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For sale signs

Indications are this weekend's winter meetings could produce flurry of deals

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- While keeping pitcher Pedro Martinez and catcher Jason Varitek remain the primary objective for the Red Sox as they head to baseball's winter meetings for the first time as World Series champions, a flurry of free agent signings this week would appear to foreshadow an active weekend of player movement.

Some of the game's biggest names -- Sammy Sosa, Randy Johnson, Carlos Beltran, Tim Hudson, Carlos Delgado, Adrian Beltre, and Mike Piazza -- are available as free agents or via trades.

Meanwhile, Carl Pavano, the former Sox minor leaguer who has been the offseason's most visible attraction while visiting prospective employers, including Boston, on what has been called the "Carlapalooza Tour," could become the object of another bidding war between the Sox and Yankees. Curt Schilling, who already can claim to have delivered a World Series to Boston, can make it a double of sorts if he can persuade Pavano, who says he idolizes Schilling, to return to his roots.

Can the Red Sox afford both Martinez and Pavano? That might be a stretch, but it could also depend on what the Sox do with Varitek and at shortstop, where Orlando Cabrera, a midseason spark after arriving in the Nomar Garciaparra trade, is looking for big bucks as a free agent. Schilling already has given his stamp of approval to general manager Theo Epstein's first free agent signing of the offseason, the oft-injured Matt Mantei, who when healthy closed for Schilling's former team, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"Matt's good people," Schilling wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "This role is PERFECT [Schilling's emphasis] for him and his situation. Pitching in the seventh is a lot less stressful on the body for a guy like Matt than the ninth. [He] could make our bullpen incredibly deep."

What happens if the Sox can't re-sign Varitek, with whom they reportedly are $2 million a year apart on a four-year deal, the Sox reportedly offering $36 million, Varitek's agent, Scott Boras, countering at $44 million? One possibility could be Mike Matheny, who is nowhere near the offensive force (51 career home runs in 11 seasons) that Varitek is, but commanded the same kind of respect for his defense and leadership in St. Louis that Varitek did in Boston.

The Cardinals, who also are attempting to avoid losing shortstop Edgar Renteria, whom the Sox like more than Cabrera, have offered arbitration to Renteria and Matheny. But Matheny, 34, would come at a considerably cheaper price and for fewer years than Varitek. In a bit of a surprise, the Sox have a meeting scheduled today with the agent for David Wells, and while the Sox have said the lefthander, who will be 42 in May, is just another name on a long list, there were indications the team was prepared to make an offer. Wells was 12-8 with a 3.73 ERA for the Padres last season and was expected to return to San Diego, but he makes sense for Boston in that he would give them a lefthander in the rotation and would be looking for only a one-year deal.The Yankees, whose starting pitching disintegrated against the Red Sox in October, took the first step toward reshaping their rotation when they signed Jaret Wright -- the onetime Cleveland phenom who resurfaced in Atlanta after years of shoulder problems and won 15 games for the Braves -- to a three-year, $21 million deal. The Yankees, who lost one pitcher, Jon Lieber, when he signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Phillies, also were closing in on a deal to sign lefthander Eric Milton to a three-year, $24 million deal. Martinez is the only certified ace among the free agent pitchers available -- unless you count Roger Clemens, who last month picked up his seventh Cy Young Award, first in the National League, and said again yesterday that he has not yet decided whether he intends to return for another season. The expectation is that Clemens would only return to his hometown Houston Astros, but the Rocket has thrown curves before.

Martinez appears ready to return to the Red Sox, though one industry source close to Martinez insists the Cardinals are in the wings, and other observers remember how Anaheim swept in at the last moment and signed Vladimir Guerrero, one of Martinez's closest friends.

Johnson, who was the object of frenzied bidding before last July's trading deadline but refused to go anywhere but to the Yankees, who could not satisfy Arizona's trade demands, is on the block again. The Yankees recently made a public show of withdrawing from talks with the Diamondbacks because Arizona was asking for too much -- a package that reportedly included discredited starter Javier Vazquez and setup man Tom Gordon -- but if George Steinbrenner craves the Big Unit, there is little doubt the Yankees will resume their pursuit.

From the time the Mets gave Kris Benson, a .500 pitcher (12-12) last season and a sub-.500 pitcher (47-53) in his career, a three-year, $22.5 million deal, it was clear the market this offseason would be kind to pitchers, and it has been, the latest example being Twins righthander Brad Radke, who was on Boston's radar screen until he signed a two-year, $18 million deal to return to the Twins.

One pitcher whose name has been curiously absent from much speculation is Derek Lowe, who in the last three seasons has won 52 games, the same number as Schilling and only one fewer than the biggest winner in that span, Bartolo Colon. While number of victories hardly constitutes the most accurate barometer of a pitcher's effectiveness -- Lowe's 5.42 ERA was fifth worst among American League qualifiers for the ERA title -- it's unusual to have someone with Lowe's credentials (20-game winner, 40-save season, no-hitter, three series-clinching victories in the postseason) and durability (no hint of arm trouble in eight seasons in the majors) not to be creating more of a buzz.

But Lowe also is one of a stable of elite players -- Varitek, Beltran, Beltre, J.D. Drew, Magglio Ordonez -- represented by Boras, the take-it-to-the-limit agent, who never leaves a negotiating session without checking for the loose change that might have fallen into the sofa. One National League team claims that it lost interest in Lowe when Boras revealed what it would take to sign him -- four years and $48 million, a $12 million average salary that Colon commanded last winter when he signed a four-year deal with Anaheim.

Can Lowe command that kind of money? It appears doubtful, though his hometown Detroit Tigers might be willing to overspend, and Baltimore would seem to be a possibility, if the Orioles, with money to burn, fail to land Pavano. Lowe also spoke of an interest in pitching in the National League, mentioning the Braves as a particularly attractive destination. But Atlanta is in cost-cutting mode.

Still, never sell Boras short. The man who brokered Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $252 million deal with Texas four years ago, has said he'd like a 10-year deal for Beltran, the center fielder highly coveted by the Yankees, Cubs, Astros, and Angels, a seemingly preposterous notion in this era of market correction, but Boras might be inclined to wait until Valentine's Day before taking a nickel less than what he believes Beltran is worth.

The Orioles also appear to be one of the most aggressive teams willing to cut a deal with Oakland for Hudson, whose contract is up after next season and would seem to be the most likely of the Big Three to be traded by A's GM Billy Beane, who is listening to all offers. Another possible match for the A's might be Atlanta, which lost Wright and did not offer arbitration to Russ Ortiz, and may be willing to package second baseman Marcus Giles in a deal for Hudson.

Some big bats have signed this week -- Troy Glaus with the Diamondbacks, Jermaine Dye with the White Sox, Garciaparra for one year and $8 million, plus incentives, with the Cubs, a net loss of $52 million from what he declined from the Red Sox in the spring of '03 -- but there are plenty of sluggers to be had, most notably first baseman Delgado, allowed to walk by the Toronto Blue Jays; outfielder Ordonez, whose market value is uncertain because of the mysterious knee surgery he had in Austria last summer; and possibly Sosa, who walked out on the Cubs on the last day of the regular season and is being shopped around, though he has veto power over any trade. The Cubs would love to move Sosa in order to make a full-court press for Beltran. 

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