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Perfect peg by Damon agent?

Boras may have nailed CF's value

Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi went on the radio yesterday in Toronto to deny reports that his team had offered outfielder Brian Giles a five-year contract for a reported $55 million. The likelihood, though Ricciardi did not say it, is that the offer was for four years, and probably for more than $10 million a year.

Even the lesser numbers, however, suggest that Johnny Damon's value on the market may be closer to where his agent, Scott Boras, has pegged it -- Boras is seeking a seven-year deal for his client -- than to where it has been placed by those who believe Damon will be doing well if he matches the four-year, $40 million deals signed last year by Sox teammates Jason Varitek and Edgar Renteria.

As Boras pointed out, Damon plays a position -- center field -- where teams have shown a willingness to pay a premium. Last winter, the Mets signed Carlos Beltran to a seven-year, $119 million deal in which Beltran is to be paid $18.5 million a season for the last four years ($8.5 million a year will be deferred). The Dodgers last winter signed J.D. Drew to a five-year, $55 million deal.

Braves center fielder Andruw Jones, the runner-up to Albert Pujols in National League MVP voting, is to be paid $13 million in 2006 and $13.5 million in 2007, the last two years of a contract he signed after the 2001 season. Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds signed a six-year, $57 million deal that paid him $12 million this season and will pay $10 million in 2006.

And Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams was being paid $12 million a year in a contract that would have paid him $15 million next season if the Yankees had exercised their option, which they declined to do.

Damon last season was one of just three center fielders to bat .300 or better, and the only AL center fielder to do so, joining Brady Clark of the Brewers and Ken Griffey of the Reds. Damon and Grady Sizemore of the Indians were the only center fielders to score 100 runs, and Damon was the only one with 190 hits (197). His on-base percentage of .366 ranked first among AL center fielders, fourth overall. His slugging percentage was eighth (.439), while his OPS (combined slugging and on-base) of .805 was second only to Sizemore among center fielders.

If Giles, who turns 35 next season, can command the kind of offers he's getting, Damon, who turned 32 this month, is likely to pass the Varitek-Renteria threshold, especially when you factor in his value as a premier leadoff man, a rare commodity in the game, and as one of the game's most durable players. As Boras points out in his comprehensive presentation of Damon's worth, Damon is one of only two players to play in the field at least 130 games and not spend any time on the disabled list for 10 or more seasons by the age of 31. The other player? Iron man Cal Ripken Jr., who retired when he was 40.

The Yankees so far have not tipped their hand on whether they'll get in on Damon, but their need for a center fielder is obvious, to the point that manager Joe Torre went on the ''Tony Danza Show" to dismiss a report that he was contemplating using Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter in center, which he was quoted as saying in a Reuters dispatch. He also told the Reuters reporter that closer Mariano Rivera could play center, too, Torre said, making light of the report, but that did not appear in print.

With the winter meetings beginning Monday in Dallas, Damon's suitors will of necessity begin to reveal themselves. The case can be argued, of course, that Damon's value is greater to the Red Sox than any other team, because of the cult status he has achieved. If the Sox want him, they will have to pay.

The Sox' GM search, meanwhile, remained unresolved last night. Jim Beattie, the former Orioles vice president, said he spoke with CEO Larry Lucchino yesterday, but said only that talks were ongoing.

''We are continuing the search process this week," Lucchino said in an e-mail last night. ''No specific deadline has been set, other than our general hope to resolve this by the time of the winter meetings next week."

With Beattie apparently still in limbo, there appears to be an increasing chance that the club will adopt an interim approach. Jeremy Kapstein, a Lucchino confidant, has not been shy about declaring his desire for the job, but an alternative scenario would have the Sox approaching special adviser Bill Lajoie about taking a leading role in a collective arrangement with existing members of the baseball operations staff, including Craig Shipley.

The primary obstacle the Sox would face there is that Lajoie is 71 and has been undergoing treatment for leukemia for the last three years, though he has not had any treatment since last spring.

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