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Tejada asks out; are stars aligning?

DALLAS -- The plan, or so we thought, was for the Red Sox to come to Texas to resolve the future of outfielders Johnny Damon and Manny Ramírez, and pitcher David Wells.

Instead, they return home with a totally new infield under construction and Damon, Ramírez, and Wells still unresolved, plus their prized acquisitions from last winter either traded (Edgar Renteria) or vigorously shopped around (Matt Clement). Oh, and they still don't have a general manager, though ESPN's Peter Gammons, Theo Epstein's confidant and fellow guitar player, is almost single-handedly keeping alive speculation there will be a second coming.

Is this progress?

If Andy Marte, the 22-year-old slugging third base prospect the Sox acquired from Atlanta, is as good as the Sox believe, it could represent a great leap forward, even if Marte begins next season in Pawtucket, which is the plan for now.

And almost providentially, even as the Sox' brass were flying back to Boston last night, a possible solution to the Manny dilemma may have dropped out of the sky. Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada, claiming to be unhappy with the lack of progress the Orioles have made in putting together a winner, wants to be traded.

Mercy! On the same day the Sox trade their shortstop, arguably the best shortstop in the game might be available, a former American League MVP who drove in 150 runs in 2004 and comes as close to offering fair value in a potential Ramírez swap as anyone out there. And here's what makes it imperative for the Sox, who were already discussing the possibility yesterday, to do everything they can to make this happen: Even the dollars make sense. The Orioles owe Tejada $48 million on the six-year, $72 million contract he signed before the '04 season. The Sox owe Ramírez $57 million.

Replace Ramírez with Tejada, and the Sox become the best team in baseball. The only thing more obvious than his talent is Tejada's burning desire to win. Even his most ardent supporters can't say the same about Ramírez.

The only thing we know for sure is the Red Sox will be a different team. If the season opened today, your 2006 Red Sox would likely feature Kevin Youkilis at first, Mark Loretta at second, Mike Lowell at third, and a player to be named (free agent Alex Gonzalez was the leading choice until the Tejada news broke) at short. Four positions, four new regulars, and the Sox so eager to divest themselves of the erratic Renteria they reluctantly paid $11 million for him to play somewhere else.

The Sox fell short of landing a lefthanded-hitting first baseman when Milwaukee refused to trade Lyle Overbay for Clement unless the Sox ate a portion of his contract. The Brewers turned instead to the Blue Jays, who had pitching to spare. The Red Sox would like to find a lefthanded-hitting complement with a good glove to platoon with Youkilis.

The Sox came to Dallas with the mandate to show Ramírez and his agent, Greg Genske, they made a good faith effort to trade him. The Mets, who were expected to make a play for Ramírez, pulled out early after adding slugger Carlos Delgado, catcher Paul Lo Duca, and closer Billy Wagner. The Sox tried to make a match with the Angels, but their asking price was too high. The Sox first asked for Ervin Santana, the Angels' best young starting pitcher, and Casey Kotchman, the lefthanded-hitting first base prospect who made an impressive big league debut last season.

The Angels said no thanks.

The Sox then asked for either swingman Kelvim Escobar or elite setup man Scot Shields, and two of three prospects out of shortstop Brandon Wood, second baseman Howie Kendrick, and middle infielder Erick Aybar, plus one more minor leaguer. Again, the answer was no. The Sox also considered asking for Orlando Cabrera back, but evidently did not put that on the table.

The other known potential match for Manny was the Texas Rangers, with the Sox talking about a trade that would have netted them Alfonso Soriano and third baseman Hank Blalock. But that evaporated when the Rangers dealt Soriano to the Washington Nationals in the Brad Wilkerson trade.

Plan D, if there is one, had yet to surface, at least until Tejada spoke out. Genske insisted yesterday there are still ''five to six potential fits" for Ramírez.

What then, is the alternative? To let Ramírez come into camp next spring, kicking and screaming as he is wont to do on occasion, then watch him settle down and give you another year of .300, 40 HRs, and 140 RBIs. Bill Lajoie, the Sox de facto GM, made it clear he wouldn't mind if that's what happened.

Damon? It appears we may be looking at another Christmas resolution, much like Jason Varitek a year ago. All it takes is for Scott Boras to find one other prospective suitor, which is why the Sox fear a Steinbrenner stealth attack.

With Wells, the Sox will bide their time and let the market play out, figuring teams may decide to ante up to the Sox' asking price for Wells -- a top-shelf reliever -- than lavish millions on a free agent mediocrity. There is no deadline on a deal for Boomer . . . a new GM might even be in place by the time he is moved.

So, we ask again: Is this progress? Loretta and Lowell have been productive players, but they're both coming off subpar seasons. The Sox are high on Youkilis, and he should certainly give them more production than Kevin Millar did. If a Tejada deal is a nonstarter, Gonzalez, the free agent shortstop who was not offered arbitration by the Marlins, is a terrific fielder. Marte could be a jewel, a throwback (Lajoie's word) third baseman who might wear out the Wall. The plan is for Marte to move up as the need arises, though some Sox insiders still wonder if the team would be willing to give up Marte for a pitcher such as Javier Vazquez.

Loretta's presence gives top prospect Dustin Pedroia another year to develop, too.

If Damon and Ramírez stay, the offense should still be potent. The pitching will be better with Josh Beckett, and the bullpen is already better with Guillermo Mota.

But what we knew about Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller and Tony Graffanino and John Olerud and Doug Mirabelli and Wells is that they knew how to win.

The new guys from Florida can flash World Series rings, but the imports still have some proving to do here.

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