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Red Sox land top reliever, set title course

By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / August 1, 2007

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Less than 24 hours after Yankees closer Mariano Rivera uncharacteristically went on the radio and appealed to his employers to get him some bullpen help, the Red Sox substantially upgraded their pen by acquiring closer Eric Gagne from the Texas Rangers, offering him sufficient financial inducement ($2.1 million) to waive his no-trade clause and accept a shared setup role with Hideki Okajima on the Red Sox.

The Yankees, who also had sought Gagne, not only failed to add relief but subtracted a pitcher, Scott Proctor, sending him to the Dodgers for infielder Wilson Betemit. Gagne is expected to arrive in time for tonight's game against Baltimore.

"The bullpen is already a strength of the club," Sox general manager Theo Epstein said yesterday, "but acquiring a pitcher the caliber of Eric Gagne only makes us stronger and helps give us what we hope will be a truly dominant bullpen for the remainder of the year."

The Sox did not come to terms with the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Jermaine Dye, the righthanded bat they were seeking. Epstein was unwilling to give in to White Sox demands for two of the following three players: Sox reliever Manny Delcarmen, Pawtucket reliever Craig Hansen, and Portland starter Justin Masterson, one of the team's rising young pitching prospects. Outfielder Wily Mo Peña also would have been part of the White Sox deal, but not a critical component.

The Sox would have parted with Hansen and Peña, but instead, according to a White Sox source, Chicago elected to try to sign Dye, a pending free agent, to a contract extension. The Red Sox, Epstein said, could still "tweak" their bench in the coming month. Switch-hitting outfielder Bobby Kielty, who had been designated for assignment by Oakland, was given his release yesterday; the Sox could sign Kielty for the pro-rated major league minimum should they decide he is an upgrade over Peña.

Unlike the Yankees, the Red Sox were not even on the list of the dozen teams to which Gagne was willing to accept a trade. But despite Gagne's preference to go to a place where he could close, Epstein decided to pursue Gagne anyway, gambling that the Sox could persuade him to come after a deal was struck. The Rangers found the package assembled by Epstein -- pitcher Kason Gabbard, outfielder David Murphy, and rookie ball outfielder Engel Beltre -- more attractive than anything put forth by the Yankees, whose general manager, Brian Cashman, refused to part with the pitching prospects Texas GM Jon Daniels was asking for in return.

Gabbard, who was 4-0 with a 3.73 ERA, was deemed expendable because of the imminent return of Curt Schilling, who has not allowed a run in 15 innings in three rehab starts for Pawtucket. The key to the deal was Beltre, a 17-year-old outfielder from the Dominican Republic signed last summer by the Red Sox for $700,000, one of the largest bonuses given to a Dominican teenager. Baseball America, not sparing the hyperbole, wrote this winter that Beltre's "lean body and tools have elicited comparisons to Barry Bonds and Darryl Strawberry."

But the Sox judged Beltre, in his first pro season in the United States, worth the acquisition of Gagne, who this season has made an impressive comeback from elbow and back surgeries that had deprived him of the skills that had made him, as Epstein said yesterday, "obviously one of the most decorated closers in memory."

"Most deals we looked at involved losing two or three of our top prospects," Epstein said yesterday. "We gave up a significant package for this guy [Gagne], but it was well worth it. What we were able to protect was pretty important as well."

Gagne gives the Sox considerable depth in a bullpen in which the incumbent closer, Jonathan Papelbon, has been used cautiously this season because of his shoulder injury last September, principal setup man Okajima is on a pace to pitch more innings than he ever did as a reliever in Japan; a third reliever, Brendan Donnelly, revealed yesterday he will need elbow reconstruction surgery; and a fourth, Mike Timlin, has had shoulder problems the last two seasons.

Both Epstein and manager Terry Francona said Gagne will give them the opportunity to afford Papelbon and Okajima more protection, with Gagne getting the occasional save opportunity in situations in which the Sox don't use Papelbon.

"He's been pitching the ninth for his entire career," Papelbon said. "For him to come here and say, 'Yeah, I'll set up for Papelbon, and whenever he goes out there and closes, whenever he needs a day of rest, I'll pick up the ball in the ninth,' I think that's a huge, huge sacrifice for him."

Gagne is a Type A free agent, and if the Sox do not re-sign him, as expected, they will receive a first-round sandwich pick plus a first- or second-round pick, depending on which team signs him. With those draft picks, the Sox hope to recoup some of the talent they lost in this deal.

"No one is untouchable in this organization, including me," Epstein said. "But we try to strike the right balance between aggressively strengthening our club and also preserving the flow of young players we have through our farm system coming to the major leagues, so we can be in a position to win every year. If we had been irresponsible at the trade deadline last year or the year before, I don't think we'd be in first place right now, because of the guys we kept who have made contributions. We hope that's the case every year."

Gagne, who has the best save conversion rate in history among pitchers with at least 180 chances (177 of 184, a 96.2 percent success rate, including a record 84 straight when he was with the Dodgers), had a $6 million base salary, with an additional $5 million in performance bonuses, most based on games finished. The Sox calculated a number -- $2.5 million -- based on how many games finished Gagne would have had had he stayed with the Rangers, with Texas paying $400,000 of that amount, in addition to the performance bonuses Texas already had paid out.

Gagne's agent, Scott Boras, said the lump-sum payment could be interpreted in a number of ways, but essentially was the mechanism to get Gagne to waive the no-trade clause. Gagne embraced coming to Boston, Boras said, for the chance to win, and after receiving assurances he would be able to maintain a closer's routine even if used in the eighth inning, which Boras said, will frequently mean he'll start the inning. "Eric wanted to come into a situation where he would only be a contributor, not a problem," Boras said.

Amalie Benjamin of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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