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Deal in the Red Sox at winter meetings.

Byline: Paul Jarvey

You don't need to watch poker on TV to know that it's never wise to tip your hand.

So, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein wasn't about to do it when he talked to reporters yesterday about baseball's winter meetings, which will start Monday in Nashville.

While the prospect of a blockbuster Johan Santana trade has Red Sox Nation on full alert, Epstein said he is pleased with the club as currently constituted, but is open to any deals that might upgrade the team.

He's going to Tennessee with the stated goals of improving the bullpen and bench, but is willing to swing a much larger deal if the price is right.

"We'll be aggressive as we usually are," Epstein said in a conference call. "Whether or not anything gets done, I wouldn't feel comfortable hazarding a guess."

The Sox and Yankees are both in high-stakes trade talks with the Twins for Santana, the two-time Cy Young Award winner who is under contract only through the end of next season.

There's no question the 28-year-old Santana is one of the elite starters in baseball, but forking over an array of top prospects to the Twins is only half the challenge of bringing him on board.

Santana has a no-trade clause, so the team that acquires him would need to get him to agree to a long-term contract before completing the deal. He's believed to be looking for up to $150 million for six years.

The Sox might be serious in their efforts to get him or they might be bluffing in hopes of driving up the trade price for the Yankees.

In either case, this deal probably won't go down quickly. With both the Red Sox and Yankees involved, it makes sense for the Twins to play one team off the other in an attempt to exact the biggest return possible.

The Twins ace isn't the only hot shot pitcher whose next employer might be determined within the sprawling confines of Nashville's Opryland Hotel.

All-Star Game starter Dan Haren of the Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles left-hander Erik Bedard are also on the block.

"There are a lot of interesting names out there on the trade market," Epstein said. "Whether those players actually get moved remains to be seen. There seems to be more activity in the trade market than most years, at least more chatter."

He expects to fill his bench and bullpen needs with trades rather than free agency, although those transactions may not happen for a while as teams sort out what they have.

Coco Crisp remains a key trading chip for the Sox and has been mentioned in the various packages proposed for Santana. The Twins, who need a center fielder to replace perennial Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter, would rather have wunderkind Jacoby Ellsbury, of course.

Epstein praised Crisp yesterday, saying he emerged in 2007 as a top defender and could be one of the better center fielders in the American League if he were to regain the hitting promise he showed before being traded to the Red Sox two years ago. It's a big "if."

Ellsbury appears to be a more dynamic player and would come with a much lower salary, always an important consideration for the Twins.

The Red Sox have the young talent available to interest the Twins, as do the Yankees, but the question is how much they are willing to give up.

"Our minor league system is as deep as it has been in recent memory - it needs to be," Epstein said.

He said it's important to have good young players continually cycling through the system, both to provide energy and talent to the major league club and to be used in trades.

The Sox have acquired two aces in the last 10 years in a swap for such talent, Pedro Martinez for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. in 1997 and Josh Beckett for Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez two Novembers ago.

This time the price, both in prospects and salary, would be considerably higher.

Epstein doesn't expect any deals to get done before the meetings. Of more immediate concern is today's deadline for offering arbitration to the club's free agents, Mike Timlin, Eric Gagne, Bobby Kielty, Doug Mirabelli and Eric Hinske.

That's kind of dry stuff compared to what might happen in the days ahead.

The Sox seemed to have their major components of their 2008 team in place when they re-signed Mike Lowell last month, but maybe not.

"Baseball can humble you in a hurry, and things can turn around in a hurry," Epstein said. "Just because we're in a good place right now doesn't mean we would ignore opportunities that might make us better both in the short term and the long term. It's our job to explore those opportunities. Whether or not anything happens, I can't tell you."

He's not tipping his hand, just letting everyone know the Sox are definitely in the game.

Unless they're bluffing.




CUTLINE: The prospect of a trade for Johan Santana has Sox fans excited.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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