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Sox pitcher prepares for 'this team's last run'

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Derek Lowe thinks the core of the Red
Sox will be broken up after this season. He just doesn't plan to
dwell on whether he'll be back.

Lowe is one of six key Boston players who can become free agents
after the 2004 season. General manager Theo Epstein has said it's
not financially feasible to keep all of them.

"This is going to be this team's last run," said Lowe, who is
38-15 since he became a full-time starter in 2002. "Who knows
who's coming back?"

The other potential key free agents are pitchers Pedro Martinez
and Scott Williamson, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, catcher Jason
Varitek and designated hitter-first baseman David Ortiz.

"Most teams don't have the core kind of six guys, free agents,
all at the exact same time," Lowe said. "That's what makes it
unique."

Epstein doesn't know which, if any, of them will re-sign during
the season. Lowe, careful not to raise his expectations, isn't
counting on being one of them.

"If something doesn't happen, you're not devastated," he said.
"The big thing is, you have to perform well. If you don't perform
well, you're not helping anybody's cause."

Was it poor planning that gave six players a chance to become
free agents at the same time?

Epstein said some of their contracts were in effect before John
Henry became majority owner after the 2001 season. And Epstein
disagreed with Lowe's prediction that the team's core will be
shattered.

"That's overly dramatic. Baseball teams change every year,"
Epstein said. "The players we have going into the last year of
their contracts by no means have been written off. Many of them are
going to be parts of this team moving forward."

The Red Sox have 11 players signed or under their control
through at least 2005, more than most teams, he said.

Henry also disagreed with Lowe.

"I just can't imagine that that's how things will turn out,"
he said.

Lowe prefers to stay in Boston but said all players would like
to test the free-agent market to determine their worth. Free agents
consider many factors -- location of the team, money, winning -- in
deciding where to play, he said.

Which one is most important to him?

"No comment," he said.

With the acquisition last November of Curt Schilling, Lowe drops
to the third spot in the rotation behind Martinez and Schilling and
thinks it would be difficult financially for the team to keep all
three in 2005.

"I never said that," Epstein said.

Lowe, 30, was traded by Seattle in 1997 and led the AL with 42
saves in 2000. He struggled at times as a reliever in 2001 but
thrived as a starter the past two seasons.

Despite a poor start, he was 17-7 with a 4.47 ERA last season
after missing a month of offseason workouts because of a procedure
to remove cancerous tissue from his nose. He was 6-1 with a 2.91
ERA in his last nine starts.

He's in much better shape now than he was a year ago, he said,
and "I feel this year could easily be my best."

The rotation includes Tim Wakefield and Byung-Hyun Kim. And the
bullpen is solid with Keith Foulke, Alan Embree, Mike Timlin,
Ramiro Mendoza, Bronson Arroyo and Williamson.

"I'm not a huge Red Sox historian, but I think it's got to be
one of the best (Boston pitching staffs) assembled in a long
time," Lowe said.

For at least one more season, he'll be part of it.

"The more you can perform well, the more pressure you put on"
team officials, Lowe said, "but if they opt not to sign you, I
think finding a job next year won't be that hard."