My shoulders are sore. I’m the poster boy for Absorbine Jr. If Bill Belichick had to put me on an injury report, he’d write: Randy Whitehouse – doubtful (shoulder).

It’s not the weight of the world that’s causing this fatigue, and it’s certainly not because I’ve been working out. I’ve been shrugging a lot lately. I mean a lot. Atlas never shrugged this much. And it’s all because people keep asking me the same question:

“What are the Sox doing?”

Uh, I don’t kno—OWWW!!! Stop asking me that.

Okay, since you asked, here’s what the Red Sox are doing:

•No longer satisfied with trying to beat the New York Yankees on the field, they’re trying to outdo them in fiscal recklessness.

•After one season of the best defensive infield in franchise history, they’ve concluded that you can’t win with defense and dumped the middle of the diamond for more offense.

•Speaking of offense, they’re eagerly fielding offers that are reportedly worth 70 cents on the dollar for someone who they think can’t play in Boston anymore and planning on replacing his bat with somebody who couldn’t handle playing in Los Angeles.

•And to top it all off, they’re this close to alienating an entire foreign country.

At least that’s what I think they’re doing. Your guess is as good as mine, really.

Perhaps we need to wait until more of the pieces start to fall into place to really decipher what Theo Epstein and Co. are trying to accomplish. The reflex is to give them the benefit of the doubt. We are, after all, in only our third off-season since the bliss of the winter of 2004-05.

But there are enough mixed messages and disturbing trends coming out of Yawkey Way to make this an unsettling holiday season in New England.

Not that this is anything new. The Yankees may be the most storied franchise in baseball history, but when it comes to the Hot Stove season, the Red Sox historically have made their rivals seem like a pop-up book. From Harry Frazee to Dan Duquette, the franchise’ decision-makers have consistently turned many an off-season into a study in incompetence, imprudence or insolence.

The Daisuke Matsuzaka saga could boil down to all of the above. It could also end up being a windfall for the Red Sox’ win column and wallet. It’s nice to see that they are willing to scan the globe for pitching help. If signed, Matsuzaka could give the Red Sox a formidable top end of the rotation. If signed, he could also turn into a $90 million bust, too. Hey, it’s not our money though, right?

But if Boston and Matsuzaka don’t reach an agreement, then the Red Sox are in danger of ticking off his homeland, a burgeoning source of talent and revenue, no matter how many Japanese relievers they sign. It will be small consolation that they kept the best pitcher in Japan away from the Yankees for a season, but what good will it do in the long run if New York has a leg up in signing Japanese talent?

I suppose we could take heart that the front office is making pitching a priority. If they can get Jake Peavy from the Padres for Manny Ramirez, all the better, but that doesn’t seem very likely. The latest rumors are that the Red Sox will have to settle for so-so prospects, much like the Yankees got for Gary Sheffield.

The Manny-bashers couldn’t care less what the team gets in return for the future Hall-of-Famer. They’d take nine Trot Nixons over nine Mannys, because Dirt Dogs play the game right, by golly. Apparently, Boston management finally agrees with them and is justifying sending Manny to be Manny somewhere else by starting a whispering campaign with some Boston scribes that he quit on the team down the stretch last season.

To replace Ramirez’s bat, the Red Sox are reportedly close to signing J.D. Drew and his rapidly deteriorating slugging percentage (from .569 to .498 in the last three years). While management is questioning Ramirez’s desire to play after the Yankee sweep last season, Drew has an alarming habit of barely making 100 games every other year. Lest you think that’s just because he’s playing so darned hard all the time, know that people in L.A. think he’s too soft. Yet, Epstein wants to give him a contract that is at least two years longer and almost twice as costly as what’s left on Ramirez’s contract.

At least Drew brings a respectable glove to the outfield, if healthy (get used to that addendum). At the top of Boston’s wish list to replace the best defensive shortstop in franchise history is Julio Lugo, who made 16 errors in 81 games at shortstop for the Devil Rays and Dodgers last season, and 24 and 25 errors the two previous seasons.

Lugo is obviously an offensive upgrade over Alex Gonzalez, but we’re not talking about the gulf between Darren Lewis and Johnny Damon here. I’ve got a hunch that if he’s the Sox leadoff hitter in April, 2007, they’ll be looking for somebody else to bat leadoff by June. And that will be after trying Coco Crisp there again for a few weeks.

The purpose of the off-season is to fill holes, not create them. Yet, that’s typically what this management group has done since the 2004 World Series ended and seems to be doing again.

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for another seven or eight months, but if I’m trading in my Absorbine Jr. for Pepto Bismol by then, all bets are off.


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