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A lot is crossing the Sox' plate

Free agents-to-be are sent a message

With a newborn son, Tanner, Derek Lowe has another mouth to feed -- and another factor to consider as he weighs his future with the Red Sox.

Pedro Martinez also has life beyond 2004 to ponder after the Sox fulfilled his wish by adding a second ace to the rotation.

Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon: They, too, will examine their future as they join Lowe and Martinez in approaching free agency next October depending on how the Sox proceed after their blockbuster acquisition Friday of coveted Arizona righthander Curt Schilling.

Amid the afterglow of the Schilling deal, the Free Agency Five remain a pressing matter for the Sox owners as they build a World Series contender for next season with an eye toward competing for a championship in the years beyond. There also hangs the question of Manny Ramirez's future as the Sox plan to further stretch their resources in trying to sign All-Star closer Keith Foulke and fill their other needs, most notably a second baseman to succeed Todd Walker.

To some degree, the Sox sent a message to their pending free agents with the Schilling signing. While they left no doubt about their commitment to fielding a championship-caliber team, principal owner John W. Henry & Co. also made clear how crucial it may be for players who follow Schilling to the bargaining table to share his flexibility.

Schilling, who was expected to seek a two-year extension worth about $30 million and an option valued at nearly $15 million, settled for $25.5 million for 2005 and '06 and a $13 million option for '07. As minor as the difference may seem, it struck the cost-conscious Sox brass as significant.

"There was a bit of a disparity between what Curt deserved for what he brings to the table and what we needed to be able to remain competitive in building the rest of the team," general manager Theo Epstein said. "Through a lot of extra effort on both sides, we were able to come to a position that satisfied both criteria."

Since Epstein aimed to keep the Sox "very, very competitive for a World Series in every year of [Schilling's] contract," the extra effort was no small matter. The Sox already have amassed a payroll for next season of about $110 million, not including substantial raises players such as Nixon, David Ortiz, Byung Hyun Kim, and Scott Williamson could command in arbitration. They also face the possible addition of Foulke, who is expected to seek as much as $8 million annually over three or four years, and a number of utility players. The team is not yet in danger of exceeding the luxury-tax threshold of $120 million, since that is based on the average annual value of the contracts. But next year's current payroll already has exceeded last season's $106 million.

Henry praised Schilling's willingness to accept less than he bargained for as a way to help the team.

"While the negotiation dealt primarily with money, that was solved through compromise on both sides," Henry said. "But there was no compromising aside from that. It was Curt's goal that his deal not adversely impact the competitiveness of the franchise. We had the same goal. We knew the realities of the current market, but we were not about to wait around to determine exactly what they were. There almost certainly is another franchise that would have paid him more money, but this was about his career and as he said at the outset, dollars were not the most important aspect here.

"We're still hopeful that Mr. Foulke will choose Boston as Curt did."

Naturally, the Sox may expect Martinez, who is due to earn more than any pitcher in the majors next season ($17.5 million), to make an effort similar to Schilling's. The team has yet to launch serious negotiations with Martinez on an extension, but the Schilling deal reinforces the conventional wisdom that the Sox ace could face a substantial salary cut.

Lowe, a bargain next season at $5 million, is likely to seek a hefty boost in a multiyear extension, while Varitek ($6.7 million next season) and Nixon (arbitration-eligible after earning $4 million last season) could angle for raises as well. But Garciaparra's case could be the most pivotal as the Sox gauge whether he is willing to accept substantially less than Derek Jeter ($18.9 million a year) to stay in Boston after making $11.5 million next season. A remote possibility remains that the Sox could move Ramirez to Texas in a deal for MVP shortstop Alex Rodriguez, clearing the way for Garciaparra to land elsewhere.

For now, though, the Sox are focused on Foulke and completing their managerial search, with all signs pointing to the team introducing Terry Francona Tuesday as the next skipper. Francona was a key factor in Schilling's decision to waive his no-trade clause with Arizona to sign with the Sox, and the manager-to-be almost certainly welcomed Friday's signing as enthusiastically as most of the returning players.

Kevin Millar reflected the general consensus: Martinez, Schilling, and Lowe figure to give the Sox one of the most potent 1-2-3 combos in the majors.

"I would hate being a righthanded hitter having to face those guys in a three-game series," he said. "It's not going to be fun."

Nowhere was the development expected to cause more consternation than in George Steinbrenner's offseason headquarters in Tampa. The Yankees were poised to respond by stepping up their pursuit of Andy Pettitte and perhaps Bartolo Colon, even as they planned to make a major investment in free agent right fielder Gary Sheffield.

"I don't think you can be happy if you're a New York Yankees fan," Millar said. "You're looking at the Red Sox making the upper-hand move to be as solid in the big leagues as any team you're going to find."

As for Martinez, the Sox have no concern he will harbor any ill will toward Schilling, who referred to him as "a punk" last month after Martinez threw a pitch near the head of the Yankees' Karim Garcia and threw bench coach Don Zimmer to the ground when Zimmer charged him.

"That stuff will all be gone as soon as they both come in the locker room and give each other a big hug," Millar said. "Schilling knows what kind of clubhouse we have. He wouldn't have signed with us if he didn't know about the chemistry in our clubhouse."

As much as some Sox players would welcome a closer such as Foulke, Millar and Lowe indicated they would be content to open spring training tomorrow with the current team. One of the few regrets the Sox may have is trading Freddy Sanchez, their second baseman of the future, to the Pirates last season for righthander Jeff Suppan.

The signing of Schilling and the pending cases of the Free Agency Five make it highly unlikely the Sox will acquire a high-priced second baseman such as Florida free agent Luis Castillo. The more likely addition will be a younger player with a good glove.

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