DALLAS (AP) – The Boston Red Sox once offered Manny Ramirez – for free – to any team that would claim him. They were willing to take on most of Alex Rodriguez’s record contract just to unload the enigmatic but productive outfielder.

But when the Red Sox arrived at baseball’s winter meetings on Monday, they insisted they were not desperate to trade the only World Series MVP in franchise history.

“We’re talking about a premier hitter in the prime of his career,” said Craig Shipley, one of four Red Sox executives talking trade in the absence of a full-time general manager. “That’s a lot of offense to replace. It’s not easy.”

The Red Sox returned to Dallas to undo the deal they made here five years ago, when they gave Ramirez the richest contract in franchise history. The $160 million, eight-year deal left both sides with regrets: Ramirez complained after the very first year that he was uncomfortable in the Boston spotlight, and the Red Sox have tried to get out from under an above-market contract signed in baseball’s free-spending days.

Ramirez has asked to be traded annually, though the team has taken his request more seriously this time. But finding a match for a likely Hall of Famer with a hefty contract isn’t easy.

“You’re not going to get value in any way, shape or form,” said Bill Lajoie, an adviser to Theo Epstein who has been the team’s point man since the wonderboy GM walked away on Halloween. “This is an A-1 hitter and you’re not going to get an A-1 player that somebody is going to give you. So if you trade him, you’re not going to get the same value, man for man, and sometimes four players don’t even add up to one.”

Complicating matters is the fact that Ramirez has the right to veto any trade. He has said he would only consider a few teams; those in small markets can’t get involved because of the size of his contract.

The team has also considered whether Ramirez’s departure would hurt the production of No. 3 hitter David Ortiz, who was runner-up in the AL MVP voting last year. And Lajoie balked at – but did not rule out – the idea of paying part of Ramirez’s contract just to unload him.

“You’re going to pay another team to have that player beat you?” Lajoie said. “That doesn’t make sense, does it?”

On other matters, the Gang of Four said:

-They don’t expect a new general manager to be named by the end of the meetings. “We’re operating under that assumption,” assistant GM Jed Hoyer said.

-David Wells, who has asked to be traded closer to his West Coast home, is in the same situation as Ramirez. “To trade David, we’d have to get a deal that’s good for the Red Sox,” Shipley said.

-They have investigated the market for closers in case Keith Foulke struggles again.

The braintrust met with eight teams – splitting up at one point when they were double-booked – to discuss trades. The Red Sox need to replace first baseman Kevin Millar, second baseman Tony Graffanino and Foulke.

They might also need to replace outfielder Johnny Damon. The team is expected to meet with Damon’s agent, Scott Boras, before leaving Dallas – perhaps as early as Monday night.

“We got a lot thrown at us today,” Lajoie said, adding that the Ramirez talks did not dominate the work. “Pretty much the purpose today was to look into filling our holes, rather than perhaps creating one.”

AP-ES-12-05-05 2146EST

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