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Reality check on a closer

The job is still open in Red Sox bullpen

JULIAN TAVAREZ Has the mind-set JULIAN TAVAREZ Has the mind-set

If the Red Sox need a money-making venture to offset Daisuke Matsuzaka's costs, perhaps they could come up with a reality show centered around their search for a closer. Call it "Closer Idol." NESN cameras could follow several relievers vying for that big prize of ninth-inning pitcher.

Seriously, it's not that the Red Sox have given up the hunt for the one guy who can close a game. In fact, they're probably going to add another middle reliever to the mix soon and then sort it out in spring training.

Hard to say whether this will be a blow to their 2007 chances, but it's not the preferred situation. It's been an offseason in which the Sox made gains in their starting rotation with the addition of Matsuzaka, the changed role of Jonathan Papelbon, and the good news that young lefthander Jon Lester has responded well to cancer treatments. J.D. Drew (when he gets signed) and Julio Lugo will improve the everyday lineup.

But right now, a bona fide closer isn't walking through Gate A at Fenway Park.

Efforts to obtain Chad Cordero of the Nationals, Mike Gonzalez of the Pirates, and Brad Lidge of the Astros were met with either "thanks but no thanks" or price tags that were far too expensive.

Barring a closer falling from the sky, there exists a tremendous opportunity for someone on the current staff to be on the ground floor of a profitable career. If this sounds like the 2003 season, when the pertinent phrase was "closer by committee," that's true, but this time there appear to be more options.

More than one executive at the winter meetings wondered whether Boston would turn back to Papelbon if he shows that, with a healed shoulder, he can take the up-and-down and pitching three or four times a week.

Short of that, the candidates are Julian Tavarez, Brendan Donnelly, Mike Timlin, Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen, Devern Hansack, Runelvys Hernandez, and Edgar Martinez. And Reliever X thrown into the mix.

Who will graduate from Fort Myers to Boston and pitch the ninth inning?

If there were ever a time for Hansen to assume the role of "closer of the future," it would be now. If there were a time and a place for Delcarmen to seize the moment, it would be now as well. Or if there were a time for Hansack to defy all odds and give the Sox a find of all finds, it is the present.

This could be where pitching coach John Farrell earns the majority of his salary. Discovering a closer can yield big-time attaboys from the boss.

The notion of a set-up man or middle reliever being unable to close a game has seemed like nonsense to some, but the Sox found out early in 2003 that some guys who could pitch the sixth, seventh, and eighth couldn't pitch the ninth.

It appears that Tavarez will get the greatest opportunity to take the job. Throughout his career, his stuff has been at times unhittable. Yet last season he was relegated to mop-up duty before the Sox used him in the rotation late in the season. Tavarez seemed to have a ball as a starter. He was happy again, thriving. Would he be the same if he's given the closer job? He does, after all, thrive on adrenaline. He seems to get up for situations in which the team needs him. Let's see.

"Of all the guys they have, I would think it would be Tavarez," said one AL executive. "He's got the mind-set for it. He's actually done it in Pittsburgh [11 saves in 2003]."

You could give it to Timlin, a year removed from battling a sore arm that's been blamed on his participation in the World Baseball Classic. While handing the ball to a 40-year-old to close games isn't preferable, it might be the choice the Sox have to make for a while.

Donnelly wanted to be a closer, but he never got the chance in the Angels' talented bullpen.

The Sox have parted ways with Keith Foulke, so even if their world championship closer is ready to assume his former role, he will be doing it someplace else. The Sox had their chance at Eric Gagne but felt the risk didn't match the money that Gagne ultimately got from the Rangers.

It's daunting to think that the Yankees have Mariano Rivera, the Blue Jays have B.J. Ryan, and the Orioles have Chris Ray. The Red Sox are probably right to assume that their bullpen innings will decrease with the improvement of their rotation. Great. But who finishes?

"Closer Idol," coming this February in Fort Myers.

Union may not have muscle

Marc Mukasey is a former assistant US Attorney who has done extensive steroids prosecution work and once led a unit of Drug Enforcement Administration and federal prosecutors in steroid trafficking cases. Mukasey is currently a partner in the New York City office of Rudy Giuliani's law firm, Bracewell & Giuliani .

Mukasey doesn't think the Players Association will get far in trying to overturn an appeals court ruling in San Francisco that gives federal investigators the authority to use the names of 100 major leaguers who tested positive in their steroid probes.

Mukasey said the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure, is clear. Investigators seized what they were authorized to take -- urine samples and data from three labs that conducted and interpreted the drug tests -- and did it in "reasonable fashion."

The ruling also indicated that everything was done properly by the investigators, which would be another reason the Supreme Court would likely reject the case. The Players Association could ask another appellate court to hear the case, but even that appears a long shot. Yet it will surely try to protect the privacy of a hundred players who thought they were taking part in a confidential and anonymous test in 2003.

As it turned out, the findings were used by Major League Baseball to institute a steroid policy that it bolstered a year later.

Mukasey said, in his opinion, prosecutors are not going after the users (the players) but "on the federal level, they're more than likely going after the traffickers."

In Barry Bonds's case, said Mukasey, it will be difficult to prosecute him even if his name is on the list because "he has already testified before a grand jury that he didn't know he was using an illegal steroid or performance-enhancing drug."

Checking to see how things are shaping up with Murphy

A few questions for Red Sox outfielder David Murphy, who has spent the offseason working with trainer Dennis Fay at the Texas Sports Medical Center in Houston:

Q. There are some teams out there who feel you're a late bloomer who will be a very good major league starting player, who have approached the Red Sox about you in a deal. Flattering?

DM: "You can certainly take that both ways, but it's always important that someone have interest in you. I think I know I'll have a job whether it's in the majors or in the minors next season. I'm just trying to do all that I can to get ready for the season and put myself in the best possible position to make an impact.

Q. Do you feel you've made gains physically?

DM: "I really have. I think I ended the season at about 200 pounds in Boston and I'm 210-215 right now, so that's 10-15 pounds of muscle that I've put on, which I feel will definitely help my power, my stamina in playing 160 games, and just feeling physically stronger all around."

Q. Given that you're about 6-4 and now 215 pounds, do you still feel center field is your best position?

DM: "Even more so. I feel center field is my best position and always has been. I love playing center field and feel I can help a team there defensively."

Q. Who have you been working out with?

DM: "We have a bunch of minor league players similar to myself who have been up and down and just looking for that edge physically that will help us in staying up in the big leagues. Adam Dunn and Kip Wells are two established major leaguers who work out with us."

Q. Given the work you've done, do you feel you can make the major league team?

DM: "That's what I'm shooting for. I'm just trying to do everything I can to put myself in that position. I haven't started hitting yet, so I can't yet measure how the work I've done will translate, but I'm looking forward to coming to Boston next week for the Rookie Development Program and put it to the test. I felt that I needed to take this step in my development to get physically stronger. I think I've succeeded in that and I hope that it makes me a better baseball player."

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. One of the nicest guys in baseball, NL MVP Ryan Howard, is scheduled to attend the Boston Baseball Writers dinner Jan. 11 to accept the Ted Williams Award as the best hitter of 2006 (tickets at $125 apiece are available by writing to BBWAA, P.O. Box 7346, Nashua, N.H., 03060); 2. A source close to Matt Clement indicated that he's on schedule with his rehab after shoulder surgery; while there has been general pessimism about Clement returning in 2007, the pitcher is said to be motivated to prove everyone wrong and could resume throwing by spring training; 3. A shame that Don Baylor, who has a lot to offer as a manager or hitting coach, is out of baseball; 4. Sox catching prospect George Kottaras has been working hard on his defense with minor league field coordinator Rob Leary; 5. There's not one person among Manny Ramírez's official representatives who will even touch the question of whether Ramírez is OK about returning to the Sox.

Johnson trade? Roger that
Major league sources indicate that the Yankees will deal Randy Johnson to Arizona or San Diego for a limited package of young players and then turn their attention to Roger Clemens. One source said it was never the Yankees' intention to get into the Barry Zito bidding because they want to create a spot for Clemens. Interesting that the Diamondbacks owe Johnson about $40 million in deferred money from his first go-round with them. They've proposed accelerating the payments at 6 percent interest, but will they try what they did with Matt Williams (and unsuccessfully with Luis Gonzalez) by offering Johnson a small limited partner share in the team in lieu of the $40 million?

National treasure
The Red Sox decided very early in the process that Daisuke Matsuzaka was better than Zito for their team and their league. The Giants dishing out $126 million makes sense only in that Zito will likely thrive for a National League West team, but seven years is ridiculous. Zito, who had a .618 winning percentage (102-63) for Oakland, is 8-8 with a 3.53 ERA in interleague play, but San Francisco is a pitcher's ballpark. "Zito will probably win the NL Cy Young there," said an American League GM. "He was pretty good in the AL. Now he's in a league where you don't have to face the DH, you face the pitcher and a weaker bottom of the order. It's an awful lot of money and it would have been shocking for an AL team to give him $18 million per year, but a National League team might get a good return on that investment."

Bird watching
Even if the Orioles sign Shannon Stewart as an extra outfielder, they'll still look for another bat. They're negotiating with third baseman/outfielder Aubrey Huff. If that doesn't work out, Trot Nixon would be in the mix. One thing the Orioles won't do is trade any of their young pitching. That doesn't include Rodrigo Lopez, who has drawn interest from five teams. Lopez, 31, had a poor season, going 9-18, but he has shown he can be a bulldog and, at times, a Red Sox killer. If Lopez, Ted Lilly (signed by the Cubs), and Johnson are gone from the AL East, it certainly helps the Red Sox.

A shift in power
The White Sox have changed course with their pitching philosophy, trading Freddie Garcia (to Philadelphia) and Brandon McCarthy (to Texas). As one major league official put it, "They're looking to rebuild with young power pitching. They just don't believe in the long run it's worth paying $9 million-$10 million a year to pitchers who allow as much contact as they do in that division and in that league. It's still a gutsy thing to do and something that could backfire. They had five, and really six, very good proven major league starters. Now they're going to roll the dice a bit with guys who have great potential."

Positions sought
Carl Everett and Sammy Sosa would like to play somewhere again. Neither is getting much interest, and both may have to play in alternative leagues (independent, Mexico, Japan) or sign a minor league contract. Everett was released by the Mariners last season (designated for assignment July 26 after hitting .227), while Sosa took the year off. Also trying to come back is catcher Javy Lopez, who, to say the least, didn't fit in with the Red Sox.

Mulder mulling it over
It's down to Cleveland, Texas, and St. Louis for Mark Mulder's services. When the process began, there seemed the slimmest chance that Mulder, who won't be ready until around late May after shoulder surgery, would return to St. Louis. But don't rule out the Cardinals. They have lost Jeff Suppan to the Brewers, Jason Marquis to the Cubs, and have yet to re-sign Jeff Weaver. Cleveland has offered Mulder a two-year package that includes about $8 million of guaranteed money and the chance to earn about $15 million. Texas is offering less guaranteed but a chance to earn $18.75 million for two seasons. "Cleveland and Texas have been very aggressive," said agent Gregg Clifton. "St. Louis has asked us to get to them when the offers are in. Mark has been on his honeymoon and he's got a decision to make."

Giant-sized pitcher?
Giants manager Bruce Bochy gave David Wells a call right before the team signed Zito to let him know they were still interested in him. Wells, who said he definitely will pitch in '07, has also drawn interest from Philadelphia, San Diego, and Arizona. Don't be surprised if the Mets kick the tires.

Nick Cafardo's e-mail address is cafardo@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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