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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Sophomore slump? Not for this GM

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Wearing a blue Patriots cap, he sat at the picnic table outside the Sox' minor league complex clubhouse, and answered all the questions. He seemed more assertive, more deliberate, and maybe a little more defensive than last year.

He seemed a little older, too. And why not? Theo Epstein is 30 now. He's still going to get carded if he buys a six-pack around here, but the Red Sox general manager is a year removed from all the Boy Wonder stuff.

His first year on the job produced one of the Hub's most beloved baseball teams. It was a truly magical campaign of Cowboy Up and bald solidarity right up until those final moments at Yankee Stadium Oct. 16-17. The pulsating season yielded to a winter of newsmaking unprecedented in the annals of Red Sox baseball. That was part of the reason for the Patriots cap. Acknowledging that Red Sox hot stove moves (and especially one non-move) put the Super Bowl champs on the back burner, Theo tipped his cap and said, "It's the least I can do."

He promised to be boring in his first media session of the spring and he fulfilled the pledge. He said he thinks it will take 100 wins to cop the American League East title. He said the Sox will not be able to keep all six of their potential free agents. The only bit of news he offered was that Pedro Martinez will be late again (family crisis), but he did say something alarming about free agent-to-be Nomar Garciaparra. Asked if the club was prepared to tolerate a situation in which the shortstop would play the entire season without an extension, Theo said, "That happens all the time, sure."

He was reminded that it happened here with Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn and both went elsewhere at the end of the season, leaving the Sox with little in the form of compensation.

"That's your opinion," he said. "We look at it a little differently. To do good business and to execute a successful plan, at times you have to be prepared for players to go into the last year of their contract. It's not a panic situation for the player, it's not a panic situation for the club. It's not always easy to reach agreement with a player on a contract ahead of time. If both sides are reasonable, it can certainly be done after the year when you have better information."

Cool. But I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that Nomar is gonzo at the end of 2004 if the Sox don't extend him this spring. The Garciaparra dilemma stands as the largest obstacle in the Sox' future and threatens to be a distraction throughout this season.

Martinez, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Scott Williamson, and David Ortiz are other major Sox players heading into the final years of their pacts.

"It's unrealistic to think we could sign every one of them," admitted Theo. "The finances don't add up. That's life. There's change sometime. Do the math yourself. It's not financially possible to bring back every player. And when you say we get nothing for him, that's overlooking a major factor which is that the 2004 club is going to be very good and has a chance to win the World Series and you can't really quantify that. You can't quantify what it means to have the player here this year."

There. It's clear the Sox have adopted a fire-all-your-guns-at-once game plan for 2004. The team will look quite different at this time next year.

Meanwhile, what about residue from the bollixed A-Rod, Manny, Nomar trades? Any hurt feelings?

"Some things happened in the offseason, largely because one major issue went public that shouldn't have," said the GM. "So there were probably some hurt feelings at the time. We've moved beyond that and he's moved beyond that, and I guarantee you that the whole focus of Nomar Garciaparra is winning a World Series."

Regarding the A-Rod fiasco, Theo played the party line, reminding us that the Red Sox were aggressive, but must ultimately exercise fiscal discipline and can't do certain things, "if the numbers don't add up."

When the questions about not getting A-Rod started to mount, Theo said, "That same thing happened last offseason on a smaller scale with the same team involved going for Jose Contreras. We walked away and there was the same type of fan reaction and media reaction . . . That type of disappointment is OK . . . Are those failures? I don't think so, but if you want to characterize them as that, that's fine. If you take a really narrow view because we didn't accomplish something we wanted. Last year we got within five outs of a World Series after an offseason that I think the public and you guys characterized as not so great. It turned out to be pretty good."

Ouch. Somebody stop him before he goes Duke on us.

It's important to remember that Theo had a good winter. He brought Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke, Pokey Reese, and Ellis Burks on board without giving up much.

"We like our club a lot," he said. "We came within five outs of the World Series last year. In the offseason we've made our club better balanced, a little deeper, and that should serve us well. Our pitching staff is probably the biggest difference. We've added quality and depth both to the starting rotation and the bullpen. Our offense probably won't be expected to score quite as many runs as last year, but it will be close."

A final word on A-Rod.

"Get used to it . . . We were aggressive in going after a player we thought would improve the team. The numbers didn't add up. We tried everything under the sun to make it work and it didn't work and he went to another team and we're going to move on and spend our resources elsewhere and build a team for which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And that's what I think we have here -- a team with a chance to win the World Series."

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