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For now, rumors all talk

BALTIMORE -- In the final 72 hours before Saturday's trading deadline, Derek Lowe is liable to become a human sports ticker, spewing out the trade rumors as quickly as he can think of them.

"I'm going to Atlanta now," he said to no one in particular as he walked past in the visitors' dugout yesterday afternoon. "For Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and Jaret Wright."

Lowe was joking, of course, but the rumors already are flying faster and thicker than the raindrops that postponed last night's exercise between the Sox and Baltimore Orioles after a 1-hour-16-minute delay. The game was called with the Orioles ahead, 4-2, and the Sox batting with two outs in the third.

A number of those rumors will involve Lowe, like the one yesterday that had him going to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Jay Payton and reliever Jay Witasick, a rumor that the Sox shot down more swiftly than the nonstop messages scrolling across Theo Epstein's BlackBerry wireless. Lowe doesn't find it amusing at all to hear his name being shopped around like something to be bartered on eBay, but in a market desperate for an established starter, he'd best become used to it.

At least a half-dozen teams have asked about the Sox' sinkerballer, according to one Lowe associate, and have been told the Sox won't move him unless they get a front-line starting pitcher in return.

Epstein is not, and probably never was, in a mode to make a change for change's sake, despite his published musings along those lines last month. These Sox are too married to their calculus of evaluating players to do anything so casual as moving a player for the sole purpose of shaking things up.

Epstein's track record suggests he will do something. It's unlikely the move will be a big one -- the Sox are looking for outfield insurance because of Trot Nixon's bad leg (which is why they're no longer in it for Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, though they still aren't looking at Larry Walker) and bullpen help, though Jose Mesa isn't available, Ugie Urbina has been throwing in the high 80s lately, and Eddie Guardado doesn't appear to be going anywhere.

But it should be noted that the Sox and Cubs are continuing their on-again, off-again talks regarding shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. All parties involved appear to have conceded that the clubs are not going to be able to engage Arizona in a three-way deal that would send Garciaparra to Chicago, Cubs prospects to the desert, and the Big Unit to the Fens. But while it remains a long shot, the clubs have not entirely closed the window on a trade that would send Garciaparra to the Cubs for pitcher Matt Clement, with the Cubs requiring the Sox to take on shortstop Alex Gonzalez as well, for an economic balancing of the deal.

Could it happen before Saturday? "In deal-making and in business, a lot of things happen at the 25th hour," Angels owner Arte Moreno told reporters in a different context Monday, when asked if the Angels might replace the Yankees as Arizona's trading partner of choice in the Randy Johnson sweepstakes.

The Cubs, who are 10 games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central and a game behind the Padres in the NL wild-card race, rank eighth in the league in runs scored, and 13th in on-base percentage. They need an impact bat, and one veteran scout said that if there is one park even better suited for Garciaparra's swing than Fenway Park, it is Wrigley Field, where so many of the center-field drives that are caught on Yawkey Way would land in the bleachers on Waveland and Sheffield avenues.

The Red Sox, uncertain of what they'll get from Lowe, could use a No. 3 starter behind Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. Clement has a losing record (8-9) and just broke a five-game losing streak that spanned his previous eight starts. But his ERA has been around 3.00 all season, and the Cubs had scored just 16 runs in his previous six decisions.

Like Garciaparra, Clement is eligible for free agency after the season. He's making $6 million this season, and the Cubs are by no means certain to him re-sign for 2005. They have two of baseball's best pitchers in Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, a rising star in Carlos Zambrano, and the consummate veteran in Greg Maddux, who won his 299th game last night. Wood and Prior have injury issues, which make the Cubs reluctant to deal Clement, but the Cubs also have doubts about Epstein's willingness to deal Garciaparra when he's hitting .380 in July and has had a ripple effect on the entire lineup since his return.

The safe course would be for neither club to make a move. Epstein could take a random survey of any dozen scouts and front-office types, and at least half would tell him that even if Garciaparra may be certain to have another address next season, he remains the Sox' best chance of winning in October. Cubs GM Jim Hendry similarly could be told by an equal number of his peers that you never give up a pitcher of Clement's considerable talents when you have a chance to play in October.

But in the bewitching hour of the trading deadline, you shouldn't rule out anything. Ask Derek Lowe.

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