FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Dashing the notion that the Yankees blindsided the Red Sox when they traded for Alex Rodriguez, Theo Epstein said yesterday he was keenly aware the American League's reigning MVP could wind up in pinstripes by Opening Day. The possibility struck him like a thunderbolt when Boss Steinbrenner lost his incumbent third baseman, Aaron Boone, to a serious knee injury.
"I remember turning to a couple of guys on my baseball operations staff and saying, 'OK, what's going on at Yankee Stadium right now?' " the Sox general manager said. "I remember saying, 'OK, A-Rod, [Edgardo] Alfonzo, [Eric] Chavez, what's their list look like?' I guess we found out what their list looked like."
Epstein arrived at the Sox' spring training headquarters with a rich agenda, from monitoring the arrival of pitchers and catchers by today's reporting deadline to continuing high-stakes negotiations with four core free agents (Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, and Jason Varitek), at least one or two of whom are not expected to return next year. David Ortiz and Scott Williamson also face uncertain futures after the season as free agents.
Epstein's to-do list also included the team's guiding mission, which is avenging last year's wrenching defeat in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and eradicating the franchise's 86-year championship famine. But amid the fallout from the Yankees adding Rodriguez to their galaxy of stars, he broadened his focus to provide greater detail about his role in the A-Rod saga. He acknowledged, for instance, that the Sox actively decided against renewing their pursuit of Rodriguez even when it appeared the Yankees would snatch him.
"That ship had sailed," Epstein said of the team's abandoned effort.
The financial considerations that ultimately compelled the Sox to resist trading Manny Ramirez for Rodriguez were the same that persuaded them to watch from the sideline as the Yankees sent Alfonso Soriano to the Rangers for A-Rod in one of the biggest coups in Bronx lore. But Epstein insisted he harbors no regrets.
"We're going to be very aggressive and leave no stone unturned in our attempts to improve the club," he said. "But we're also going to exercise fiscal discipline. We're going to walk away from a deal if the numbers don't add up so we stay true to our baseball plan and our business plan. We're not going to be a team that just goes for it and then all of a sudden looks up in a couple years and doesn't realize why it's losing money or why it can't be competitive anymore."
Rodriguez landed in Gotham in part because he was willing to move to third base after establishing himself as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. As it turns out, the Sox also explored the possibility of realigning their infield if they had acquired Rodriguez by asking either him or Garciaparra to switch positions.
"The subject was investigated at the time, and it was not an option," Epstein said, declining to elaborate.
He did, however, figuratively tip his cap (emblazoned with a Patriots logo) to the Yankees and Rangers for their memorable transaction.
"I think it was a good deal for both sides," he said. "I think it continues to make the AL East a very, very competitive division. When we sit back and assess what we need to do to achieve our goals, our basic game plan is for about 100 wins. That's what I think it's going to take [to win] the division."
To that end, Epstein upgraded last year's 95-win team, which finished second to the Yankees for the sixth straight season, by acquiring one of the game's top starters, Curt Schilling, and premier closers, Keith Foulke. He also picked up former Gold Glover Pokey Reese to shore up the defense at second base.
Now comes the tricky part: preparing to enter the season without agreements on multiyear contracts with a number of the potential free agents.
"Is it feasible to bring back every single player? No. That's life," Epstein said. "You can do the math yourself. It's not possible financially to bring back every single player. But can we bring back some key guys and develop some continuity? Yes. The guys that we don't bring back we'll replace with the next generation of talented Red Sox players."
Because Garciaparra, Martinez, Lowe, and Varitek are likely to command the largest salaries among the team's prospective free agents -- and perhaps seek longer contracts than the Sox may care to assume -- at least one or two of them may not return. And Epstein, responding specifically to a question about Garciaparra, said he is prepared for the possibility of starting the season without a new agreement with the All-Star shortstop.
"That happens all the time," Epstein said. "To do good business and to execute a successful plan, at times you have to be prepared for players to go into the last year of their contract. It's not a panic situation for the player, it's not a panic situation for the club. It's not always easy to reach agreement on a contract ahead of time. If both sides are reasonable, it can certainly be done after the year when you have better information."
In the meantime, Epstein expects the potential free agents to perform as they would regardless of their contract status. They all felt the sting last year of falling five outs short of reaching the World Series.
"All the players who were on last year's club left hungry," Epstein said. "They want to take care of some unfinished business."