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ON BASEBALL

They now have saving grace

MIAMI -- The news of Keith Foulke's signing by the Red Sox wasn't even official yet, but the team's newest closer already had received a glowing endorsement from the man who may be the next -- and biggest -- piece of what is intended to be a masterwork, World Series Opus No. 1, by Theo and the Trio.

 

"He's a winning player -- he's got ice in his veins," Alex Rodriguez, the Sox shortstop-in-waiting, said yesterday morning, a few hours before he and his wife, Cynthia, were to attend the wedding of a good friend. "He's a phenomenal pitcher. I think they're going to love him in Boston. I think he's made for that place.

"I saw him 20 times a year in our division. He has a funny way of getting out of whatever trouble you put him in."

Foulke, 31, was the unquestioned prize among the closers on the free agent market this winter, just as righthander Curt Schilling, snagged from Arizona in a trade, was as good as a team could reasonably do for a front-line starter. Foulke's 43 saves led the American League, and his lifetime save percentage of .856 ranks him fourth among all closers since 1974 (minimum 100 appearances). Opposing hitters batted just .184 against him, the third-lowest average in the league, and he's just what you want in a closer, a guy who can get the big strikeout. His 88 whiffs (in 86 2/3 innings) ranked him fourth among AL relievers, and he had a stretch last season in which he recorded at least one whiff in 23 straight appearances.

"He's an extremely intelligent pitcher, too," Rodriguez said.

And by the statistical measure most favored by Sox stat analyst Bill James, something he calls win shares, Foulke (21) scored higher than the Yankees' indispensable Mariano Rivera (18).

Foulke's signing of a contract that is expected to pay him at least $24 million for four years officially put the Sox over the $100 million mark for the 2004 payroll (roughly $106 mil and counting), and that's for just the 14 players under contract. That doesn't include arbitration-eligible regulars like Trot Nixon and David Ortiz, who should pull down around $9 million between them next season, a new second baseman to replace Todd Walker, and three key members of a Sox bullpen that in one stroke of the pen has improved drastically over the 2003 model: Byung Hyun Kim, Scott Williamson, and lefty Scott Sauerbeck.

At this rate, the executive of a rival AL team said last week, the Sox payroll will be around $130 million, almost $10 million more than the $120.5 million threshold that triggers the luxury tax, or competitive-balance tax, as the owners like to call it. Epstein was justifiably irked Friday when he said it was foolish to place the Sox in the same spending category as the Yankees, who may be in the $200 million neighborhood by the time they get through. But with the team adamant about being fiscally responsible and staying under the tax threshold, the Sox are going to have to drop some salary, which club executives have said all along would be necessary.

And that's where Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in the game, comes into play. If owner John W. Henry, who was politely declining comment yesterday, were to succeed in pulling off one of sports' greatest swaps -- slugger Manny Ramirez for A-Rod, the league's reigning Most Valuable Player -- while Epstein simultaneously found a taker (most likely the Dodgers) for Nomar Garciaparra, the Sox would save nearly $11.5 million. Both Ramirez and A-Rod are due to be paid roughly $21 million next season, so the savings would come from dropping Garciaparra, due to make $11.5 million in '04. Minus Garciaparra, the Sox' payroll would be around $95 million for 13 players. The Sox are likely to go cheap at second base, perhaps settling for a righty-lefty platoon depending on who the nontenders are next weekend, but would appear to have money left to cut a deal for a quality outfielder to take Ramirez's place.

Rodriguez said yesterday morning he didn't know where matters stood but expected to speak at least twice with his agent, Scott Boras, before the day was through, sometime between his friends' exchanging of vows and their last dance at the reception. But his behavior yesterday -- he was very inquisitive about many aspects of the Sox, and displayed considerable knowledge of the team's inner workings -- suggested a man who had hardly ruled out the possibility that his team, the Texas Rangers, would ultimately agree to send him to Boston.

To that end, Boras has already had a number of discussions with players union executive Gene Orza about a possible restructuring of A-Rod's contract ($179 million is left to be paid) that would make it less burdensome to the Red Sox. According to one industry source, those talks have explored the clause that gives Rodriguez the right to declare free agency after the 2007 season, voiding the last three years of his contract.

Such a clause was designed to give A-Rod an out if he was unhappy in Texas or was looking for a better situation. But in each of those three years, A-Rod is due to be paid $27 million, a figure no player will even come close to in the constricted (some would argue collusion-driven) market of '03. From strictly a business standpoint, there would be little for Rodriguez to gain by voiding those years, especially now.

It's also unlikely the union, under its interpretation of the Basic Agreement, would allow him to do so, unless the Red Sox could demonstrate that Rodriguez would stand to benefit in some way from doing so. With the Sox obligated to pay Ramirez for the next five years, it's hard to imagine that they would ask A-Rod to settle for four more guaranteed years while voiding the back end of his contract.

One compromise worth exploring, an industry source said, was voiding the last two years of the contract, in exchange for an extension that would pay Rodriguez a lesser annual average salary but might add a year or two. When his current contract expires after the 2010 season, A-Rod will be 35, hardly over the hill for a player of such superb physical conditioning.

So that end of the deal could be resolvable, although the industry source cautioned that as much as A-Rod would love to come to Boston, he won't agree to anything that is bad business.

Still to be determined is whether Texas owner Tom Hicks, who isn't satisfied with the roughly $81 million he would save by swapping A-Rod's contract for Ramirez's, will prove immovable in his insistence that the Sox pay part of Ramirez's contract, too. As shortsighted as that would be, it looms as a deal-breaker. Hicks says he needs the extra dough to upgrade the Rangers' pitching. Maybe he should be asking Ramirez to restructure his contract, too. Or take a pitcher like Williamson or Kim from the Sox, too.

"I would think time is of the essence," Rodriguez said yesterday. "Not for me, but for the teams involved."

If it isn't, it should be. An opus hangs in the balance.

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