Angel food for thought

And so for the what, fourth, fifth, sixth time, Manny Ramirez has decided he’d be happier elsewhere.

In not much of a surprise, the prolific Red Sox slugger has reportedly informed the team that he’d prefer to be traded, threatening not to show up at spring training if his request is not met. Three months after the “Manny being Manny” trade deadline fiasco, Ramirez has switched his tune yet again.

Whether this is the final straw for Boston remains to be seen.

Even if the Red Sox want to trade Ramirez — and various reports say it’s a divided camp in the front office on this particular philosophy — as a 10/5 man (10 years of service, five with the same team), Manny can veto any deal. His agent came out last week and said that his client, if he were to be traded, prefers his old hometown of Cleveland, and the smog and laid-back attitude of Anaheim.

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Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro pretty much said “fat chance” in not so many words last week. The Angels’ Bill Stoneham, on the other hand, simply responded with a “no comment” since Ramirez is still under contract with another team.

If anything happens, it wouldn’t be for some time to be sure. The Angels are preparing to make a concerted push for free agent World Series champion Paul Konerko, who has said he would prefer to remain in Chicago or sign with a team on the Left Coast. If LA succeeds in landing Konerko, any deal for Ramirez — and the $57 million remaining on his contract — isn’t happening. The Mets likely still remain an option — with Lastings Milledge remaining the asking price for the Sox — but a deal to Queens would depend on Ramirez’s willingness to go, something his agent indicated last week wasn’t in the cards.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently theorized that there’s no way Konerko will re-sign with the Pale Hose primarily due to owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s unwillingness to increase payroll now that he has a title (think Chicago Bulls, post-Jordan). The fact that Konerko wants to train at his home in Arizona might also make the Angels the favorite.

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On the other hand, Konerko’s agent came out and said last week that the Red Sox seem to be a good fit for the first baseman. And yet, if the Red Sox were to trump the Angels and sign the slugger, it could ruin any chance they had at shuffling Ramirez off to Los Angeles.

While Boston would demand young arms in order to give up their biggest offensive threat — Ervin Santana and one of the Angels’ other young blue chips, Joe Saunders, Chris Bootcheck, Steven Shell, and Jered Weaver, are a start — the Angels would surely insist Steve Finley’s $7 million contract or Darin Erstad’s $8.5 million go to the Red Sox to open up some flexibility for Ramirez’s $19 million in 2006. Finley was horrid in 2005, but the Sox might listen about Erstad, who could play first base.

If the Red Sox were to land Konerko, Erstad could still be inserted in center field. Of course, that’s not going to happen if the team re-signs Johnny Damon, a deal that appears likely to get done barring another team blowing Scott Boras out of the water with another offer for more years, and yes, more money. Meanwhile, the whispers surrounding the team that would figure to do that — the Yankees — have quieted down somewhat in recent weeks.

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Mind you, if such a deal is worked out with the Angels, one that will bring two young pitchers in return with Erstad, it will get done this time. And it will be a significant upgrade from the ugly deal that would have brought Mike Cameron and Aubrey Huff to Boston in July. With a pressing need to get younger in the pitching department, such a trade would make sense for the long-term health of the club, despite a base of fans that see trading Ramirez as the worst possible option for the team this winter.

But with Theo Epstein now in place for the next three years following a contract dispute that went down to the wire, 2005-06 will be the most scrutinized winter of the GM’s young career. How he handles the Ramirez situation will be primarily what decides his grade on the offseason report card. David Wells has also reportedly requested a trade, and could be headed back to San Diego in a possible deal that could yield needed bullpen help with the solid arms of Akinori Otsuka or Scott Linebrink, who was absolutely lights out in 2005. Sticking with San Diego, Epstein will likely make a push for free agent Brian Giles, whose .423 on-base percentage was lower than only Todd Helton and Alber Pujols in the National League last season. A left-handed batter, Giles certainly would not solve the problem of finding a right-handed bat to platoon with Trot Nixon in right field, but should the Sox trade Ramirez, he’s a nice fit in left for sure. Epstein is also expected to go after free agent closer BJ Ryan, who should get offers form multiple teams, including the Yankees and Orioles.

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Potentially, the Red Sox might be looking at a starting rotation next season of Curt Schilling, Jonathan Papelbon, Matt Clement, Tim Wakefield, and Ervin Santana. That would allow them to either deal off Bronson Arroyo or insert him in the bullpen, along with the likes of Mike Timlin, Keith Foulke, Ryan, Otsuka/Linebrink, Manny Delcarmen, and Craig Hansen. That is a much younger, yet not totally inexperienced pitching staff, and certainly would figure to be an improvement to the one that struggled mightily in 2005.

Offensively, the Red Sox would take a dramatic hit, as there’s simply nobody out there with which to replace Ramirez. For fun, let’s figure Damon, Edgar Renteria, Brian Giles, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Darin Erstad, Trot Nixon, Kevin Youkilis, and Dustin Pedroia make up the everyday lineup. No, it’s not the dominant offensive force that it’s been the past two seasons. But is it a better team? No matter what kind of offensive force Manny Ramirez is, folks, that is the bottom line. If you trade him, can you make your team better? Will a deal with the Angels, provided they get young pitching in return, make them better?

If the answer is yes, you make the deal. That’s all there is to it.

With the Dodgers in such disarray — Paul DePodesta became the first of baseball’s whiz kid GMs to get the axe — Angels owner Arte Moreno knows that now, more then ever before, is the time to make a splash and put his team in a position as the preeminent baseball franchise in Los Angeles. You probably can’t make much bigger news this offseason than trading for one of the best righthanded bats in the game today.

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Meanwhile, a year after winning it all primarily because their team had the best pitching it’s had in nearly two decades, Red Sox fans continue to be fixated on the loss of offense that trading Ramirez will bring, concerned that Ortiz will become a shell of the player he’s been the past three seasons with a slugger the caliber of Ramirez no longer hitting behind him. That, as well as whom Epstein might get to replace Ramirez, remains to be seen. But still, after decades of trying to win by putting the ball over the wall with teams of righthanded hitters, the Red Sox rewrote the script in 2004. Pitching, as it always does, won the World Series.

Of course, Epstein probably knows what we all assume. Only after working out a deal suitable for both clubs will Ramirez nix said trade as part of his 10/5 rights, deciding he wants to stay in Boston after all. He’ll simply shrug his shoulders with that goofy smile, and insist it’s Manny being Manny yet again.

And suddenly, Mike Cameron might not look so bad after all.