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Shortstop shortcut in payroll plan

It sounds like voodoo economics, but it's possible that the only way the Red Sox can afford both ace Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke and still stay under the luxury-tax threshold of $120.5 million for 2004 is by making another deal -- one that nets them Alex Rodriguez and the biggest contract in sports.

The only other option is to jettison the contracts of some of the team's core players, like Pedro Martinez and Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek, and that's something the Sox do not want to do.

Here's how making a deal for A-Rod will allow the Sox to pay the $12 million-$15 million and $7 million-$9 million annually it probably will take to sign Schilling and Foulke, respectively.

At the moment, the Sox are committed to paying roughly $87 million to a dozen players, a list that does not include right fielder Nixon, DH David Ortiz, reliever Scott Williamson, reliever Scott Sauerbeck, and question mark Byung Hyun Kim, all of whom are arbitration-eligible and can expect hefty raises. It also does not include a second baseman, as the Sox have little interest in bringing back Todd Walker, who was paid $3.45 million last season.

Adding Schilling and Foulke would put the Sox somewhere between $106 million and $110 million, which is already above last season's $105 million payroll and gives them precious little room to maneuver to fill out the rest of the roster.

What to do? Starting points include trying to trade Williamson ($1.6 million last season), Sauerbeck, and Kim, who as a No. 5 starter wouldn't be worth the $4 million or more the Sox would have to pay him. Failing that, general manager Theo Epstein may have to nontender all three players. Give Bronson Arroyo a shot at the No. 5 slot, with some veterans invited on a nonguaranteed basis to big-league camp to provide competition.

A player like center fielder Johnny Damon, who is owed more than $16 million over the next two seasons, will be shopped, but in this tight market isn't likely to attract much interest. Bite the bullet at second base, opting for a cheaper alternative than Walker, meaning someone with a better glove but not as offensively productive.

Find a backup catcher cheaper than the $2 million it will take to re-sign arbitration-eligible Doug Mirabelli (rookie Kelly Shoppach?) or nontender Mirabelli and try to bring him back for fewer dollars.

Offer similar propositions to bench players such as Gabe Kapler and Damian Jackson, two other strong candidates to be nontendered.

But Nixon will cost nearly $6 million to keep (he made $4 million last season) and Ortiz figures to double the $1.25 million he made as one of the game's biggest bargains this past season. Crossing the $120.5 million payroll threshold would obligate the Sox to pay a 22.5 percent luxury tax -- the owners prefer to call it a "competitive balance" tax -- something owner John W. Henry has vowed he won't do.

So, where to find the savings? If the Sox truly are committed to adding Schilling and Foulke in a bid to win the World Series, it could mean sacrificing All-Stars Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra, an unthinkable proposition by most measures, more palatable if Epstein could acquire Rodriguez, arguably the best player in the game, as an alternative.

Using the salary figures recognized by the commissioner's office, Ramirez is due to be paid $20,223,976 by the Sox next season, while Garciaparra is due $11.5 million. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is due $21,026,693 from the Rangers next season, just slightly more than Ramirez. But A-Rod is due a total of $179 million through 2010, while the Sox are obligated to Ramirez for an additional $97.5 million through 2008, a difference of more than $81 million. That's a huge obligation for the Sox to take on, but with Garciaparra due to earn a huge payday as a pending free agent, the Sox would be saving more than $10 million this season and even more down the road if they move Ramirez and Garciaparra and acquire A-Rod.

A-Rod by himself, of course, could not match the combined production of Ramirez and Garciaparra, but Epstein, as he did with Ortiz, AL batting champion Bill Mueller, and to a lesser extent Kevin Millar, already has shown he can spot talent on the cheap.

A home can be found on the West Coast for Garciaparra. The hard part will be unloading Ramirez's contract, preferably to the Rangers as part of an A-Rod deal. But that's where the musings of a hired scribbler give way to the financial wizardry of Theo and the Trio. Let them figure it out. Chances are, they already have.

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