Red Sox keep options open

In Boston, the handwringing over potential free agents traditionally begins a year early. It happened with Roger Clemens and it happened with Mo Vaughn.

Now, it's happening with Nomar Garciaparra, too.

The Red Sox shortstop will be eligible for free agency after next season, some 11 months from now. But in fretful Red Sox Nation, that's tantamount to next week.

Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino confirmed this week that the club had had discussions with Garciaparra's agent, Arn Tellem, but no substantive talks have taken place since the two sides met last spring.

At that time, the Red Sox and Garciaparra got an idea of their respective positions: Garciaparra was looking for something just south of Derek Jeter's $18 million average annual value (AAV); the Red Sox were more in the neighborhood of $14 million or so.

This winter will give them a bit of a road map as two other elite shortstops hit the market. Miguel Tejada, a former AL MVP, is a free agent as is Kaz Matsui, a Japanese star intent on following Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui (no relation).

Once they sign, the Sox will have a better indication whether the market is, as they forecast, in the midst of a correction period and Garciaparra will have a far better idea as to his relative value.

Between now and the end of next season, there are four scenarios that could play out.

1. Garciaparra is traded before spring training
Two things would have to happen here: The Sox must be convinced that they can't possibly sign Garciaparra to a new deal, and someone must offer a fair package in return.

To date, the Sox aren't convinced of the former. While Garciaparra has made comments to teammates that he finds the media coverage of the Sox intrusive and distracting, he's yet to publicly or privately say what many presume: that he would rather play in his native southern California.

What little interest Garciaparra attracted at the recent GM meetings was not anywhere near tempting enough for Red Sox management.

While some see the Dodgers as the perfect fit -- in terms of need, geography and resources -- the pending sale of the club has hamstrung efforts to acquire players with substantial salaries.

If the Sox were able to move Manny Ramirez for Alex Rodriguez -- a deal they would make tomorrow if only the Rangers would -- that would hasten the need to move Garciaparra. But that swap isn't likely, either.

Moreover, while Garciaparra's $11.5 million salary for 2004 isn't as off-putting as some of the other stars being shopped this winter, it's not chump change, either. And $11.5 million is a significant roll of the dice for teams looking to rent a player for a single year.

2. Garciaparra agrees to a contract extension
Timing will play a role here. Negotiations can't get going until Tejada and Matsui agree to terms, giving the Sox and their shortstop some parameters for a new deal to take place.

Given all that's on the Sox's "To Do" list -- determine the future status of Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek, and Trot Nixon; continue to see if they can rid themselves of Ramirez; upgrade the pitching staff; and find a second baseman -- they aren't about to get bogged down on any one negotiation.

Talks could heat up during spring training, but it's unlikely that there will be any sense of urgency for either side.

3. Garciaparra is traded during the season
For this, the most unlikely of all scenarios, the Sox would have to fall victim to injuries and then, fall completely out of contention.

Given the core of their club, it's hard to imagine a healthy Red Sox club not being, at the very least, in the wild-card hunt by the end of July.

Were that to occur, and the Sox felt Garciaparra had overpriced himself, they might look to get the best deal available for him by sending him to a contender for a two-month rental.

4. Nothing
This, strangely, is the most likely set of circumstances.

While the Sox expect signings to continue to spiral downward, Garciaparra and Tellem are just as likely to make the case that Garciaparra belongs to an elite class of players whose worth isn't affected by market trends -- as was the case with Jim Thome last winter.

At odds over his value, the two sides agree to talk again at the end of next season.

Despite the franchise's poor track record of retaining its own big free agents (Vaughn, Clemens, et al), general manager Theo Epstein doesn't view this scenario as a risk.

For one thing, the Sox will have (at least) one more season out of Garciaparra. For a team that finished five outs shy of a World Series appearance, that's not an unappetizing possibility.

For another, Epstein doesn't subscribe to the theory that the Sox risk losing him "for nothing." In addition to another (presumably) productive season from Garciaparra, the Sox would still have the opportunity to revisit contract talks, without having suffered through the distraction of ongoing inseason talks.

And, should Garciaparra leave, the Sox would be compensated with a draft pick while freeing up $11.5 million that could be allocated to next year's free-agent class.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.