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Forging ahead

Red Sox face uncertainty in offseason

Wearing his favored blue Pearl Jam hat, a loose-fitting flannel shirt, and a stubbly goatee, Theo Epstein, 18 hours after watching his team's season come to an inglorious end, looked like someone ready to disappear into his basement office to rebuild a baseball team.

''We were a strong club," Epstein said. ''We took on so many holes because of injuries. With those gaps we got to a certain performance level . . . "

And they could climb no higher.

''The attrition of the season dictated that," he said.

Now comes the job of reflecting and rebuilding. The team has seven key free agents. They include offensive and clubhouse catalyst Johnny Damon, three-quarters of the starting infield (Bill Mueller, Tony Graffanino, and Kevin Millar), and the American League's appearance leader (Mike Timlin). The other two: John Olerud and Matt Mantei.

''We're forever indebted to them," Epstein said of core players Mueller, Millar, Damon, and Timlin. ''Someone, I'm sure, won't be back. It's appropriate to thank them for their contribution and wish them the best going forward. That said, we're not saying any goodbyes right now."

Soon, he will. In anticipation of a significant offseason, here is a position-by-position analysis.

Curt Schilling and Matt Clement are signed through 2007. David Wells is signed through next season. Tim Wakefield is signed for next season, with a club option every year thereafter, until Father Time finally taps his wristwatch. Bronson Arroyo is arbitration eligible.

The Red Sox have $13.5 million dedicated to Schilling next season, $9.75 million to Clement, and $4 million apiece to Wells and Wakefield. Arroyo, who made $332,500 in 2004 and $1.85 million this year, will receive another raise, after leading the team in quality starts with 20.

Age, though, becomes a concern. Come Opening Day, Arroyo will be 29, Clement 31, Schilling 39, Wakefield 39, and Wells 42.

''Looking at this market there's not a whole lot of starting pitching out there," Epstein said. ''We feel good that, if you look at [Jonathan] Papelbon as a starter, we have six starters under our control coming back next year, which is a luxury. And that's before we start adding.

''And then you look at a guy like [Double A lefthander] Jon Lester, who at some point next year will be knocking on the door, hopefully, if his development continues, to take a place in the rotation sometime in the next 12 months."

Lester, the Eastern League pitcher of the year, led that league in ERA (2.61) and strikeouts. The Sox also figure to work a deal to retain Wade Miller, who recently underwent right labrum surgery and isn't expected to be ready for the start of spring training.

Wells, meanwhile, will undergo offseason knee surgery. He's pondering retirement, and will have that discussion with his wife. It wouldn't be entirely surprising if he requested a trade back to the West Coast, to pitch closer to his California home. He didn't particularly enjoy the city of Boston, socially, which Epstein acknowledged.

''The first year in Boston can leave you feeling like you need some time off," Epstein said. ''He was a little taken aback by how passionate the fan base was. You expect a guy who's played in New York to make a seamless transition to Boston.

''It was tough on him. I think he used the word hermit. I know David doesn't like to be a hermit."

But, Epstein added, ''This guy's pretty competitive. We saw the way this guy pitched down the stretch. This guy has a lot left. He's a guy we'd love to have back."

Of the seven pitchers on Opening Day in New York, attrition devoured five: Blaine Neal, Mantei, John Halama, Alan Embree, and Keith Foulke. On the final night of the season, only Timlin and Mike Myers remained.

As well documented, the Sox bullpen ranked last in the American League in ERA (5.19) and 12th in strikeouts per nine innings (6.21). They must get better, younger, and better at making people swing and miss.

Foulke could be dealt, though his contract -- $7.5 million next season and player and team options for 2007 -- make that a difficult proposition. He underwent surgery on his left knee July 7 and right knee last Thursday, and he believes his physical and personal issues will be resolved come spring training.

But, doubt lingers within the organization, particularly when Foulke keeps suggesting through the media he'd prefer to be a starting pitcher.

''I think Foulkie knows he's at his best when he's at the back end of the bullpen," Epstein said. ''He's kind of a contrarian by nature . . . Let's be honest. Could Foulkie start in a parallel universe somewhere? Maybe."

But he won't. The Sox need 80 elite innings out of Foulke. But, they won't expect it.

''I think we're in a situation where we have to have Plans B and C in case we don't get that," Epstein said, talking of Foulke and Schilling returning to 2004 form. ''This was a year where a lot of our backup plans went by the wayside by way of injury also, in the sense that Mantei was essentially protecting Foulke, and Miller was going to have an impact on our rotation."

Despite Papelbon's brilliance as a setup man -- two earned runs in 16 2/3 innings between Aug. 1 and the end of the postseason -- he's destined for the rotation.

The Sox must decide how much is left in Timlin's arm, which has worked 893 games (81 this year) and more than 1,000 career innings. Craig Hansen, 21, and Manny Delcarmen, 23, figure prominently in future planning, at least in the context of the current roster.

Kelly Shoppach continues to stand, number in hand, waiting to be called upon. The most stable position on the team in recent history figures to remain that way for another season. The captain, Jason Varitek, has three years and $30 million remaining on his four-year deal. Doug Mirabelli is signed for one more year at $1.5 million.

Varitek and Mirabelli combined for 28 home runs (they homered 27 times in 2004) and drove in 88 runs, 17 fewer than in 2004. Varitek started his first All-Star Game and was hitting .301 through Aug. 31.

But he hit the wall and little else in September, ranking last in the AL during the month in batting average (.173) and slugging percentage (.235) of anyone with a minimum of 50 plate appearances.

Mirabelli, who hit .282 with 9 homers and 32 RBIs in 2004, slipped this year, hitting .228 with 6 home runs and 18 RBIs in 136 at-bats.

First base
This position figures to be the one, above all others, that requires external addressing. One early candidate: Tampa Bay's Aubrey Huff (.262, 22 HRs, 92 RBIs, .321 OBP, .428 slugging).

Millar almost certainly will not return. He made $3.5 million this season and hit .272 with 9 homers and 50 RBIs in 449 at-bats. Olerud played a stellar first base and provided a professional bat (.289, 7 HRs, 37 RBIs in just 173 at-bats). He still can play. The questions: Does he still want to, and if so, where?

Second base
Graffanino stands as Epstein's most significant in-season acquisition. He hit .319 and made just three errors after joining the Red Sox July 20.

His five-hole error in Game 2 swung the Division Series against Chicago. Red Sox fans forgave him before Game 3 with an overwhelming ovation that brought Graffanino to the precipice of tears. The point: He still could play here, but he probably won't.

Alex Cora proved an eminently capable backup and is under contract for $1.3 million next year. He'll provide a steady presence -- and insurance -- for prospect Dustin Pedroia, who appears ready to start. Cora was signed in Cleveland last season for a similar reason and ultimately traded when rookie Jhonny Peralta emphatically assumed the starting shortstop role.

The job, at $10 million per season, is Edgar Renteria's for the next three years. Hanley Ramirez, the only other puzzle piece to consider, figures to begin the season at Triple A Pawtucket. When he reaches the big leagues, and at which position, remain largely undetermined.

Renteria, after delivering a two-run single to beat the Orioles Sept. 24, called this ''my most difficult season." His numbers reflected that. He led all of baseball in errors with 30 and eclipsed his previous career high of 27 in 2000 with St. Louis. He hit .276, the third-worst average in his 10 seasons. He hit .228 in April, .231 in June, and .229 in September.

Francona yesterday revealed that Renteria dealt with lower back pain this season and, the last two weeks, an injured groin. And throughout, he dealt with a battered ego.

''I think he feels that obligation to come into camp in great shape next year," Epstein said.

Third base
Mueller underwent early February knee surgery, arrived at spring training a few weeks later, and announced he intended to establish a career high in games played. Few, if any, members of the assembled media believed him.

But Mueller played in 150 games, the second-highest total of his career, and three shy of his career high of 153 with San Francisco in 2000. He hit .295 and played well enough at third base to warrant Gold Glove consideration.

But, he'll be 35 come Opening Day, he has a history of knee surgeries, and he hit just .267 in September, then went 0 for 11 in the Division Series.

''We weren't the same offensive team in September/October that we were the first five months of the season," Epstein said. ''It's important to figure out why. Is it fatigue? Is it age? Is it 30 games in 30 days [from Aug. 23 to Sept. 21]?"

Epstein did not name names, but Mueller figures to be a player closely evaluated in that context.

And, there is the Kevin Youkilis factor. Youkilis compiled a .459 on-base percentage with Pawtucket and .400 OBP with the Red Sox. And, believe it or not, he turns 27 in March.

''He is at a point where he has to have a more significant role next year," Epstein said. ''He's certainly a guy we feel could be an everyday player for us. That depends how things work out in the offseason."

Left field
A flickering presence in April and May (.252, 11 home runs), Manny Ramirez clubbed nine home runs in the closing 12 games, then two more in Game 3 vs. the White Sox, arriving at one of the most prolific production seasons of his career. He clubbed 45 regular-season home runs (tying a career high established in 1998) and drove in 144 runs (his second-highest total, behind the 165 he drove home in 1999).

''I don't know where we would have been without him this year," Epstein said.

Still, Epstein desperately wants to shed Ramirez's contract, and history suggests the Sox will attempt to do so once again. However, it becomes more difficult. Ramirez is a 10-5 player (10 years of service, five continuous with the same club). He can veto any trade.

And, if the team deals him, they risk alienating David Ortiz, an elite hitter in his own right but also the undeniable beneficiary of hitting in front of one of baseball's most dangerous righthanded hitters. If the Sox rid themselves of Ramirez, Ortiz said Friday, they'd better pick up Albert Pujols, the consensus best righthanded bat in baseball. And he will not be available.

Center field
Damon appeared to be on the verge of tears late Friday night.

''I fell in love with Boston," he said.

And the city fell in love with him over the last four seasons. He hit .343 in the first half of the season but just .282 in the second half, enduring myriad injuries, most disruptively, strains of both rotator cuffs. Damon turns 32 next month, and the Sox must balance his production vs. the wear and tear that comes with his playing style.

There will be suitors -- the Angels, Yankees, and Cubs are early favorites. And Damon has his own concerns. He believes the Sox' window is closing, as players age and the pitching thins, and he won't re-sign if he's not guaranteed an opportunity to win. And, of course, there is the money. He's represented by Scott Boras, Varitek's agent, and figures to begin negotiations, as Varitek did last offseason, asking for $50 million or more over five seasons.

Right field
Trot Nixon averaged 145 games, 26 home runs, and 90 RBIs from 2001 to 2003. But, over the last two seasons, he's played only 172 games total, hitting 19 home runs and driving in 90 runs.

His hustle, demeanor, and lack of self-promotion all helped conceal an underwhelming season: 127 games (104 starts), .275, 13 home runs, 67 RBIs. He missed a month with a strained oblique muscle, returned Aug. 23, and was never the same, batting .229 with 2 homers and 17 RBIs over his closing 35 games.

Adam Stern, who can play all outfield positions but fits best in right field, must remain on the Red Sox roster for 18 days to begin next season to fulfill his Rule 5 obligations. At that point, the Sox can finally option him to Pawtucket without offering him back to the Atlanta Braves.

Designated hitter
Ortiz is, at age 29, a refined hitter, more knowledgeable of his limitations and strengths than ever. He walked 102 times -- he'd never walked more than 75 times -- and that is one more sign of his maturity. When he did get pitches to hit, he crushed them.

He hit .300 for the second consecutive season, put 47 over the fence, and drove in more runs (148) than anyone in baseball. He hit 19 home runs from the seventh inning on and recorded 21 game-winning RBIs. If he wore that bright red first baseman's glove more often, he'd be a lock for the AL MVP award.

He's signed at a relative pittance -- $6.5 million for 2006 with a club option for $7.75 million in 2007. He is congenial and embraces all things Boston.

He's also ultra-confident. But some of that confidence is because Ramirez had his back.

Yesterday, players were allowed into the clubhouse at 11 a.m. to clean out their lockers. The first player there was Ramirez.

He entered wearing a black Oakland Raiders jersey (No. 81, Tim Brown). He packed a bat bag and a Bose stereo system bag and walked through the clubhouse, exiting, possibly for the last time.

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