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Sox fire up the hot stove

Managerial selection isn't the only burning question

Will free agents Bartolo Colon or Kevin Millwood join Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, and Tim Wakefield in the starting rotation?

Quite possibly.

Will free agent Vladimir Guerrero replace Trot Nixon in right field?

Less likely.

Will the Red Sox spend what it takes to keep Martinez, Lowe, Nixon, Nomar Garciaparra, and Jason Varitek together beyond next year, when their current contracts expire?

Almost certainly not.

And who will manage this crew of pennant contenders while Grady Little plies his craft elsewhere?

The latest odds posted by BoDog Sports Book & Casino listed Anaheim pitching coach Bud Black as the favorite at 2-1. Oakland bench coach Terry Francona and Cleveland third base coach Joel Skinner came in at 5-1, while the most ridiculous line featured Roger Clemens at 150-1.

Welcome to the Hot Stove season, Red Sox-style. Now that the opening salvo has been unleashed with the sacking of Little, Boston's baseball brain trust is gearing up for one of the hottest offseasons in recent memory, a months-long overhaul that could reshape the face of the franchise for years.

"The stove is going to be very, very hot," one of the team's key decision makers said last night while the bright lights glowed in the front offices on Yawkey Way.

The search engine for Little's replacement was just beginning to rumble, with the first interviews not expected until next week and the process likely to last deep into November. The Sox were busy filling the pool of possible candidates, ever-mindful that they may find themselves competing with the Orioles and White Sox, whose managerial jobs also are vacant. Francona, the former Phillies manager, interviewed yesterday in Baltimore and is a candidate for the Chicago job, as is Florida third base coach Ozzie Guillen, a possible fit in Boston.

The latest addition to the Sox mix is Anaheim bench coach Joe Maddon, a former director of player development for the Angels who served as the team's interim manager for 59 games over the 1996, '98, and '99 seasons, going 33-26. Maddon has a reputation similar to Little's in dealing with players and is considered particularly savvy with statistical analysis. He said yesterday he is interested in the Sox job.

But even as the hunt for Little's successor heats up, the Sox face an array of equally compelling issues, including:

-- exploring the individual demands of Martinez, Garciaparra, Lowe, Nixon, and Varitek to remain with the team beyond next year.

-- shopping for an additional front-line starter such as Colon or Millwood.

-- weighing the value of signing Guerrero, perhaps the top position player on the free agent market, and moving Nixon to fill other needs, most notably pitching.

-- deciding whether to re-sign second baseman Todd Walker or pursue alternatives such as Marlins free agent Luis Castillo.

-- determining whether Scott Williamson will serve as next year's closer and Byung Hyun Kim will join the starting rotation.

-- realigning their coaching staff to fit the next manager.

-- completing the transition from the Harrington/Duquette era as they cut many of the last holdovers from the former administration.

The course of the franchise may be steered largely by how the the Sox proceed with the core of stars who are eligible for free agency after the 2004 season. Consider the financial load if Martinez, who will earn $17.5 million next season, seeks a three-year deal worth $50 million or more, and Garciaparra, who will make $11.5 million next year, wants compensation similar to Derek Jeter's $18.9 million over multiple years. Factor in the long-term cost of keeping Lowe, who will make $5 million next season if the Sox pick up his option, and could seek a three-year pact worth $30 million or more. Toss in Varitek, who is in line for $6.7 million next year, and Nixon, who could land more than $6 million in his final year of arbitration, and the combined long-term commitment is sure to be more than the Sox would bear.

So rather than lose the players to free agency next year and receive only draft picks in return, the Sox must weigh carefully whom they would like to keep and for how long and at what price. The players, of course, will have considerable leverage since the free market awaits them if the Sox decline to meet their price or trade them.

The scenario will form the backdrop for nearly every other player personnel issue as the Sox scour the markets for pitching and other needs. The only players who are signed beyond 2004 are Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, and Wakefield, though the Sox hold options for 2005 on Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, and Alan Embree.

As for the coaches, Dave Wallace is poised to serve as pitching coach next year after serving on an interim basis much of the past season while Tony Cloninger battled bladder cancer. Bullpen coach Euclides Rojas also appears safe, though bench coach Jerry Narron, third base coach Mike Cubbage, hitting coach Ron Jackson, and first base coach Dallas Williams seem less secure after Little's departure. The Sox will announce their fates by Friday.

Meanwhile, the new administration continues to pare the baseball operations staff assembled by former GM Dan Duquette. The latest cuts include scouts Eddie Haas and Tom Mooney. Haas was among more than 35 staffers who received guaranteed two-year contracts from former owner John Harrington when he sold the team in 2002. The contracts expire March 31, which means additional cuts are coming.

Some of the individuals anticipating pink slips would rather receive them sooner than March, when it would be harder to find work with other teams. Notable among them is Lee Thomas, a special assistant to the general manager who was a key adviser to Duquette but has spent most of 2003 at home in Missouri with almost nothing to do.

"I have no hard feelings," Thomas said. "But I still want to work. If they're going to do something, I wish they would do it. I hope they wouldn't wait until March."

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