DALLAS -- As midnight came and went last night, representatives of the Red Sox and Braves were talking about a deal that would send Edgar Renteria to Atlanta for third baseman Andy Marte, the Braves' top prospect, according to a source with direct knowledge of the talks. The sides intend to talk again today, the fourth and final day of baseball's winter meetings.
This came at the end of a day in which the Sox swapped Doug Mirabelli for San Diego second baseman Mark Loretta, and opted not to offer arbitration to first baseman Kevin Millar, ending his tenure with the team. If the Renteria deal is completed, the Sox would open 2006 with an entirely new starting infield. Loretta, 34, who is coming off a season in which he underwent ligament surgery on his left thumb, would replace Tony Graffanino, a free agent who was offered arbitration by the Sox yesterday but is not expected to return.
''What the heck is our team going to look like next year?'' asked pitcher Tim Wakefield, who went 16-8 with a 3.66 ERA last season with Mirabelli catching him and 0-4 with an 8.66 ERA throwing to Jason Varitek.
The likelihood of a Renteria deal appeared to be ever-changing. Early in the evening, Devil Rays executive Andrew Friedman acknowledged without specifics that a deal involving more than two teams could be consummated as soon as last night. But, later in the night, a club source with one of the teams involved said, ''We're kind of waiting to hear. People have backed off. It could be temporary or not be temporary.''
The Sox could cut separate deals with Atlanta and Tampa Bay, sending Renteria to the Braves for Marte, then using Marte as part of a bigger deal with Tampa Bay in which they would not only acquire the shortstop they have targeted, Julio Lugo, but also first baseman Aubrey Huff and/or closer Danys Baez. The Sox have shown interest in Huff in the past and that may be renewed after they failed to acquire Milwaukee first baseman Lyle Overbay. To make a bigger deal, the Sox would probably have to offer a package including Marte, catcher Kelly Shoppach, and pitcher Bronson Arroyo.
The Sox were in the running for Overbay, a lefthanded-hitting first baseman (.276, 19 HRs, 72 RBIs in '05), offering pitcher Matt Clement. But Boston's refusal to pick up any of the remaining $19.25 million on Clement's contract, a Brewers source said, led the Brewers to accept a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, who sent righthander David Bush, pitching prospect Zach Jackson (ostensibly the player to be named later) and outfielder Gabe Gross for Overbay. The Sox at one point substituted Arroyo for Clement in their proposal, but the Brewers' deal was cinched when Toronto included Gross.
The Sox continue to explore landing spots for David Wells and Manny Ramírez, both of whom have asked to be dealt. The Dodgers have stopped pursuing Wells, finding the Sox' price (big-time bullpen help) too high. The A's and Giants are also believed to have lost interest in Wells. San Diego remains the most logical destination for Wells, who would prefer a return to his hometown, but there were indications last night that a deal to the Padres will take time to complete.
A scenario in which Ramírez would go to Texas for Rangers slugger Alfonso Soriano evaporated when the Rangers dealt Soriano to Washington for a package that included outfielder Brad Wilkerson.
The Sox continue to pursue a new deal with Johnny Damon while listening to clubs (Seattle, for one) interested in dealing for Trot Nixon. The Mariners are contemplating Nixon as a fall-back plan, a Mariners source indicated yesterday.
''Why are they dismantling the whole team?'' wondered Wakefield. ''The whole starting infield is gone. Manny will be gone. If they don't sign Johnny, he'll be gone. If they trade Trot, holy cow, the only guys left will be [Jason] Varitek and I and [David] Ortiz.''
The Sox claimed they didn't spend time yesterday pursuing landing places for Ramírez or Wells, instead working on addressing their other areas of need.
''Today was not a Manny day,'' said senior adviser Bill Lajoie.
''We didn't talk about David [Wells] today, either,'' added Craig Shipley, special assistant to the GM.
Loretta hit .335 in 2004 (second in the National League) with 208 hits (third), but fell to .280 in 105 games in a 2005 season abbreviated by two thumb injuries, both suffered sliding into bases. Loretta is signed for one more season at $3 million.
The Sox tendered arbitration to three of their free agents - Bill Mueller, Tony Graffanino, and Damon. If any of those players accept arbitration, the player is considered signed for next season. Mueller, though, is expected to sign a multiyear multi-year deal elsewhere, possibly with the Dodgers. Mueller called Dodgers GM Ned Colletti while Colletti was searching for a manager and offered a sterling endorsement of Grady Little, who the club ultimately hired.
Graffanino, too, is believed to be seeking a multiyear deal elsewhere. The Sox offered arbitration to Mueller and Graffanino for the purpose of getting draft picks when and if they sign elsewhere. The Loretta-for-Mirabelli deal affirms that the Sox' brass, as presently constituted, doesn't believe Dustin Pedroia is ready for regular duty in the big leagues.
''If you talk to five different people in our baseball operations department you'd get five different perspectives,'' said Shipley. ''He's a year and a half out of Arizona State [University].''
Shipley acknowledged had Pedroia not injured his wrist with Pawtucket shortly after moving up from Double A Portland, ''maybe ..... we would have thought about breaking him in next year.''
If Pedroia isn't ready after this year, Shipley said, ''we can add another year on'' Loretta's deal.
Loretta, who hits and throws righthanded, is a career .301 hitter with 63 homers and 466 RBIs in 1,230 games with Milwaukee, Houston, and San Diego, his home the last three seasons. A legitimate contact hitter (he was the fifth-most difficult player to whiff in the NL in '04), Loretta projects to hit second, Shipley said.
''That's where I've hit the most in my career, so I would say, yes,'' Loretta said. ''I tend to take pitches, move runners, so it's a natural fit.
''I think the park is set up well for me. I'm not really a pull hitter, which I think will serve me well. Right-center field in Fenway, there are a lot of hits out there. I'm not really a home run hitter, I'm an extra base guy.''
''He's a pro,'' said San Diego GM Kevin Towers. ''You guys will love him. He's a good professional hitter, good with runners in scoring position. If I had Boston's payroll, he stays.
''I didn't want to give him up. I needed a catcher. There's no catching out there. The catching that was out there wanted $6 or $7 million bucks.''
And, to retain closer Trevor Hoffman, whom the Padres signed to a two-year deal with a third-year vesting option yesterday, the team needed a lower-cost option. Mirabelli fit the bill, at $1.4 million next season.
Mirabelli has never caught more than 82 games (in 2000 with San Francisco), but he figures to play 50-60 percent of the Padres' games, sharing the plate with Miguel Olivo.
''I don't think we should expect him to catch more than 100 games,'' Towers said. ''We wanted somebody with veteran presence who's won before, who's caught some of the best pitchers in baseball, who can bring some of that swagger to the clubhouse, some experience for young pitchers we're developing and help guys like Olivo.''
Lajoie said the Sox have consulted Wakefield, asking whom he'd like the club to pursue in Mirabelli's place.
Loretta, by all accounts, is sharp and communicative. A native of Santa Monica, Calif., Loretta was named one of the top five active major league players likeliest to manage someday, as voted by 450 major leaguers in a 2005 poll conducted by Sports Illustrated.