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Sox begin thought process

Email|Print| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / November 9, 2007

ORLANDO, Fla. - With the exception of the Curt Schilling signing, nothing concrete happened at the general managers' meetings this week for the Red Sox, though Theo Epstein took a plethora of ideas back to Boston yesterday.

"It was enjoyable and productive," said Epstein. "We can certainly go on and explore some potential fits, which may or may not lead to possible deals. We were able to meet with a few agents and, most importantly, we were able to move forward with the Mike Lowell negotiations."

It's nice to be the top dog, where you can sit back and listen and not have to pounce impulsively on a deal. That's the luxury of being World Series champion. Yet Epstein has reiterated he doesn't want to sit still.

Here are some issues for Epstein in the coming days:

1) Lowell. Epstein believes daily conversations with Lowell's agents, Sam and Seth Levinson, progressed. Major league sources said the Red Sox could give Lowell a three-year deal, but Lowell's agents believe he can get four years in the $13 million-$14 million annual range on the open market. The Red Sox have wrestled with the length of the deal, and whether Lowell, who turns 34 in February, has peaked offensively. Lowell hit .324 with a career-high 120 RBIs in 2007.

2) Coco Crisp. There was some interest in the center fielder, and in a fertile market, Crisp is playing under a reasonable contract, he's only 28, and he's extremely affordable ($3.8 million in 2007), compared with free agents Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Aaron Rowand, and Mike Cameron (who has to serve a 25-game suspension next season after testing positive for a banned stimulant).

Epstein emphasized the organization will take a patient approach to trades or signings in the offseason, and he will deal Crisp only if he gets top value in return. Epstein believes he can make the Sox outfield work with Crisp, a defensive gem, in the mix, along with Jacoby Ellsbury.

The Astros kicked the tires on Crisp before dealing Brad Lidge to Philadelphia in a five-player swap that included young center fielder Michael Bourn. The Rangers have Gerald Laird to deal and the Sox need a backup catcher. The Orioles, A's, Braves, and Twins have expressed interest, but the Sox might be able to extract much more using Crisp as the centerpiece for a package deal.

3) The Johan Santana-Dan Haren market. A's GM Billy Beane is deciding whether to rebuild or upgrade the current roster. The A's farm system is not deep, so Beane might make Haren, his top starting pitcher, available for two or three top young players. To get Haren or Santana, the Sox would have to be willing to part with Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz, but they won't deal both.

With Crisp and prospects, the Sox could make a megadeal work. Haren is under contract for the next two years with an option for a third that goes from $4 million to $5.5 million to $7.75 million. With Santana, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, the Sox would not only have to give the Twins top talent, but would have to re-sign Santana long term. Twins GM Bill Smith said his first priority is to sign Santana, but if he can't, he'll entertain offers.

4) Non-Lowell market. If things fall apart with Lowell's negotiations, the Sox would have to explore other options. One would be Alex Rodriguez, who would cost the team an enormous amount of money. Epstein has tried to downplay the team's interest, saying his meeting with agent Scott Boras Wednesday night was inconsequential.

The Red Sox could also be a player for 24-year-old third baseman Miguel Cabrera, whom the Marlins likely will not be able to afford.

He's a great hitter (.320 with 34 homers and 119 RBIs and a .401 on-base percentage last season) whom some compare with a young Manny Ramírez. But there are two major concerns: Cabrera is not a good defensive third baseman and he has a weight problem. The Sox could move him to first base because they are confident Gold Glove first baseman Kevin Youkilis could return to third.

5) Sign Terry Francona to a contract extension. It appears Francona's contract situation will be addressed in the next few days.

Francona has won two championships and is in elite company. His contract demands are likely to increase to the upper echelon. A deal upward of $3 million per season with bonuses is not out of the question.

6) Possible long-term deals for Youkilis and Jonathan Papelbon. The Red Sox might be thinking of tying up these two young players at reasonable dollars. They did it with Josh Beckett and Crisp.

7) An extension for Jason Varitek? The captain has one year remaining on his deal, and Boras said it is an issue worth exploring. The catching market is thin and the Sox believe Varitek has some time left behind the plate. His value was never more evident than this season with the work he did handling Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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