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12/07/08 9:00 PM EST

Sox ready to 'read and react' in Vegas

Cautious Epstein enters Meetings not wanting to predict outcome

LAS VEGAS -- Now that the Winter Meetings are about to start and decision-makers from all 30 teams will be under one roof for four days, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein hopes to see some clearer signals emerge from the marketplace.

The last few weeks have gone at a plodding pace, though Epstein was able to land talented young reliever Ramon Ramirez in a trade for Coco Crisp, as well as sign Japanese pitching prospect Junichi Tazawa to a three-year contract.

There are still many other items Epstein would like to check off his winter shopping list, such as improving his catching situation (whether Jason Varitek re-signs or not), making a play for a big bat (Mark Teixeira, perhaps?) and trying to acquire another quality starting pitcher.

Can Epstein make some moves in Vegas, or at least lay the groundwork for some?

"It's hard to say," Epstein said. "It's been a slow start to the offseason throughout the industry. We'll have to read and react. Obviously, there are things we'd like to accomplish. There are teams we're talking to, agents we're talking to, but it's hard to dictate or forecast an accurate timeline for you. We'll read and react."

Epstein has no concrete reason why this Hot Stove season has been chilly thus far, but he doesn't sound as if he'll be complaining once the action heats up.

Perhaps one big signing or trade will create a domino effect.

"Things are going to get done this winter," Epstein said. "Something will happen and then other things will happen, so it will seem like there's a cascade effect, or snowballing."

Though the meticulous Epstein is bound to examine the pros and cons of virtually every starting pitcher on the market, this might not be an area where he'll be able to bring home the big fish, be it CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett or even Derek Lowe.

One thing Epstein has been constant about in his time in Boston is his hesitancy to break the bank on long-term deals for starting pitchers.

Daisuke Matsuzaka was an exception two years ago, when the Red Sox shocked the baseball world with a $51.1 million posting fee to the Seibu Lions and then signed the righty for six years at $52 million. Now in his seventh offseason as Boston's general manager, the Matsuzaka signing still represents the only time Epstein invested more than four years (including potential option years) on a starting pitcher.

"We have no hard and fast rules, but I guess you can look at the track record," Epstein said. "We've had one free-agent pitcher get a six-year deal, but he was 26 years old. I think age plays into it as much as anything. Track record, health history, managing risk ... we always try to acquire players who are either entering their prime or in their prime."

Sabathia received a six-year, $140 million offer from the Yankees last month, and he continues to mull it over. Perhaps once the lefty signs with the Yankees or another team, Burnett and Lowe will have a clearer indication of what their price is.

Will it be too rich for Epstein and the Red Sox?

"There are free-agent pitchers we're interested in," Epstein said. "Some are more realistic targets than others. We've worked long and hard trying to build an organization that's not dependent on big free-agent pitching signings. It's not typically a market that we enjoy diving into. That said, there will be pitchers signed to free-agent deals who are worth every penny and more and dominate for years to come, and we're interested in a lot of those pitchers, but we have an approach and will probably stick with it."

Perhaps the Red Sox would be more willing to make a lavish investment in Teixeira, an elite position player who is only 28 years old.

Without question, Teixeira is the most attractive hitter on the market. That especially applies to the Red Sox, since there's no chance Boston will become involved with talks for the other free-agent bopper -- a guy named Manny Ramirez.

Then, there is the catching situation. Even if Varitek does return, he will be 37 in April, and the Red Sox would still like to find his ultimate successor this winter.

Epstein does see a market out there for catchers.

"If you study all the clubs, there are more teams with a catcher to move than one might think or maybe is being represented," Epstein said. "It doesn't mean we've found a way to match up yet -- we haven't. [But] there's probably more teams out there with catching that they can move than anticipated."

How about retaining Varitek and finding a young catcher?

"That's a desirable outcome," Epstein said. "We also have catchers-in-waiting in the Minor Leagues who are talented, but maybe not quite ready to step into a prominent role right now. We'll see. I'm confident that we'll find a way to end up with a reputable catching core that we hope will not only have us set up for 2009, but also in the future."

Another area Epstein will be looking for is a backup outfielder. Perhaps Rocco Baldelli, the Rhode Island native, will be a fit. However, the mitochondrial disease Baldelli had in 2008 caused excessive fatigue, and it's unclear how that will affect him going forward.

As in any Winter Meetings, Epstein will be in full multi-task mode. And if the floodgates finally open on the winter market, he will be ready and waiting to pounce.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.