NEW YORK – The pitcher who burned the Yankees in the 2003 World Series appears close to going to their biggest rival as the Red Sox Monday night neared a deal for hard-throwing righty Josh Beckett of the Florida Marlins.

Two baseball officials said the Sox would be the first beneficiaries of the latest Florida fire sale, swapping two of their best prospects and perhaps another minor-leaguer for Beckett, who beat the Yankees in Game 6 of the 03 Fall Classic with a five-hit shutout that made the Marlins champs. The Red Sox, who were close to pulling off the deal despite not having a general manager since Theo Epstein bolted, also would have to take the contract of pricey third baseman Mike Lowell.

The Yankees apparently had a chance to bid for Beckett when the Marlins called them yesterday, according to three other baseball executives. But the Yanks did not want to part with Chien-Ming Wang or Robinson Cano, both of whom the Marlins asked for and the Yanks have vowed not to trade. At one point, Florida wanted Wang, Double-A infielder Eric Duncan and a third prospect, one official said.

The Yankees also did not want to absorb the $18 million owed Lowell over the next two years, the same official said. “They (the Marlins) called everybody, but you had to take Lowell and give up substantial prospects, too,” the official said. “The Yankees can’t take on $18 million and a player that doesn’t fit (Lowell) when they’re trying to cut some payroll and still have needs in center field and the bullpen.

“They (the Yankees) would’ve loved to be in this, but under those criteria, it doesn’t make much sense.”

The Marlins, who want to slash their payroll below $50 million, were prepared to expand the deal with the Yankees to include Luis Castillo and Juan Pierre for Wang, Cano, Duncan and another prospect, an executive said. But that would have meant the Yanks would have to take on additional payroll – Pierre and Castillo combined to make nearly $9 million last season.

Yanks GM Brian Cashman did not return a call seeking comment, but other baseball officials said the Yanks had concerns about Beckett’s health. He has been on the disabled list seven times in the last four years, most often for blister problems.

But Beckett is only 25. He was 15-8 last year with a 3.38 ERA and is 41-34 with a 3.45 ERA in five major league seasons. His performance in the 2003 post-season proved he can pitch on big stages.

After talking seriously with the Rangers over the weekend about a trade for third baseman Hank Blalock and a pitching prospect, the Marlins called Texas officials yesterday and told them they preferred the Red Sox package, which includes shortstop Hanley Ramirez, Boston’s top prospect, and righthander Anibel Sanchez. The teams were still negotiating over money and the third player Monday night.

Beckett will slot into a Red Sox rotation that includes Curt Schilling, Matt Clement, Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo. The Red Sox likely will trade David Wells this winter. Even though Lowell had a subpar season in 2005 with a .236 average, eight homers and 58 RBI, he was one of John Henry’s favorite players when Henry owned the Marlins.

Lowell likely will be the Sox’s third baseman, meaning free agent Bill Mueller won’t be re-signed. Lowell’s career could be salvaged in Boston because he’s a righthanded pull hitter, one official said. “Yankee Stadium would’ve been the worst place for him to play,” the official said.

Ramirez, who turns 22 in December, should win the Marlins’ shortstop job, so Florida likely won’t re-sign its own free agent, Alex Gonzalez. Ramirez hit .271 with six homers and 52 RBI for Boston’s Double-A team last season and has a .302 career average in the minors.

Ramirez has been the most sought-after Red Sox prospect and last year was the sticking point in a three-way deal between Boston, the Mets and the Devil Rays that would’ve landed Manny Ramirez in New York. The Sox didn’t want to part with Hanley Ramirez, who would’ve gone to Tampa, and the trade was scuttled.

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