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Sox should strike while fire is hot

They have taken pains, all of them -- Theo and the Trio -- to keep negotiations on a new deal for general manager Theo Epstein out of the public purview. Principal owner John W. Henry's most recent public comment on the issue, a couple of weeks ago, was to express confidence -- little doubt, actually -- a deal soon will be in place. On the surface, the match between franchise and brainy native son appears to be too perfect to be trifled with.

''We look forward to a prompt resolution so that we can deal with the myriad issues that will face us this offseason," president and CEO Larry Lucchino wrote in an e-mail yesterday.

But with the Red Sox season over and Epstein just three weeks from free agency -- the three-year contract he signed in 2002 expires Oct. 31 -- the Sox would seem to be running an unnecessary risk by not striking a deal quickly. There will be too many other opportunities available this winter -- jobs in Arizona, Washington, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Diego, and New York (Yankees) have either opened or could open -- for the Sox to allow Epstein to discover just how wealthy and powerful another major league owner would like to make him.

So what has kept a deal from being struck already? In a perfect world, Epstein would undoubtedly prefer greater autonomy under the very hands-on Lucchino. Although some sources with some inside knowledge insist Epstein has broached the topic of reporting directly to Henry, Lucchino said yesterday ''there has been no exploration or discussion of 'chain of command' issues," and Henry also disputed the accuracy of the sources.

Most likely Epstein understands the structure here is not going to change and is averse to creating the perception of wishing to usurp Lucchino's power. Yes, occasionally there is tension in his relationship with Lucchino, the sources say, Epstein at times chafing at having to justify his baseball decisions to Lucchino, whose biography proudly points out he is the first president/CEO to win pennants for two franchises since Larry MacPhail did so with the Brooklyn Dodgers (1941) and New York Yankees (1947). Lucchino, who turned 60 last month, also has two World Series rings, the one he was awarded as the Orioles' general counsel in 1983 and the one he earned last season.

But how much conflict is there? One source cautioned against describing it as such, saying it was the kind of tension that often arises between mentor and protege. It was Lucchino, after an initial push from Dr. Charles Steinberg, who identified Epstein as a talent from the time he arrived as a PR intern in Baltimore. Lucchino took Epstein with him when he went to the Padres, pushed him to go to law school, and placed him under the tutelage of Padres GM Kevin Towers, then persuaded Henry to take the boldest step of all and anoint him baseball's youngest general manager at 28 years 11 months.

(Epstein was usurped last week by Jon Daniels, who at 28 years 2 months succeeded John Hart as GM in Texas).

The Sox are skilled in keeping their debates internal, but on two notable occasions -- the delicate Alex Rodriguez negotiations after the 2003 season, as well as the Manny Ramirez trade talks in July -- Lucchino became a focal point of some controversy. In the A-Rod case, both the players union and Rangers owner Tom Hicks had issues with Lucchino, while in the Ramirez situation, Lucchino went public on his weekly radio appearance with Ramirez's trade request, which infuriated the player and distressed other front-office members who thought that should have remained private.

A more contentious issue is compensation. Before hiring Epstein, the Sox were prepared to make Oakland GM Billy Beane the highest-paid GM in history, offering him a five-year deal worth $2.5 million per year. Beane, citing family concerns and his ties to the West Coast, first accepted, then turned down the offer.

Does Epstein, who holds Beane in the highest regard, want Beane money? It has been used in part to frame the discussion, according to one source, but it is not a demand.

Epstein certainly could make a compelling case to ask for such a salary, having accomplished something none of his predecessors had done in 86 years by winning a World Series ring, and he also has made impressive strides in fulfilling his pledge to rebuild the farm system. Would he go elsewhere if the Sox don't meet what he believes is fair price for his services? Don't rule it out, not with free agency beckoning.

There also is a quality of life issue to consider. Epstein, who grew up in Brookline, can rightfully complain of privacy issues as great, if not greater, than Ramirez, though he has never done so. His youth, and hometown ties, have led many fans to approach him with an often brazen disregard for his personal space. There are times when Epstein, even when just running out for a sandwich, has to pretend he's on his cellphone to escape people who want a piece of him. The fact he is rated one of Boston's most desired bachelors only intensifies the attention.

A small price to pay for running the Sox? That's easy for someone on the outside to say.

''This town is hard to play in," David Wells said Friday night. ''You can have no life here. You leave the stadium, you can't go out with family and friends without being subject to the town wanting a part of you. We understand it, but I don't think [the fans] do. That takes a toll on you."

Bottom line? An announcement of Epstein's new deal should be forthcoming in the next week or two. If not, the rebuilding process here will be far greater than any of us imagined.

It has to be an offer they can't refuse

Yes, the Red Sox will listen to trade offers for Manny Ramirez after the season, but with only three years and roughly $60 million left on his contract, moving him would not create as much financial flexibility as it would have in the past, making a trade less likely. The shrinking money, however, also expands the pool of potential suitors.

''It would be like taking on Ordonez money," said one industry source, referring to the five-year, $75 million deal Magglio Ordonez signed last winter with the Tigers.

The Sox would have to be overwhelmed by an offer, and one club official dismissed any suggestion they would move Ramirez to a team within the division (the Blue Jays are believed to be contemplating an offer).

Finding a righthanded bat to replace him would be problematic, especially with free agent slugger Paul Konerko, just 29, likely to be (a) seeking a longer-term contract than the Red Sox would be willing to give him and (b) leaning toward returning to the White Sox, with whom he has become the popular face of the franchise.

If Ramirez comes to the club and says he is unhappy and wants a trade, the club would probably try to accommodate him, but despite the distress signals he sends up annually, the Sox are not convinced he dislikes Boston as much as some assume.

''Yes, there are privacy issues," one team source said, ''but his wife comes to every game. If he came to us, we might have to do something, but we're not sure that will happen. He's got to know the grass isn't always greener."

Rangers have themselves a young gun in Daniels, 28

Josh Byrnes, the Red Sox assistant general manager who figures to be a candidate for several GM openings, has a direct connection with Jon Daniels, the Cornell grad (Class of 1999) who at 28 years 2 months displaced Theo Epstein as the youngest GM ever in baseball last week when he replaced John Hart in Texas. Byrnes was working for the Rockies in 2001 when he hired Daniels as an intern.

''We took our intern hirings very seriously," Byrnes said. ''The resumes we were getting had more and more interesting backgrounds. Jon had a great academic background, and in our correspondence, his letters and e-mails, demonstrated that he was really paying attention to the industry and Rockies' issues. He stood out from the crowd. Then, when I talked to him, he obviously was bright, he obviously was passionate."

A year later, Daniels went to the Rangers as an assistant in baseball operations and rose quickly to assistant GM, where he was given considerable responsibility in contract negotiations, trade discussions, and scouting efforts in Latin America.

Hart, in praising his successor, mentioned several other young GMs who learned under him, including the Indians' Mark Shapiro, the Rockies' Dan O'Dowd, and the Dodgers' Paul DePodesta. Byrnes also got his start under Hart in Cleveland.

After building one of baseball's most successful franchises in Cleveland in the '90s, Hart was unable to duplicate that success in Texas. The Rangers won 89 games in 2004 and manager Buck Showalter, a Hart hire, was named AL Manager of the Year. But Hart has taken hits in Texas for signing free agent pitcher Chan Ho Park to a five-year, $65 million deal (although owner Tom Hicks should take the heat for that one) and trading rising star Travis Hafner to the Indians.

Hart's leaving caused no consternation with the team's top two young stars, Mark Teixeira and AL batting champion Michael Young.

''I've never even talked to him [Daniels]," Teixeira told Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. ''I can't have much issue with a guy I've never even talked to. But I can say this: We haven't won as much as we'd like to in the last few years, so maybe a change was needed."

''I have no thoughts on it," Young told Grant. ''I had no relationship with John Hart."

Fenway forecasts
Some Red Sox issues, looking ahead: Look for the Sox to tear up manager Terry Francona's contract and give him a raise in the form of an extension, fairly soon after Theo Epstein re-ups as general manager . . . The Sox are concerned that another club will offer Johnny Damon a five-year deal, a threshold they're unwilling to cross . . . Add Tony Graffanino to the list of Sox free agents likely to be moving on. Plans now are to go with a combination of rookie Dustin Pedroia and Alex Cora at second . . . The Sox probably will offer free agent Bill Mueller arbitration, but they expect another club will offer the third baseman a two-year deal. If Mueller bites, Kevin Youkilis would become the regular third baseman . . . Outfielder/first baseman Aubrey Huff, who has a year and $6.75 million left on his contract with the Devil Rays, will be a Sox trade target . . . Keith Foulke will be back with the team in spring training, but not necessarily as the closer and quite possibly not for long. Foulke will have to prove to skeptical shoppers he is healthy and can get people out . . . Hanley Ramirez, just 21, is definitely ticketed to begin the season in Triple A . . . And while the Sox may look at top free agent pitcher A.J. Burnett, his graceless exit from the Marlins -- he ripped the team and was sent home with a week left in the season -- has hurt his appeal on the market.

Manager roulette
While the Tigers wasted no time in pouncing on Jim Leyland as soon as they fired manager Alan Trammell, Ken Macha's next move will be interesting now that he and the Oakland A's were unable to come to terms on a multiyear extension. Macha, who still has a home in western Pennsylvania, figured to be the leading candidate in Pittsburgh, but GM David Littlefield is also interviewing deposed Dodger manager Jim Tracy and Braves third base coach Fredi Gonzalez . . . Trammell will interview with the Dodgers, who also are expected to talk to Triple A manager Jerry Royster and director of player development Terry Collins. Former Dodger star Orel Hershiser, now the Rangers pitching coach, said he'd love to be considered for the Dodgers job . . . Yankees bench coach Joe Girardi appears to be the front-runner for the Marlins job, taking over for Jack McKeon, who is being retained as a consultant but will work out of his North Carolina home after working World Series magic for the Marlins in 2003. The Devil Rays also received permission to talk to Girardi . . . A's third base coach Ron Washington, who will interview for the Marlins job Tuesday, is expected to be considered for the A's job.

No complaints
Red Sox owner John W. Henry, on the season just completed:

''This was a great season to be a fan. It was a great year to be able to watch 162 games for those of us who could. There were key injuries and a lot of fatigue, but the individuals -- from the players all the way through the front office, manager, and coaching staff -- gave it their all. No complaints and 95 wins despite the travail. Those 95 wins were earned.

''We've gained three games per year in the great rivalry. Today we begin building the 2006 season. There is a lot of work to do. We have some great young talent coming and that's exciting, but I know Theo is focused on a championship in 2006. We'll return stronger in 2006."

Dial M for Manny
Pedro Martinez made a show on the last weekend of the regular season to thank the Mets beat writers, handing out business cards that read, ''Pedro Martinez, Pitcher," with his cellphone number. Call only if it's an emergency, he said. What constitutes an emergency, he was asked. ''Call me when we get Manny," was the reply.

Bird headed for extinction?
Sam Perlozzo, who had a 23-32 record as Orioles manager after replacing Lee Mazzilli, is scheduled to serve as grand marshal of Baltimore's Columbus Day parade. It remains to be seen whether that's his last act in an official capacity. Perlozzo's fate rests on whether the Orioles retain Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie as GMs, a dubious proposition.

Go directly to free parking
Hard to imagine a new owner trumping Arte Moreno's announcement that he was cutting beer prices upon taking over the Angels, but Stuart Sternberg of the Devil Rays may have done so. Sternberg, who bought out Vince Naimoli, announced that parking, which was $10, will be free next season at Tropicana Field. Naimoli (seven last-place finishes) can claim that he brought baseball to the Tampa area and little else.

Gordon Edes can be reached by e-mail at edes@globe.com. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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