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Rodriguez deal gaining momentum

NEW ORLEANS -- The smoke and mirrors have been cleared away. The scenario Red Sox owner John W. Henry has been working on for weeks, one in which the Sox would trade outfielder Manny Ramirez for shortstop Alex Rodriguez, then turn around and trade shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to another club, is on the verge of being realized. Perhaps by the end of the week, no later than Christmas, according to multiple industry sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

 

"This has got to get wrapped up before the holidays," said one high-level industry source after a day in which Texas owner Tom Hicks acknowledged speaking to Henry at least twice. "It's not good for anybody that it gets dragged out."

There is no more talk of Garciaparra possibly signing a contract extension with the Red Sox. Garciaparra's agent, Arn Tellem, flew back to California yesterday after meeting with the Red Sox convinced that the Sox had chosen to consummate a deal for A-Rod instead. Tellem's focus shifted to where Garciaparra would be traded, his preferred destination the Los Angeles Dodgers, which would mark a return to Garciaparra's Southern California roots.

Sources confirmed that the Sox and Dodgers have discussed a deal in which Garciaparra would go to LA for a package that would include at least Greg Miller, a prized 19-year-old pitching prospect from the Dodger system, and possibly another pitching prospect as well, with one or both of those pitchers packaged with Ramirez and sent to Texas for Rodriguez. It was unclear whether the Dodgers would include a big-league player as part of the deal, but lefthander Odalis Perez is no longer being mentioned.

There were also indications that another club might also still be in the running for Garciaparra, though Anaheim, which had initially expressed some interest, no longer appeared to be in the running while Seattle, thwarted in its efforts to sign Miguel Tejada when he chose to sign with Baltimore instead, seemed headed in another direction, perhaps exploring a deal for former Mariner Omar Vizquel, now with Cleveland. During baseball's winter meetings here, the Sox also asked the Detroit Tigers if they had interest, but the Tigers, who had entered a bid on Tejada, passed.

The Sox also have a plan in place to add a top-flight outfielder to take Ramirez's place, though one baseball executive familiar with the Sox strategy advised that part of the puzzle will require additional time. But in an offseason in which the Sox already have acquired an established ace, Curt Schilling, for their starting rotation, and the American League's leader in saves, Keith Foulke, for the bullpen, there is no precedent in baseball history to compare to the one-two combination of a Ramirez-Rodriguez trade, followed by a deal for Garciaparra, in terms of the stature of the players and the magnitude of the money involved.

Rodriguez is the AL's Most Valuable Player; no reigning MVP has ever been traded. All three players have been All-Stars -- Rodriguez and Ramirez six times apiece, Garciaparra five times. Three years ago in December, Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $252-million contract, the largest in sports history. Two days later, Ramirez signed an eight-year, $160-million deal, while Garciaparra is due to be paid $11.5 million next season before becoming a free agent.

"I did have a couple of conversations with John Henry and we agreed to a time frame that we'd like to move our discussions and get to a point where we can make a deal that would benefit both clubs or put it behind us and go about our business," Hicks told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram yesterday.

The winter meetings ended yesterday and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein left town, his destination unknown. There were indications Epstein might have flown to Florida to meet with Henry at his Boca Raton home, though that could not be confirmed last night.

Financial considerations played a big part in driving this deal, which went from fanciful to earnest a couple of weeks ago, when baseball commissioner Bud Selig granted the Sox permission to negotiate directly with Rodriguez, after being told by the player that he wanted to play for the Red Sox, according to an industry source. The Rangers, who have finished in last place in the AL West in all three seasons since they signed Rodriguez, are cutting payroll. In giving up the last seven years of Rodriguez's contract ($179 million) for the last five of Ramirez's ($97.5 million), the Rangers could save $81.5 million.

"This helps both clubs," one industry source said. "One club [Texas] is being strangled by this contract. The other club [Boston], this is a very exciting thing for baseball."

The Red Sox stand to reap untold financial benefits from having Rodriguez, arguably the game's best player and one of its most polished personalities, as the face of its franchise. He offers a marked contrast to Ramirez, who has been an extremely productive hitter in his three seasons with Boston but alienated management -- and in part, the team's fan base -- by some of his behavior, including failing to show up for a doctor's appointment during a key series with the Yankees that he missed because of a sore throat, then refusing to pinch hit the following day in Philadelphia. The team was left in a public relations quandary when Ramirez expressed a preference for playing for the archrival Yankees; the Sox tried to accommodate him by placing him on waivers, but the Yankees passed on picking up his contract for the price of a $20,000 waiver claim.

The deal also was pushed forward when Garciaparra turned down a four-year, $60 million contract extension back in March, underscoring Sox fears that Garciaparra, his public pronouncements to the contrary, was not keen on returning to the Sox with free agency looming after the 2004 season. The relationship ruptured even further when the Sox resumed negotiations after the season by dropping their proposal to $48 million for four years, citing a market correction in the industry that was angrily rejected by Tellem, then opened talks with Rodriguez, which Garciaparra claimed came as a shock and his agent characterized as a "slap in the face" to New England's most popular ballplayer since Carl Yastrzemski. Henry, who had heretofore kept negotiations out of the public realm, fired back last week, calling Tellem's criticisms the "height of hypocrisy."

Contact between the sides returned to a more civil level, but it became apparent to Tellem after arriving here Sunday that the Sox, despite statements by Epstein that the team's priority was to work out an extension with Garciaparra, had their sights set elsewhere.

Rodriguez has been careful in his public statements regarding the Sox, though in an interview with the Globe last Friday he referred to Fenway Park as a "phenomenal place" to play.

Rodriguez yesterday was flying to New York on a vacation with his wife, Cynthia, that had been planned for some weeks, according to his personal assistant. But with union officials flying back from a weekend board meeting in Pebble Beach, Calif., last night, there were indications that Rodriguez was planning to meet today with union lawyer Gene Orza to discuss a restructuring of his contract that would make it more financially palatable to the Sox.

Industry sources close to the negotiations said that the Sox might offer Rodriguez a contract extension in exchange for Rodriguez voiding at least the last two years of his contract, in which he is due to be paid $27 million a year. Rodriguez actually has the right to void the last three years in exchange for free agency, but it is unlikely he would agree to do so, given that the Sox would have had to pay Ramirez through the 2008 season. He is due to be paid $27 million each in 2009 and 2010, but there is speculation that he might agree to a one- or two-year extension that would result in a larger total payout, but reduce the average annual value of those last two seasons.

"The union would balk if the Red Sox offered Rodriguez a three-year extension for $50 million, because that would be less than the $54 million they'd owe him under the terms of his current contract," one industry source said. "But if the extension was worth, say, $60 million, the union might go along with that, because it satisfies the `added benefit' clause governing the restructuring of contracts according to the Basic Agreement."

Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, would not confirm whether a meeting was scheduled with the union, nor would he discuss the potential restructuring of the player's contract. Boras left little doubt, however, that his client's preference was to play in Boston.

"I was excited about Alex going to Texas in the sense that there was a plan in place," Boras said. "For reasons that frankly are unknown to us, that obviously has been altered because of the ownership's position. But you want your clients to be happy and you want them achieving their goals, and one of his goals is that he wants to win."

The other major obstacle to a deal was Hicks's insistence that the Sox pay a portion of Ramirez's salary, perhaps as much as $5 million a year. Industry sources say that the Rangers have not backed down from that position, but two sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations predicted that the Sox and Rangers would find a way to make the economics work, perhaps with some form of lump-sum payment.

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