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ON BASEBALL

In end, deal made sense

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It will be of small comfort to Red Sox fans to learn that their team finished runner-up in the Brad Penny trading-deadline sweepstakes, a Harvard man (Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta) outmaneuvering a Yalie (Sox GM Theo Epstein) for the services of the righthander, who allowed just two hits over eight scoreless innings in his Dodger debut Tuesday night.

DePodesta lured Penny from the Marlins by including catcher Paul Lo Duca in the deal; Epstein tried to entice the Marlins with a package that included Derek Lowe, who instead will be on the mound for the Sox tomorrow night in Detroit, where they will wrap up a two-week trip before returning home with enough new players to encourage brisk sales of scorecards next week on Yawkey Way.

News of a more encouraging nature than the near miss on Penny was the promotion this week of prized prospect Hanley Ramirez to Portland, Boston's Double A franchise, from Single A Sarasota. As transactions involving Sox shortstops go, this one was overshadowed by the change of address involving Nomar Garciaparra (and no, the Cubs didn't throw in Wendell Kim as part of the deal, though after "Impale 'em" Dale Sveum sent newcomer Dave Roberts to a horribly untimely end in the ninth inning of last night's 5-4 loss to the Devil Rays, some Sox fans could be heard muttering that maybe "Send 'em in Kim" wasn't so bad after all).

But Ramirez's promotion could have some bearing on whether the shortstop who came back to Boston in the Garciaparra deal, Orlando Cabrera, should be contemplating a long-term lease while in the employ of the Sox, or settle for a nice hotel room in which to camp out for the next couple of months.

For many top prospects, Double A now ranks as finishing school of choice before they ascend to the big leagues. Ramirez is just 20, but he is 16 months older than B.J. Upton, the 19-year-old Devil Rays prodigy who made his big league debut this week (and showed his nerves with a high relay throw and a booted grounder last night), and only six months younger than Jose Reyes, the gifted Mets infielder who was moved from short to second to make room for Kaz Matsui.

Middle infielders can come up fast (see: Alex Rodriguez, 18, 1994), and while the Sox' master plan envisions Ramirez playing a full season in Portland next season and Triple A Pawtucket in 2006, if he continues to show the advancement that he has made this season, he could force them to accelerate that timetable.

And if he should falter, it appears the Sox are blessed with promising shortstops, from the Gulf Coast League (Luis Soto) to short-season Lowell (Christian Lara) to Ramirez's replacement at Sarasota, top draft pick Dustin Pedroia, who has made a sensational pro debut. And don't dismiss Kenny Perez, the guy moving to second base in Portland to make room for Ramirez.

The beauty of talented shortstops is their versatility. Second base is always an option. Fill out enough, and they can move to third base, like Cal Ripken. Throwing a little erratic? Move 'em to the outfield.

But Ramirez, whose tools the Sox will gladly match up against anybody's minor leaguers, has almost all the earmarks (the maturity still needs some work, though he is on the right track, by all accounts) of the shortstop who will be Garciaparra's long-term replacement.

Shortstop, in other words, may be a position at which the Sox can save a few bucks this winter. Cabrera, who is being paid $6 million this season and turned down a long-term extension from the Expos, will command a raise as a free agent this winter. It may not matter how he performs down the stretch for the Sox; unless he takes them deep into October, the Sox may decide their resources are better spent at another position, like third base, where power-hitting Adrian Beltre of the Dodgers is eligible to come onto the market, or on a starting pitcher or two, especially if Pedro Martinez leaves.

Trading Garciaparra, who last night stole his first base for the Cubs, which is one fewer than he had in 38 games this season with the Sox, to acquire Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz is a deal that makes eminent sense, given management's absence of conviction that Garciaparra would play down the stretch, and their no-doubt-about-it belief that Garciaparra wasn't coming back next year. Curt Schilling has noted on more than one occasion that he has never seen a team hurt by errors as much as this one, and last night was no exception, Kevin Youkilis's bobble preceding Toby Hall's grand slam.

A pitcher in return for Garciaparra would have been swell, but try as he did, Epstein couldn't shake one loose. Finding two veteran players that will upgrade the defense, and can swing the bat, at least on occasion, with authority, is better than an absentee superstar. Don't look for the Sox to make any major moves during the waiver period, either. They're banking on a healthy return by Scott Williamson to shore up the bullpen, and that their middle infield can survive with Bill Mueller at second until Pokey Reese and Mark Bellhorn return on almost the same schedule, because Youkilis has given them more than they'd hoped for at third.

The outfield? Unless a Carlos Beltran materializes, the Sox appear likely to play with the hand they've got, even if Trot Nixon can't make it back. And Epstein is hardly counting on a pitcher to materialize now when it didn't happen before the deadline.

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