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ON BASEBALL

Epstein is being a smart shopper

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- He's making it look easy, as if he's strolling down a supermarket aisle, checking off the items on his grocery list. It's not that easy, of course, for Theo Epstein, but while some of his potential acquisitions were pending last night and he reserved the right to change his mind, no one doubts Epstein will have enough dough when he gets to the checkout counter. Setup man? Matt Mantei. Done.

No. 3 starter? David Wells. Done.

Shortstop? Edgar Renteria. Awfully attractive specimen, but one that still had other fingers on it, including those of the Cardinals and Tigers.

Respect-craving superstar pitcher? Pedro Martinez. Just need to clarify the price tag, which was all but done.

MVP-type free agent catcher? Jason Varitek. The most important big-ticket item of them all, one worth waiting for.

Backup infielder and outfielder? Ramon Vazquez and Jay Payton, there for the taking from the Padres, but there are still other options to explore.

A young gun from the A's? Tim Hudson was worth going after, but late last night it looked like he would wind up with the Dodgers.

Still, not a bad potential haul for a guy who probably spends a grand total of 30 seconds outside the confines of his hotel room here. The social aspects of baseball's winter meetings hold absolutely no appeal to Epstein, who turns monk-like while constructing -- and reconstructing -- a championship-caliber team for 2005.

Fans may have fallen in love with Orlando Cabrera, but for all the elaborate handshakes the fun-loving shortstop invented during his three months in a Sox uniform, the one he may have forgotten to learn was the goodbye handshake. Epstein, who demonstrated in July how he can drain his heart of all sentiment when he traded bruised icon Nomar Garciaparra in a deal that brought the energetic Cabrera to Boston, apparently had made the calculation -- endorsed by a wide consensus of baseball folks -- that if you're going to spend in the neighborhood of $9 million a year for a shortstop, it's better spent on Renteria, a huge presence on the National League champion Cardinals and a former World Series winner with the Marlins.

"Cabrera can probably do more things defensively," said one NL scout who had seen both players extensively, "because of his range and his quickness, but Renteria is a Gold Glover who may not be as spectacular, but is more consistent. And he's a much better hitter than Cabrera, who is still a wild swinger. Edgar had a lot of big hits for the Cardinals. They're going to be hurt bad by losing him."

As of late yesterday afternoon, Epstein had not completed negotiations for Renteria, but even before he met with the player's agents, there was a drumbeat of reports reverberating through the lobby of the Anaheim Marriott that the Sox were just putting the final touches on a deal for the 29-year-old shortstop that could pay him around $38 million. Cabrera, meanwhile, who was paid $6 million last season and had turned down a four-year, $30 million deal from Montreal before the Expos traded him to the Sox, could wind up in a Cardinals uniform in a deft switch of smooth Colombians.

Epstein, who earlier in the week signed former Diamondbacks closer Mantei to bolster his bullpen and late Friday night closed a two-year deal for the cantankerous Wells, was still engaged in talks with the agents for Martinez and Varitek in an attempt to ensure the players' return. He also was talking with his former mentor, Padres general manager Kevin Towers, about a deal in which the Sox would send backup outfielder Dave Roberts and devalued pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim to San Diego for Vazquez and Payton, to bolster the bench.

Epstein would not comment on any of this, but a couple of league sources with direct knowledge of Sox dealings cautioned that a deal for Renteria was not quite as imminent as it might have appeared.

Renteria, who was drafted when he was 15 and forged his birth certificate to state he was a year older, delivered the Game 7 hit that decided the Series in the Marlins' favor in '97. In 2000, he hit 16 home runs, setting a Cardinals record for home runs by a shortstop. In 2002, he knocked in 83 runs, setting a franchise record for RBIs by a shortstop, and trumped that total in 2003, his best offensive season, when he drove in 100 runs while batting .330, with 47 doubles and 13 home runs.

He won a Gold Glove in 2002, and last season made just 11 errors. His durability is unquestioned: In his six seasons with the Cardinals, he never played in fewer than 140 games.

There was some belief that with top prospect Hanley Ramirez maybe just a year away from the big leagues, the Sox might elect a stopgap solution at short. Instead, the Sox went short-term in their rotation, signing Wells to a two-year deal with a low base salary ($2.5 million per year), leaving them the financial leverage to invest in a sure thing. What does that mean for Ramirez? A position switch, perhaps, to third or second, or a future as a bargaining chip in a future deal.

It was too soon last night to pencil Renteria onto Terry Francona's lineup card for Opening Day just as there were no guarantees Varitek and Martinez would be back, though it appeared progress was being made on both fronts last night. The Sox guaranteed a third year to Martinez, bringing the total value of his deal to $38.5 million.

But this much is certain: With Epstein, the supermarket is open, 24 hours a day.

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