Champions' next curse: free agency

With up to 11 headed for exits, Red Sox face some hard decisions once the party is over

October 29, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - The champagne corks were popping and the rap music was blaring inside the Boston Red Sox clubhouse on Wednesday night when team president Larry Lucchino summed up the new world order.

"In the 21st century," he said with a wry smile, "we've got as many world championships as any team in baseball."

True, indeed.

Since 1918, the New York Yankees have 26 world titles to the Red Sox's one.

But since 1999, it's tied at one apiece.

When the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, they swept the St. Louis Cardinals in such convincing fashion it left the rest of Major League Baseball wondering, "What curse?"

Boston grabbed a first-inning lead in all four games and never trailed. In fact, the only time the Cardinals even managed to end an inning tied came in the sixth inning of Game 1. So the Red Sox held a lead after 35 of the 36 innings played.

Today, Boston will hold the victory parade to end all victory parades, and there's no telling how long the euphoria will last.

But the clock is already ticking toward next year. Yesterday was the start of a 15-day window in which teams have exclusive negotiating rights with pending free agents.

At the start of business on Nov. 11, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner will be free to make Pedro Martinez his first offer, the Orioles can float some figures toward Derek Lowe, and the Los Angeles Dodgers can start courting Jason Varitek.

In other words, Red Sox Nation should be obsessing again, any time soon.

Besides Varitek, Martinez and Lowe, the Red Sox have decisions to make on shortstop Orlando Cabrera, infielder Pokey Reese, outfielder Gabe Kapler and about five other potential free agents.

Winning the way the Red Sox did - rattling off eight straight wins against the Cardinals and New York Yankees, who combined for 206 regular-season wins - only heightens the pressure to keep those players.

Lucchino, who ran the Orioles from 1988 to 1993, could actually leave himself. He has been rumored as a candidate to become some part of whatever ownership group takes over the Washington Expos.

For now, he's in a similar position to the one he was in six years ago with the San Diego Padres.

In 1998, the Padres made the World Series as big underdogs only to get swept by the Yankees. San Diego fell in love with that team and passed the referendum that eventually built Petco Park, but it was still a trying winter for the fans.

The team had four big-name free agents. The cash-strapped Padres re-signed Ken Caminiti and Wally Joyner, but let Steve Finley and Kevin Brown walk.

San Diego hasn't been to the postseason since.

But teamed in an ownership group with John Henry and Tom Werner, Lucchino has far more cash to play with in Boston. The Red Sox had a $125 million payroll, second only to the Yankees at $180 million, and it figures to return to a similar level next season.

"I think we'll be strong again next year," Henry said. "We have the resources, and we have a brilliant general manager who's bold as well as brilliant."

At age 30, Epstein is the prince of New England.

On July 31, he was derided for trading franchise shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs in a four-team deal that brought Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz.

"The safe thing to do for the franchise, and frankly for my career, was to not make the deal," Epstein said this week.

But Garciaparra was a pending free agent, and an injured one at that. Cabrera immediately solidified the defense, and after playing .500 baseball for three months, Boston finished on a 53-21 tear, including the postseason.

As the Red Sox celebrated on the field Wednesday, their fans lined the lower bowl of Busch Stadium, where their chants included, "Yankees suck!" and "Thank you Theo!"

The Garciaparra trade proves Epstein isn't afraid to pull the unthinkable, which is why many people close to the Red Sox expect the team to let Martinez and Lowe walk. Their first task will be signing Varitek, who remained the team's heart and soul behind the plate even after his negotiations broke down during spring training.

But Martinez made $17.5 million last year, making him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history, and he acted cryptically throughout the postseason. When he talked about his time in Boston, he spoke in the past tense.

"It's been a great ride," he said after blanking the Cardinals for seven innings in Game 3. "I hope everybody enjoyed it as much as I did. I hope I get another chance to come back with this team, but if I don't ... I just hope people understand that I wasn't the one that wanted to leave."

The next day, Epstein said, "If he wants to come back, we want him back. That said, we're going to build the '05 club the way we did in '04 and '03, and not put one individual ahead of the team."

Epstein already locked up two potential free agents this season, when he gave extensions to David "Big Papi" Ortiz and right fielder Trot Nixon.

Lowe turned down a three-year, $27 million offer during spring training, and it'll be interesting to see if Boston's next offer comes anywhere near that.

No player, not even fellow Scott Boras client Carlos Beltran, raised his free-agent value during October more than Lowe. After posting a 5.42 ERA this season, he wasn't even a part of Boston's original postseason rotation.

But he still found his way to the mound for the clinching games against the Yankees and the Cardinals, going 3-0 with a 1.86 ERA for the month.

So the Red Sox will weigh that performance, knowing the history they know about Lowe, as they consider other free-agent starting pitchers such as Florida's Carl Pavano and Minnesota's Brad Radke.

"I hope we make sound and rational baseball decisions, but we also realize we've got an obligation to the players," Lucchino said, moments before a bottle of champagne was poured over his head. "This is so much fun, we want to be back next year."

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