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Baseball Roundtable at Hot Stove/Cool Music

The following is a story by Ian Browne at on the roundtable discussion featuring Blue Jays GM J.P. Riccardi, Theo Epstein, Ben and Jed, and Peter Gammons at the Paradise in Boston. A good read, and with no other real news, it's worth the look.

BOSTON -- Just hours before this year's National Football League playoffs commenced, roughly 100 certifiable baseball junkies packed into the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on Saturday and interacted in a riveting roundtable discussion with some of the great minds in the game.

The event kicked off this year's Hot Stove/Cool Music festivities, a charitable endeavor that has become a winter staple in these parts for those who share baseball and music as passions.

The concert, in which right-hander Bronson Arroyo and former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein are among those who will perform, is on Sunday night and sold out just minutes after tickets went on sale.

But this year, an intriguing appetizer was added in which fans got to quiz the minds of Epstein, Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, Red Sox co-general managers Ben Cherington and Jed Hoyer, and, naturally, legendary baseball journalist Peter Gammons.

Hot Stove/Cool Music, which raises money for the Jimmy Fund and Epstein's Foundation to be Named Later, was the brainchild of both Gammons and Boston Herald baseball writer Jeff Horrigan.

It was amid this cozy setting that die-hard seamheads ran the gamut on topics, from the upcoming Hall of Fame election to the pros and cons of the World Baseball Classic to the art of building a team to the obvious Red Sox issues of the day, i.e., the status of star slugger Manny Ramirez and the departures of Johnny Damon and Edgar Renteria.

The questions were often as entertaining as the answers.

One fan wanted to know what Epstein would do to fill the current holes of the Red Sox if he still held his title of general manager.

"I'd take a combination of Jed's answer and Ben's answer," quipped Epstein, who remains close with both of his successors. "I guess, from what I understand from talking to these guys, I'd take the exact same approach they are, which is trying to balance the long term interests and short term interests of the club. The long term has really been improved this offseason. Yes, as we sit here in January, there are some holes on the roster, but in talking to these guys, they have three or four different options depending on how the offseason goes. If it were up to me, I'd probably be going about it in a very similar way."

Of course, it was only natural for the question to come up if Epstein thought that one day -- perhaps in the not too distant future -- it might again be up to him in the baseball operations offices on Yawkey Way.

"[Hoyer and Cherington] are two of my closest friends, and two guys without whom I wouldn't have any success as general manager," said Epstein. "I'm very happy for them and proud of them for their recent promotions. So it's natural that we stay in touch. As for the Red Sox, it was flattering that [club president/CEO] Larry [Lucchino] said he left the light on for me. But as I said at the time, I left for reasons, and as I said in the press conference when I left, it's a long life and if those things change and the situation is different, maybe at some point later on it would be possible for me to return to the Red Sox. For now, these guys have certainly moved on. These guys have done a great job."

One issue Cherington and Hoyer are dealing with is the uncertain status of Ramirez, the gifted hitter who requested a trade in October and may or may not still want one, depending on the validity of some recent quotes attributed to Ramirez on the Web site of ESPN Deportes.

"I think the Manny issue, obviously he asked us to explore a trade and we've done that," said Hoyer. "I think that we have no issue whatsoever with Manny coming back. In fact, I think we hope he's our left fielder next year. This is arguably the hardest working player we have. He's the first person to the ballpark every day and he's a very good teammate. We know that if he comes back, he's going to play well and put up roughly a 1.000 OPS this year. The only way we would ever trade Manny is if it was a deal that really set us up for the future. Obviously we haven't gotten that offer at this point. Otherwise, we're excited to have a 1.000 OPS in left field again."

Hoyer also reiterated that the team would not unload David Wells simply because the veteran lefty wants to be traded to a West Coast team.

"We'll talk to teams on the West Coast about David," said Hoyer. "But this is a guy who is as consistent as any player out there. He's a great pitcher in Fenway. He won 15 games for us last year. He's a really good pitcher, so we're not going to give him away because he desires to be on the West Coast. He signed a contract with the Red Sox."

Because of all the other issues that have gone on involving the Sox this winter, there has been very little talk about the crucial matter of closer Keith Foulke attempting to regain his groove in 2006. One fan wanted to know about Foulke's physical and mental well being this winter.

"We believe, physically, he is doing pretty well," Cherington said. "He had his knee cleaned out at the end of the season, and he's been in Phoenix rehabbing and working out. We've been in touch with him. The mental part is harder to answer. Obviously he struggled last year. It's important to remember that he struggled at another point of his career and bounced back and had a very good string of success and had dominant years as a closer after he struggled. He's done that before, and we're optimistic he can do it again."

Some of the most fascinating analysis from Epstein came regarding Renteria, the player he signed to a four-year, $40 million pact in December 2004.

"I think, on the mental side, he had to make an adjustment the way a lot of players make an adjustment going from the National League to the American League and from a mid market to a big market. I think he did make that adjustment throughout the course of the year," Epstein said. "I think that would have been fine in the long run. For me, the big issue was, for whatever reason, he physically wasn't the same player. I don't think he was hurt, but just watching him play every day, that was not the Edgar Renteria that we saw [in the National League]. His arm was a little short last year compared to what it was in the past. His range was short, his mobility. He looked like he had a hard time bending over at times. I felt bad for him. He just wasn't able to go out and do the same things consistently that he had in the past.

"That was going to be tough, to have someone, if he didn't bounce back physically ... everyone gets old at a different point -- I'm not saying he did -- I still think there's a good chance he'll bounce back. ... But avoiding risk that you're going to have someone athletically that might not be up to snuff in the middle of the infield, if you can avoid that risk and at the same time turn it into one of the best prospects in the game, that's certainly a great deal, and I applaud these guys. But I'll take the responsibility.

"Sometimes you can go through the right process and have the right scouts and ask the right questions and get the right answer and think you've found the right fit and sometimes it just doesn't work out. When you're signing free agents, it's dangerous. There aren't too many 26-year-old free agents. Most of them are 30-year-old players. You can sign a contract, and that player might not show up, certainly throughout the length of the contract. I think knowing when to cut your losses and move on is a sign of a smart organization. But it made a ton of sense for John Schuerholz and the Braves, and they're getting a guy who has had success in the past and has already said he's worked harder than ever before this offseason."

Epstein, of course, was not on the clock when Damon made his decision to go to the other side of baseball's most fierce rivalry. Hoyer disputed the notions that the Red Sox didn't want Damon back and that his staff bungled the negotiations.

"I think with every player we have to set a value for that player, both in years and in dollars," Hoyer said. "We had to place a value on him. It wasn't a matter of wanting Johnny back. If he had accepted our offer, we would have been very excited to have him back. The [prevailing] notion is that everything is about the 2006 season. We're thinking about the last year of that deal just as much. We did set a price, and we stuck on that price. We stuck on that price because that's what we thought he was worth to the Red Sox. That doesn't mean he's not worth a lot more to other teams. The sentiment that we bungled the negotiations I think is something that's pretty unfair given how much contact [talks] we had with Scott [Boras]. When we found out or didn't find out [that Damon was going to the Yankees] is pretty irrelevant."

There was also some engaging "inside baseball" talk.

Epstein was asked if he agreed with a theory in a recent book that Boston's epic comeback from 3-0 in the 2004 American League Championship Series revolved around the team's ability to dominate the strike zone, beginning with Game 4.

"Yes and no. In any baseball game, in any series or season, if a player controls the strike zone well, a pitcher or a hitter, that's going to lead to good results," said Epstein. "But after we got blown out in Game 3 and we're down 3-0, our players were -- for whatever reason -- they were so relaxed prior to Game 4, they went back to being the type of hitters that they normally were. As you know, that team was full of hitters, 1-9, that could control the strike zone without even thinking about it. That led to better at-bats, especially later in the game against Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera -- we made them throw a ton of pitches. Unlike Games 1 and 2 and the blowout in Game 3, guys were relaxed and went back to playing their game."

Ricciardi's thoughts on controlling the strike zone?

"I think the greatest words in baseball are strike one and the second greatest words are strike two," said Ricciardi, the Worcester, Mass., native who has had a highly productive offseason revamping the Blue Jays. "It's important that you do throw strikes. I think if you do it at a younger age, it helps as you get older."

What are some of the less obvious ingredients that Hoyer and the Boston front office look for in a player?

"In terms of pitching, one thing we look at a ton is strikeout rate," Hoyer said. "To have the ability to make teams miss is very important in our division. That's something we look at pretty carefully."

And what about the Hall of Fame voting, which will be announced on Tuesday?

Gammons thinks Bruce Sutter will gain entry. While he believes that Jim Rice should be in the Hall of Fame, Gammons was unsure if Rice could get the necessary 75 percent of the votes.

"I think this is obviously the last window for Rice because next year you have [Cal] Ripken and [Tony] Gwynn and maybe [Mark] McGwire," said Gammons. "When you open up the baseball encyclopedia, how many times is that guy's numbers in boldface? Rice has a lot of boldfaced numbers in that career. The problem is that, to a lot of voters, his career ended pretty quickly. I'm hopeful, but I'm not sure. I'm a little skeptical in him making it."

There also was some good debate about the World Baseball Classic, which begins in March.

"I think the concept is good; I think the timing is bad. And Roy Halladay won't be going," dead-panned Ricciardi, sending laughter throughout the room.

"I think I can probably answer it most honestly since I'm unaffiliated and unemployed. I would freak out," said Epstein. "To see a starting pitcher have to crank up his routine a month early and then to go out and pretend he's not going to make a big deal of it and all of a sudden, there are two outs in the ninth and the go-ahead run on second base, and he's got to reach back. And then you know that eight months later he might have to reach back in the World Series."