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They were in similar position not long ago

CHICAGO -- Remember this, as you sift through the trade rumors swirling around the Red Sox: This time last summer, it hadn't occurred to general manager Theo Epstein that he'd soon be in possession of a new shortstop in Orlando Cabrera, a backup outfielder in Dave Roberts, and a new first baseman in Doug Mientkiewicz.

The hot rumor of last summer, that the Sox would land pitcher Matt Clement from the Cubs for Nomar Garciaparra, or in a possible three-team deal with the Florida Marlins, never materialized. That's why Kevin Millar was entitled to be in full mocking mode in the visitors' clubhouse yesterday afternoon when he took note of the covey of reporters circling his locker, clambered on top of a chair, and loudly announced that he and Bill Mueller had been traded to the Minnesota Twins.

His point being, of course, that most trade talk is just that, and the deals that ultimately take place occur with more stealth. Did the Sox discuss a deal with the Twins that would have sent third baseman Mueller to the Twins for lefthanded reliever J.C. Romero, and floated a proposal for a bigger deal that would have sent either Millar or a prospect to the Twins for Romero and starting pitcher Joe Mays?

Yes. Was that deal still in play yesterday? The signals were mixed. The Twins, who were burned in last summer's four-team deal involving Garciaparra -- Minnesota should have come away with a prospect but lost track of that player in the last-minute, complicated permutations -- weren't happy to discover that a third team, the Marlins, were involved in the proposed transaction, with the Sox flipping Mays with Bronson Arroyo to the Marlins for pitcher A.J. Burnett.

For now, anyway, that deal is dormant, and possibly dead. But the Sox still need a lefthanded reliever, and the Twins still need a third baseman, so renewed discussions are just a phone call away.

And with the Orioles still appearing to be in full retreat mode in trade talks for Burnett, the Sox remained confident they could execute a trade for the Florida righthander, who is eligible for free agency after the season. The Marlins don't want to see Burnett walk after the season without getting something in return. They like Arroyo -- a lot, by most accounts. If they can't do a deal that would get them a starter and a reliever, they might prefer the Sox' offer more than the best the Orioles have to offer, a package featuring reliever Jorge Julio.

Epstein has warned that this year's market isn't exactly teeming with hot commodities. We might be talking more about a trading season like the summer of '03, when the Sox added a modestly talented starter in Jeff Suppan and two relievers in Scott Williamson and Scott Sauerbeck, than a summer of '04, when the Garciaparra trade knocked the Nation off its axis.

And yet, you can trace the contours of Epstein's thinking -- that this is a team with obvious needs, and one playing as shakily as it was last summer -- by looking at the moves he has already made and is contemplating. He has strengthened the middle infield with the additions of Alex Cora and Tony Graffanino, picked up Chad Bradford to bolster his bullpen, and brought in reserve outfielder Adam Hyzdu as reinforcement until Gabe Kapler is ready.

Had the Sox been able to execute the three-team deal, Epstein would have landed a top-of-the-rotation starter in Burnett, a swing-and-miss setup man, while absorbing a third baseman, Mike Lowell, who is having a bad year and costs a lot of money but is also Gold Glove-caliber and a dead pull hitter who might find Fenway Park the perfect place to stage a revival.

So while Millar cracked wise, there was optimism in both the Sox clubhouse and front offices that Burnett could be had. There was even some talk that in the end, they might not even need to take Lowell for the deal to get done.

But don't lose sight of the fact there are permutations none of us -- including Epstein -- have yet to think of.

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