to multiple sources. The Sox have discussed, and continue to investigate, various scenarios in which they could acquire A-Rod.

Rodriguez became baseball's highest-paid player when he signed a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers following the 2001 season, the same offseason in which the Sox signed Manny Ramirez to an eight-year, $160 million deal. The Sox made an attempt to unload Ramirez's contract when they placed him on irrevocable waivers earlier this month, daring another club (the Yankees) to take him for the $20,000 waiver price. Had they succeeded, they would have had sufficient payroll flexibility to take on A-Rod's contract.

With Ramirez's contract perhaps impossible to move, the Sox will have to be more creative to find a way to take on A-Rod. "You can be sure they're trying to," one American League executive said last night.

Garciaparra's intentions also remain uncertain. On one hand, the Sox have said they will make every attempt to re-sign the shortstop. Club officials say they have been assured by Garciaparra that he would like to sign a long-term extension that would keep him in a Red Sox uniform the rest of his career. But if the Sox have any doubts about his intentions -- and there is a body of evidence that suggests Garciaparra would prefer a return to his native Southern California -- they are obliged to look at other possibilities.

No one on the Sox' current roster is safe, except possibly Pedro Martinez, who as a 10-5 player (10 years in the majors, 5 with the same team) has the right to veto any deal. Yesterday, according to an American League executive, the Sox let it be known they would listen to offers for center fielder Johnny Damon. Epstein would not comment on that, but as he said last Friday, the Sox are open to discussing anything he feels would improve the team.

"We have to think about different fits, different ways to address our needs," Epstein said yesterday.

The Sox will actively pursue a top starting pitcher, and by their reckoning, the best free agent available is lefthander Andy Pettitte, whom the Yankees are expected to make every effort to re-sign. Last winter, Epstein said the Sox would not sign a free agent if it meant losing top draft choices as compensation. This winter, he left the door open a crack.

"It depends on the players, and what the draft dynamics are," he said. "Last year, it was really important that we not [lose draft picks], but I wouldn't say we'll never do it."

The Yankees and Phillies are both making bids for Arizona righthander Curt Schilling, and according to a major league executive, the Sox also have talked to the Diamondbacks, though that executive rated the Sox' chances as "long shot at best." The D-Backs are looking for three major league-ready players in return, which in the Yankees' case could mean Alfonso Soriano or Nick Johnson, while with the Phillies it means a deal that would include young pitcher Brett Myers. The Sox wouldn't appear to have the talent to match any of that.

The Sox also have a strong interest in Expos righthander Javier Vazquez but have not yet spoken with Montreal GM Omar Minaya. Minaya said yesterday that he is waiting to find out where the team will be playing its games next season -- indications are that, like last season, they will play 22 in San Juan -- and what his payroll will be.

While a number of teams are in the market for a second baseman, the Sox should have a fairly large talent pool to choose from, including Pokey Reese, who became a free agent this week when the Pirates did not exercise his club option; Fernando Vina, another player whose option was not picked up; and Jose Vidro of the Expos. Lesser possibilities include Ronnie Belliard of the Rockies.

Epstein will resume his managerial search this afternoon when he interviews Angels bench coach Joe Maddon here at 2. He said last night that he has not sought permission to interview other candidates, but will. Jim Fregosi is a logical target.

"It's no great secret we're really happy with some of our candidates so far," said Epstein.

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