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Trying to read the signs

Upton, for one, catches Sox’ eye

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / November 17, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The Red Sox are one of a few teams that have explored talks with the Diamondbacks on outfielder Justin Upton, according to a major league source. The Yankees are another. And why not? Upton is 23 years old with a world of talent.

Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who is here for the general managers meetings, isn’t going to confirm or deny anything, but the source indicated discussions began more than a week ago.

The price tag would be high, but the upside is great, and throwing money at Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth would be far riskier than paying Upton, who isn’t even close to his prime.

Epstein is close friends with Kevin Towers, the new GM of the Diamondbacks, who was once Epstein’s superior in San Diego.

Towers said yesterday he is open to listening on all of his players, but he would have to be overwhelmed with an offer, as he was in San Diego two years ago when he traded Jake Peavy to the White Sox and helped reshape the Padres. Towers is a wheeler-dealer, so making a blockbuster wouldn’t be contrary to his DNA. But he said he would have to get some “major league-ready’’ players back.

Don’t discount a possible Sox deal with the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez, either. Even though Gonzalez had surgery on his shoulder and may not be ready to swing a bat until late March, this is a player that has always been perfect for the Red Sox.

Asked about filling needs, Epstein said, “Generally, I’d rather fill them through trades. When you make trades, you tend to capture players who are closer to the prime of their careers and are paying through t he acquisition cost for future performance. In free agency, often times you’re paying for past performance.

“That said, we’ll probably do a little bit of both. Ideally, you’d have a surplus of everything and you can make trades and fill all your needs and stay out of the free agent market. But that’s not the reality.

“The reality is free agency is a necessity at times for teams that try to compete every single year. Also, when there’s elite players available in free agency, that’s a great way to acquire talent. Because then you’re getting an elite player and you’re not surrendering your best young guys to get them.’’

Under a new “if asked, don’t tell’’ agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players Association concerning limiting information to the media on negotiations, it will be harder this offseason to determine the level of interest in free agents by a given team. The agreement was part of a collusion settlement; the union felt that GMs were too quick to dismiss negotiations publicly with free agents, thus limiting their value.

At yesterday’s media session, it was as if Big Brother were watching every word the GMs said. They were unable to speak about the agenda at their meetings because they were collective bargaining agreement issues and they were unable to say which free agents they were interested in.

“We met with some clubs and talked trade ideas, big, small, in between,’’ said Epstein. “Nothing imminent. Nothing that may lead to more expanded thoughts and ideas. One face-to-face meeting with an agent, but we have some things scheduled for today and tonight and tomorrow.’’

Epstein would love to pull off a deal for a young prime time player, because when you sign a free agent, you tend to hold your nose and hope the four-, five-, or six-year deal you’re giving a 30-and-older player won’t come back to bite you. The Sox are still holding on John Lackey, and with four years of Josh Beckett to come, their nose might turn blue.

Crawford and Werth appear to be on Epstein’s radar, but hear this, Red Sox fans: Epstein is not going to go overboard on either one. He has set a value on them, and it’s hard to believe he would exceed that. The Sox held the line on Mark Teixeira, and perhaps that wasn’t the wisest decision, but they went financially where they thought they could go.

The feeling is the Sox will go stronger for Crawford, and hold the line on Werth.

While Epstein reiterated that he’d prefer to have Victor Martinez catching and Adrian Beltre at third, it appears the Sox will not go bonkers with either. Martinez’s agents are in town to speak to teams, and it still appears the Tigers and Rangers have the edge.

Could the Sox come away with neither Crawford nor Werth and lose both Martinez and Beltre? Absolutely. If the market gets too pricey, they could bail out.

“When it does [get crazy], you attempt to stay disciplined and look for other solutions that may carry risk in a different way,’’ said Epstein. “It’s what kind of risk can you tolerate. Do you say, ‘This contract is unhealthy for the franchise, but we’re going to do it anyway and we’ll take that risk?’

“Generally, those come back to burn you. But every club from time to time does it. Or do you say, ‘We’re doing to take a different kind of risk and we’re going to trust this young guy. We feel like he’s going to get better and we’re going to carry that risk and keep options open going forward?’ ’’

It will all unfold very soon. Epstein was asked about “moving on’’ with Martinez and Beltre and said that all of those decisions tend to come around the same time. There’s an ongoing exploration of Plans A, B, C, and D, and when chips start to fall, the plan of action gets clearer.

Teixeira was an elite player at the time and the Sox fell short on him. Whether Crawford and Werth are “elite’’ players is subject to interpretation. And if that’s not tough enough, then consider that he’ll also have to dive into the free agent market to rebuild his bullpen.

The Sox have a list of 5-7 relievers they have targeted, with the intention of signing perhaps two. While Epstein is not big on multiyear deals for relievers, he said, “I’m not opposed to the right multiyear deal to the right reliever. If it’s a reasonable multiyear deal and provides some value to the club — whether it’s performance or stuff or command — and if it’s a guy we can trust moving forward, then sure.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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