Boston looks back, ahead; Feeling chagrined, Duquette, Williams start adjusting focus; 'A lot to be proud of'; GM points to errors, says core will return

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ideally, Dan Duquette would like a little more power in the Boston Red Sox's lineup, preferably from an experienced hitter, but he said it's unlikely the Sox will be very active in the free agent market. Jimy Williams mentioned that, for him, pitching is always the key.

But yesterday, in the aftermath of the Red Sox' elimination from the playoffs, the general manager and manager were caught between looking ahead to the 2000 season and back at the improbable season just completed.

"We have a lot to be proud of, a lot to build on," said Duquette, who held an impromptu press conference late yesterday morning at Fenway Park, in part so he could personally thank the team's fans on the noon TV news spots.

"We had the All-Star Game, the All-Star MVP in Pedro Martinez, and we had a chance to play in the American League Championship Series. We'd like to be the celebrating team. There's a little more work to do, but we're getting closer and closer."

Duquette, wearing a sweater bearing the logo of the Yokohama Bay Stars, the Japanese team from which the Sox acquired top pitching prospect Tomokazu Ohka, said he believed the Sox would still be alive in the playoffs if they'd played better defense.

"If we caught the ball, we'd still be playing," he said. "We needed to make fundamental plays to win."

Instead, the Red Sox made 10 errors, an LCS record, a fatal flaw in a series in which two Yankee wins were decided by one run and the other two were close until the late innings.

Duquette said the core of this team will be returning. He mentioned not only the usual suspects -- Nomar Garciaparra, Troy O'Leary, Pedro Martinez and Jose Offerman -- but also John Valentin, whose subpar regular season, plus the performance of rookie Wilton Veras, has led to speculation that the Sox will try to trade their veteran third baseman, who has two years left on a contract that pays him $25 million for four years.

Valentin's terrific performance in the postseason could work in one of two ways: Either it guarantees his return next season or it increases his trade value.

"It would be nice to get the type of production he gave us during the postseason during the regular season," Duquette said of Valentin, who expects to have surgery beneath his left kneecap this winter. "That would be a big plus for the team."

Asked if he could explain the disparity, Duquette said, "I don't have an answer for that right now."

Unlike last offseason, when the Sox endured the loss of Mo Vaughn to free agency, the only position player who will walk after this season is Reggie Jefferson, whom the Sox will make no attempt to re-sign.

Jefferson, who signed a two-year, $6.6 million extension during the '97 season, didn't expect to come back even before being left off the roster for the Division Series.

The Red Sox have decisions pending on three players. They have the right to exercise a $3 million option on the contract of pitcher Pat Rapp and the $2 million (plus $450,000 in incentives met) on lefty reliver Rheal Cormier.

Pitcher Kent Mercker, meanwhile, has the right to exercise a $1.75 million option on his contract for next season.

Duquette said those decisions must be made within 10 days of the end of the World Series. Indications are that the Sox will keep Cormier and let Rapp become a free agent, while Mercker will try to find a National League team willing to pay him more than $1.75 million.

The team also has five arbitration-eligible players in DH Butch Huskey, outfielder Damon Buford, catcher Scott Hatteberg, and pitchers John Wasdin and Rich Garces. The latter three aren't likely to make a killing in arbitration; Hatteberg was hurt most of the season, Wasdin was up and down, and Garces was paid just over the minimum.

Huskey, who was paid $1.5 million last season, could come close to doubling his salary based on his numbers in 1999, but probably will still be invited back. Buford, who was paid $1.1 million, can expect a hefty raise, though the Sox might deem him expendable if they add a better-hitting alternative who could make Darren Lewis or Trot Nixon the fourth outfielder.

The Sox already have $16.25 million committed to the Martinez brothers, Pedro ($11 million) and Ramon ($5.25 million), for next season. Bret Saberhagen, who expects to have arthroscopic surgery to clean out his right shoulder, also will be back, and a number of younger pitchers -- Ohka, Brian Rose, Juan Pena -- are expected to compete for spots in the rotation.

In limbo is Tim Wakefield, who has never been a favorite of pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and who was left off the ALCS roster. Wakefield is due to be paid $4.5 million next season, with a club option of $5 million in 2001, but talks of a contract extension have been tabled.

Meanwhile, they've also committed $7.5 million to two closers of suspect health: Rod Beck ($3.5 million) and Tom Gordon ($4 million). Beck, who gave up two home runs in the ALCS to Bernie Williams and Ricky Ledee, clearly hasn't recovered from May elbow surgery; Gordon, who missed most of the season with a partially torn ligament, anticipates an operation.

Their presence on the roster would seem to preclude the Sox from making Derek Lowe their closer. Lowe says he would prefer starting to being a setup man, while Kerrigan said his thought for the moment is that the Sox are better served with Lowe pitching 70 times a season instead of 30.

How much, Williams was asked, have the Sox closed the gap with the Yankees, who are going to the World Series for the third time in four years?

"I don't know," he said. "They beat us four out of five. Next year, we all start 0-0. We closed the gap this year, but does it mean we'll close the gap next year? And you can't eliminate the other teams in our division.

"That team north of the border (Toronto) has good young players. Baltimore on paper has an outstanding club."

Close to the Yankees?

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