Red Sox Retrench After Empire Strikes Back


Let’s see, you try to sign Cuban defector Jose Contreras and trade for Bartolo Colon and end up getting whacked in the head by that Evil Empire -- as your boss described it -- that lurks in the Bronx. This is after your attempts to sign Jeff Kent and Edgardo Alfonzo, among other free-agent and trade objectives, had been rejected and before you generated an industry buzz with a perceived violation of the “gentleman’s agreement” among the 30 clubs not to make waiver claims on players -- Kevin Millar in this case -- who have agreed to contracts in Japan.

It would seem to have been a school of hard knocks for Yale graduate Theo Epstein in this first semester as the Boston Red Sox’ general manager and baseball’s youngest GM at 29, but then what is youth if not resilient and optimistic?

In Epstein’s view, as related by phone, it has been a busy, interesting and productive winter -- productive in that “we have a better team right now than the team that won 93 games last year, we’ve lowered the payroll $17 million, we haven’t given up any of our best young players and we’ve accumulated four draft choices before the third round [of the June selections].


“We have a plan and we’re sticking to it,” he said. “We’ll only go so far to make a good deal, and we have the confidence to walk away.”

The Red Sox didn’t walk away from either Contreras or Colon, two pitchers they felt would have significantly enhanced a rotation led by Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe.

Epstein even flew to Managua, Nicaragua, for the negotiations with Contreras, and Boston’s international scouting director, Louie Eljaua, even put down his credit card on every room in the small hotel in which Contreras was staying, forcing scouts and officials from the dreaded New York Yankees to stay elsewhere. It didn’t stop the Yankees, who signed Contreras to a four-year, $32-million deal, and there were immediate reports that a petulant and frustrated Epstein smashed windows and furniture in his hotel room, a reaction he and others have strongly denied.

What is certain is that Red Sox President Larry Lucchino, reacting to the Yankees’ signing of Contreras, Japanese outfielder Hideki Matsui and Roger Clemens for $63.1 million, described the Yankees as the Evil Empire, which, of course, was probably the wrong thing to do.

George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, laced into Lucchino, calling him baseball’s leading chameleon for the way he changes colors depending on whether he’s working for a big- or small-market team.

And Yankee President Randy Levine responded with a series of conference calls in which he said clubs should stop whining about what the Yankees are doing because the Yankees are following the rules, paying the luxury tax and doling out millions of dollars in revenue sharing and “if other owners may not feel it’s as important to win or to fill their seats or to appeal to their ticket buyers, that’s OK, but don’t criticize us. The Yankees are about winning.”


The Red Sox and their beleaguered nation know that all too well, and what they know now as well is that Steinbrenner wasn’t going to let it end with the exchange of words.

No one will say this officially, of course, but the Yankees became determined to prevent their division rival from obtaining Colon, a 20-game winner whom the Montreal Expos were being forced to trade to satisfy a payroll established by the commissioner’s office as de facto owner.

(It apparently had never occurred to Bud Selig and his constituents that if the Expos had been allowed to keep their promising nucleus intact and marginally inflate the payroll it might have come back to the other clubs in the form of increased interest in Montreal and increased attendance on the road. At this point, however, that’s merely another sorry story.)

Having lost Contreras, and been caught in the Lucchino-Steinbrenner crossfire, Epstein estimates that in differing permutations he made at least 50 trade offers to Montreal General Manager Omar Minaya for Colon, tried to involve at least 10 clubs in three-way deals, ultimately refused to part with young pitcher Casey Fossum, and frustratingly saw Colon leave in a three-way trade in which the Yankees were definitely a player.

The essentials in the trade that came down Tuesday were that the Expos ended up with Yankee starter Orlando Hernandez, Chicago White Sox pitcher Rocky Biddle and enough cash to pay the salary of arbitration-eligible Hernandez, the White Sox landed Colon to go with 19-game winner Mark Buerhle, and the Yankees obtained White Sox reliever Antonio Osuna to help replace Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza.

It was a trade that helped everyone except the Red Sox, an aspect that Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman insisted was only a “fringe benefit” -- this while a headline in the New York Daily News screamed: “Evil Empire makes sure Colon’s new Sox aren’t Red”.


Via phone, Epstein refused to inflame the Evil Empire rhetoric. He described the Yankees as a tremendous adversary that has raised the bar, providing the Red Sox with a model for developing from within while using their unrivaled financial resources to enhance the core.

“I’m not going to speculate on their motivation [in the Colon trade], but I don’t think it had anything to do with us,” he said. “The success they’ve enjoyed has come from focusing on their own club.”

Epstein is left to focus on his own, as well. Contreras and Colon are gone. Alfonzo and Kent signed elsewhere. Cliff Floyd did not accept arbitration and left as a free agent. Epstein has acquired Todd Walker to play second base and Jeremy Giambi and Bill Mueller to strengthen the bench. He has allowed closer Ugueth Urbina to leave as a free agent and rebuilt a bullpen that will try to survive by committee.

The hole left unfilled by Contreras and Colon will probably remain so until spring training.

Epstein is currently trying to sign former Minnesota designated hitter David Ortiz and disengage Millar, who would play first base, from a two-year, $6.2-million contract he has agreed to with the Chunichi Dragons, who paid the Florida Marlins $1.2 million for his rights.

The Marlins had to put Millar on waivers to clear their roster, which is where Epstein claimed him, violating the industry’s unwritten agreement against claiming players headed to Japan.


Epstein was reluctant to discuss a situation that remains ongoing. He said only that he had previously discussed a Millar trade with the Marlins, that the claim was the only way to demonstrate continued interest, and that the Marlins, Dragons and Millar would be fully compensated if Millar -- who batted .306 with 16 home runs and 57 runs batted in last year -- joins the Red Sox.

Industry sources said Saturday that the commissioner’s office may be looking into the situation, although it wasn’t clear on what basis and it remained uncertain if Chunichi would let Millar out of his agreement, even if the Red Sox sent cash and Benny Agbayani in his place.

For the highly regarded Epstein, who grew up in the suburban shadow of Fenway Park, it is the continuation of a cram course as GM in a long-frustrated and unforgiving market.

He said he is aware that Red Sox Nation wants what it wants when it wants it, but he has to remember that Martinez, Lowe, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon are all eligible for free agency after the 2003 season and that this wasn’t the time to go beyond what the club could afford in offers to Alfonzo and Kent, for instance, or burden the payroll with albatross-type contracts just to make himself look good to whatever doubters there are.

“The easiest thing would have been to give in to the demand and sign a bunch of big-name guys, but this isn’t about me or self-gratification,” he said. “I have to be the caretaker.

“The Red Sox have tried the quick fix and reactive approach before and it hasn’t worked. Look at what the Angels accomplished with a nucleus of home-grown players. Look at how the successful Red Sox teams of ‘67, ’75 and ’86 were built.


“We have star power. We lacked quality depth, and that’s what we’ve tried to accomplish without sacrificing our best young players.”

All while keeping a wary eye on the Evil Empire.

Market Freeze

Friday’s deadline for clubs to exchange salary figures with arbitration-eligible players provided another illustration of the generally cold market. Only 35 players -- the lowest total in 15 years and less than half of the 72 who were eligible -- exchanged figures.

The conclusion is that many arbitration-eligible players had been released by their clubs in December and many others, concerned about the market, had already re-signed with their clubs, accepting figures closer to management’s thinking.

Forty-two arbitration-eligible players signed in a three-day span through Friday, with the biggest winners on Friday’s deadline for the exchange of figures being Torii Hunter, the Minnesota center fielder who received a four-year, $32-million contract; Danny Graves, the Cincinnati closer turned starter who got a three-year, $17.25-million contract, and Kevin Millwood, the pitcher Atlanta traded to Philadelphia in an acknowledged salary dump. Millwood received a one-year, $9.9-million contract.

Of the 35 players who exchanged figures with their clubs, the most noteworthy was Greg Maddux. The Atlanta pitcher, coming off a five-year deal that averaged $11.5 million, filed at $16 million compared to $13.5 million offered by the Braves. If they are unable to resolve the $2.5-million difference -- the largest among exchanged figures -- a three-man arbitration panel will choose one or the other number at a hearing in February.

Dog Days

Aren’t the San Diego Padres exposing themselves to a lot of cruel puns and witticisms as they close in on a 20-year, $60-million-plus naming rights deal for their new ballpark, opening in 2004.


It is expected to be named Petco Park. Not a bad deal for a team without much pedigree.