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Looks go way of Bay

Sox aren’t the only team eyeing him

By Nick Cafardo
December 8, 2009

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INDIANAPOLIS - There’s a market for free agent Jason Bay and it’s developing quickly, about as quickly as the trade market for Toronto’s Roy Halladay.

Those seemed to be the developing stories as the first day of baseball’s winter meetings concluded yesterday.

Will there be deals immediately? Only Bay and his agent Joe Urbon and the Blue Jays and Halladay, who has a no-trade clause, know for sure.

If Bay is Boston’s first priority, then Urbon, who is talking to the Red Sox, Angels, and Mariners, indicated the Sox will have to go beyond their initial four-year, $60 million offer. Although it appears Boston will top that, the competition should be fierce from the Angels, who lost third baseman Chone Figgins to the Mariners, and the Mariners, who are looking to add a righthanded-hitting left fielder. If the Cardinals’ talks with Matt Holliday blow up, St. Louis could enter the Bay mix. The Braves, Giants, and Mets could use Bay, as could the Yankees.

Asked whether Bay remains a priority, Sox general manager Theo Epstein said, “Yeah, he’s definitely one of our priorities, certainly. I’m sure it’s something we’ll be spending time on here at the meetings.’’

With obvious competition and Urbon here trying to work out a deal, Epstein couldn’t gauge whether a decision on Bay would happen before the meetings end Thursday. Epstein would not say if he was meeting with Urbon last night. “Would prefer not as then it’s Tweeted and then Tweeted when he’s seen in the lobby,’’ he said. “It’s really kind of meaningless. You can just let it play out.’’

While Boston’s signing of shortstop Marco Scutaro was seen as a vital piece, Bay appears to be next in line in that regard. If not, Epstein believes he has other options, certainly the Scott Boras-represented Holliday or through a trade. But righthanded-hitting outfielders aren’t easy to come by. The most mentioned name is Josh Willingham, whom the Nationals claim won’t be dealt. The Sox think Willingham and lefthanded-hitting Jeremy Hermida would make a good platoon, but that doesn’t seem to be the preferred route.

Sox manager Terry Francona said signing Bay is the preference.

“Well, that and those 37 home runs,’’ Francona said. “That’s why other teams really want him, too. You know, he plays all the time. Really, an understated demeanor. I think he’s very aware of what’s going on, but he doesn’t let it bother him. He’s even-keeled and obviously very likable. That’s why he’s going to get a big contract.’’

Three weeks ago Angels owner Arte Moreno said the team would not pursue Holliday but would have interest in Bay.

Angels general manager Tony Reagins said of Bay, “That’s new and developing. We haven’t had a chance to sit down and really discuss it.’’

The Sox are also exploring pitching possibilities and haven’t ruled out John Lackey, the top free agent starter on the market. The Sox continue to have discussions with free agent Rich Harden and they’re trying to keep alive possible blockbusters with Adrian Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera, whose enormous contract makes him available if the Sox can come up with a decent package to appease the Tigers. Often times, big-market teams such as the Red Sox and Yankees set their sights high and then adjust. The Sox, according to major league sources, are still shooting high on players who can help both offensively and in the bullpen.

The Sox have discussed Braves reliever Rafael Soriano with agent Peter Greenberg, who said yesterday the Sox asked for the reliever’s medical records and cleared him. However, the Sox said they haven’t seen any records.

The point became moot, however, when Soriano accepted Atlanta’s arbitration offer late last night, giving him a non-guaranteed, one-year deal worth approximately $6.5 million.

The Mariners haven’t been shy about going after players. They got their man in Figgins, would love to obtain Bay, and want to sign Lackey, which would complete an impressive offseason. In addition, the Mariners will be interested in Gonzalez, who they came close to trading for at last season’s trade deadline. In many respects, the Mariners remain Boston’s biggest competition.

The Angels, too, remain interested in Lackey, but are reportedly exploring a deal for Halladay.

The Angels could part with a package of catchers Mike Napoli or Jeff Mathis, second baseman Maicer Izturis, third baseman Brandon Wood, and some others. The Sox haven’t closed the door on Halladay, but with the announcement that prized prospect Casey Kelly is being converted to a full-time pitcher, it appears the Sox are more adamant than ever about not including both Clay Buchholz and Kelly in a deal for Halladay. Buchholz is also a favorite of Sox owner John Henry.

Foxsports.com reported the Rays have engaged in talks with Toronto on Halladay and they have the chips from Wade Davis to B.J. Upton to get a deal done. But the only downside is whether Tampa Bay would be able to sign Halladay long term. Whatever team deals for Halladay would have to make that decision early or Halladay likely would exercise his no-trade provision.

Epstein, while not being specific, characterized his first day here as productive. He’s spoken to a lot of agents, one of them Boras, who represents Holliday and third baseman Adrian Beltre, who remains on Boston’s radar.

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

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