Just 17 months later, Sox hard to recognize

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FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) – The 2004 World Series trophy has a permanent home in Fenway Park. Most of the Red Sox players who won it already are gone.

Seventeen months after becoming champions, only nine players from that team appear certain to be on this year’s opening day roster. Why such a shakeup, especially since the last time Boston won the title it parted with a key contributor – Babe Ruth – 16 months afterward and didn’t win another one for 86 years?

Why tamper with success?

“Usually teams that win still have holes,” reliever Mike Timlin said. “People want to make a good thing better. That’s just the nature of America.”

Older players whose contracts run out command more money than the Red Sox want to pay (Johnny Damon, now with the New York Yankees) or decline in performance (Kevin Millar, now with Baltimore). Young players develop to the point where they deserve to be in the majors (pitcher Jon Papelbon).

Starting pitchers find better free agent deals elsewhere (Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez after brilliant outings in the 2004 World Series) or have reasonable contracts that make them good trade material (Bronson Arroyo).

“I have enormous respect and admiration for the members of our 2004 club,” general manager Theo Epstein said, “but things don’t stay exactly the same for long in life, let alone in baseball. You can’t bring the same team back year after year just by bringing back the same players.”

Arroyo is the most recent Red Sox champion to leave, going to Cincinnati in a trade for 24-year-old outfielder Wily Mo Pena, a raw talent with exceptional power. That left Boston with Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield as the only regular starting pitchers from the 2004 team that swept St. Louis in four games.

“I talked to Millar yesterday,” the popular Arroyo said the day after he was traded. “That’s all we talked about is how there’s probably 30 of us that were at some point on the team, or maybe a couple more in 04, and there aren’t very many guys left.

“But personal feelings don’t matter. It’s about making money and it’s about having the best team that you think can win on the field.”

Boston used 51 players in 2004 – eight of them for three games or less. Only 13 are still in the organization.

Two of them, pitchers Abe Alvarez and Phil Seibel, were sent to the minors during spring training, and a third, lefty Lenny DiNardo, could make the opening day roster. A fourth, outfielder Gabe Kapler, is recovering from a ruptured left Achilles tendon.

The nine players from the 2004 team certain to start the season with the Red Sox, barring injury, are pitchers Timlin, Schilling, Wakefield and Keith Foulke, designated hitter David Ortiz, catcher Jason Varitek, outfielders Manny Ramirez and Trot Nixon and first baseman Kevin Youkilis.

The Red Sox were swept in the 2005 AL division series by the Chicago White Sox. Other recent champions also declined after making wholesale changes, although none had fewer returnees than Boston 17 months later.

Arizona won the title in 2001, then used 16 of the same players in 2003 when it finished third in the NL West. Anaheim won the title in 2002, then used 20 returnees on the 2004 team that was swept by Boston in the AL division series.

Florida won in 2003 and had 13 players back in 2005 when it finished third in the NL East. Three of them – Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Alex Gonzalez – joined the Red Sox after last season.

“In this game of baseball, you never know what’s going to happen,” said right fielder Nixon, entering his eighth full season with Boston. “You just take it in full stride and go out there and don t change the way you play.”

The trade for Pena, who figures to platoon in right field this year, leaves Nixon’s future in question. He can become a free agent after this season.

“Players get older; players get hurt; players get more expensive,” Epstein said of his team-building approach. “It’s important to keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future in putting together a roster. Branch Rickey articulated it sixty years ago and it’s still true today.”

AP-ES-03-24-06 1310EST

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