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ON BASEBALL

Future tough to Four-cast

Sox set to wait with would-be free agents

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It isn't just an inflamed right Achilles' tendon that is making Nomar Garciaparra's future uncertain with the Red Sox.

When Garciaparra flies home to Boston today to begin a period of rehabilitation designed to get him back on the field by May, he will do so without a contract extension. He acknowledged yesterday that the sides would not strike a deal by the start of the season, and said he doesn't plan to resume contract talks until after the season, when the Sox will have just a two-week window of exclusive negotiating rights before Garciaparra can declare free agency.

"I want to focus on the season," he said.

It is a near certainty that when the Sox break camp today, none of the Big Four -- Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, or Derek Lowe -- will be signed to an extension. All four have been made offers; all four to date have found the offers wanting. Lowe has already said he expects to leave after the season; an industry source said the club had made a "rock bottom" offer to Varitek; and Martinez privately has told associates he expects to become a free agent.

Garciaparra, stung by Sox' plans to trade him had they succeeded in acquiring Alex Rodriguez over the winter, was asked yesterday if he had a greater sense now of whether the Sox wanted him back in early December, when he learned that the club was far along in its attempts to get A-Rod.

"No, I don't," Garciaparra said. "I'm just the same as I've always been. If they want me, then show me."

What have they shown him to date? "Not much, really," he said. "But then again, that's all up for everyone to say."

His perception, of course, matters more than anyone else's.

"Absolutely," he said. "But I think all you guys are intelligent. You've seen some stuff, too."

Garciaparra has been adamant about not having his negotiations aired publicly, the way they were last December, when his agent, Arn Tellem, blasted the Sox for being "disingenuous" by their pursuit of Rodriguez, and Sox principal owner John W. Henry fired back, saying the Sox had sought A-Rod only because they didn't know whether Garciaparra wanted to remain in Boston. Subsequently, it was learned that the Sox had made Garciaparra a four-year offer for $15 million a season last spring, and Garciaparra had countered with a proposal that would have averaged $17 million a year.

When Tellem called the Sox to find out whether reports of the A-Rod talks were true, he was informed of a new offer: a four-year, $48 million deal that was described to him as a "market correction" by general manager Theo Epstein. The revised offer, coupled with the A-Rod talks, led Tellem to complain publicly about how the Sox were treating his client.

The Sox have made attempts to repair relations -- chairman Tom Werner, who counts Tellem a good friend, had Garciaparra over to his house in Southern California -- and negotiations began again in mid-January, around the time Garciaparra came to Boston to conduct his annual hitting clinics.

But when Garciaparra reported to spring training, he made it clear he was still unhappy.

"When I heard about [Rodriguez], I was thinking, `Well, their priorities are obviously not for me, they're obviously for someone else,' " Garciaparra said at a press conference held upon his arrival. "That was pretty evident this whole winter."

Later this spring, Garciaparra was incensed to hear that the Sox had revealed they had made him an offer, a reflection of how sensitive he is that any of this be public. No details of the offer have been made, but this much is certain: While the average annual value of the Sox' offer is greater than the $11 million per year that A's third baseman Eric Chavez received in his six-year, $66 million deal, and is probably an increase over the $12 million per year they offered him in December, it is not as good as the $15 million per year the Sox offered him last spring. And indications are that he is not willing to sign for less.

Epstein refused yesterday to discuss details of the negotiations with any of the Big Four, other than to acknowledge that no agreements were expected before camp broke.

"But that doesn't mean talks haven't been productive," Epstein said.

Addressing Garciaparra's case specifically, he said: "We've had good talks, and we're looking forward to picking up talks again after the season."

Asked if he would not negotiate with Garciaparra during the season, Epstein said, "I don't want to say that point-blank. There were good, productive talks. We didn't get a deal done, but both sides are looking forward to talking again."

By not signing any of the Big Four, the Sox are setting themselves up for this scenario: either to pay the players more in October than they would have had to at this stage, before the players were on the cusp of free agency, or allow them to walk. It's a gamble, but obviously one the Sox are willing to take. In one sense, they're willing to wait to see how the players perform in 2004, then adjust accordingly.

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