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Market forces push Sox toward shortstop shift

Maybe it can still all fall apart. But the juxtaposition of two events yesterday -- John Henry calling out Nomar Garciaparra's agent in the Dominican Republic, and the discussions of Alex Rodriguez and his agent, Scott Boras, with union officials regarding the proposed restructuring of Rodriguez's contract -- suggests it is inevitable that Garciaparra is out and A-Rod is in as the Red Sox shortstop, probably in a matter of days.

The union is not called upon by a player in such matters unless a deal is close to being struck. There may still be negotiating left to be done by Henry and Rangers owner Tom Hicks over the terms of the actual trade, and whether the Sox should offer the Rangers even more financial relief than just taking Rodriguez's bloated contract ("If I were the Red Sox, I wouldn't give them another thing, until maybe the last minute," one major league executive said yesterday) along with dispatching Manny Ramirez. But clearly there has been sufficient contact between Rodriguez and the Red Sox to suggest that some contract revisions have been proposed that will make the roughly $190 million left on A-Rod's contract somewhat more palatable to Boston.

Meanwhile, Henry's angry retort to Arn Tellem's criticism of the Sox' conduct toward Garciaparra during their negotiations, after the Sox have been faithful to their pledge to keep contractual wrangling out of the media, suggests an irreparable breach between the club and its most popular player since Yaz. More important, the fact that the Red Sox made such a precipitous drop in their offer to Garciaparra -- from $15 million a year in March to $12 million a year sometime in the last couple of weeks -- signaled that the team had arrived at the conclusion that it was better off with the certainty offered by a deal for A-Rod than being stuck with Ramirez's loathsome contract and the uncertainty of Garciaparra's return.

The Sox made the judgment that they will be a better team in 2004 with A-Rod and whatever they can get in return for Garciaparra -- and that discussion almost certainly will widen to include more than the likes of lefthanders Jarrod Washburn (Angels) and Odalis Perez (Dodgers) -- than with Ramirez and No. 5.

When was that decision made? It may have germinated in March, when Garciaparra said no, grown stronger after Ramirez's ill-timed dinner with Enrique Wilson of the Yankees, and blossomed to serious talks when the Rangers came to the Sox and broached the subject of trading for A-Rod, an unhappy camper after three last-place finishes in Texas.

In the end, this may have had little to do with whether Garciaparra wanted to come back. For all that he finds distasteful about the PR aspect of being Nomar in Boston -- he once confided to an associate that he thought the media in Boston were "evil" -- the reality is that Garciaparra was far from intractable in his negotiations with the club. Yes, he turned down an offer of $15 million a year for four years back in March, at a time when he was asking for $17 million a year. But the reality is, the sides had agreed on the length of an extension, and the $2 million gap that existed certainly was negotiable.

But it is a measure of the new economic reality in the game -- the one manifested elsewhere by the World Series champion Marlins offering Ivan Rodriguez less to come back than what he'd been paid the year before, the Atlanta Braves letting Greg Maddux walk after 11 years with only a phone call, and the Montreal Expos not offering future Hall of Famer Vladi Guerrero arbitration for fear he might accept it -- that Garciaparra and agent Tellem may have badly misread the market.

As the Red Sox noted, Miguel Tejada, who is younger than Garciaparra, plays the same position, and was the 2002 American League MVP, is receiving free agent offers in the $8 million range, just more than half of what the Sox had once placed on the table for Garciaparra. The era of automatic huge raises is gone, at least for the time being. The owners are trying to wrest control back from the players, which is why the whispers of collusion are a gathering storm.

The next howls you hear probably will come from Pedro Martinez, when he discovers that the deal he left on the table back in spring also will have shrunk by this winter.

Henry's retaliatory strike, you can be sure, drew applause in other executive suites around Major League Baseball. A-Rod at an average of $25 million a year is overpaid, but you're still getting one of the two or three best players in the game. At $15 million a year, Garciaparra would have been paid just a couple of million dollars less than Barry Bonds. Is he worth that kind of dough? In today's market, that is now a topic of debate.

Said one major league executive yesterday: "It's rare that both sides express equal angst publicly. Most of the time, the club has to bites it tongue while the player and the agent go off. You know what John Henry did? He called it as he saw it. I give him credit for it. I mean, I like Arn, but what the hell? They were probably going to overpay Nomar at $15 mil, and he didn't take it. And now he wants it both ways."

Business. In the end, that's all it usually is.

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