LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Boston Red Sox found themselves with a little extra time this October, and they wanted to use it well.

So general manager Theo Epstein set out to project how baseball’s offseason would go – staging mock general manager and winter meetings, complete with members of the team’s front office playing the role of agents and opposing GMs.

“We didn’t make the playoffs this year, so we had more time to plan. We’re pretty happy how things have gone so far,” Epstein said Wednesday, adding with a laugh, “which probably means things won’t work out at all.”

Epstein declined to say who played superagent Scott Boras, with whom the Red Sox have negotiated more than $100 million in deals for outfielder J.D. Drew and shortstop Julio Lugo. Both agreements are on hold until the players pass physicals.

The Red Sox are still talking to Boras about another client, Daisuke Matsuzaka. Boston bid $51.11 million for the right to talk to the Japanese ace, but the sides still have to agree to a contract or Matsuzaka goes back to his team in Japan and the Red Sox keep their money.

And the much-talked-about trade of Manny Ramirez is off again – for now – because the Red Sox couldn’t find a team willing to offer enough and Epstein wasn’t as desperate as other clubs thought to get rid of the perennial All-Star.

Epstein set a soft deadline of Wednesday night to satisfy Ramirez’s equally perennial request to be traded; starting Thursday, the GM said, he will be in “listen-only mode” and focusing on other things. Asked if the possibility of a deal had passed, Epstein glanced at his Blackberry as if to check for recent messages and said, “We’re open to talking to teams and seeing how (it) goes.”

Even without completing deals for Matsuzaka or Ramirez, the Red Sox got a lot done.

After missing the playoffs for the first time in four years, they added Drew to play right field and bat fifth, where he might discourage teams from walking Ramirez. And spending $36 million to put Lugo at shortstop for the next four years solidifies a position that has changed annually since the midseason trade of Nomar Garciaparra in 2004.

“His athleticism shows up often,” Epstein said Wednesday night as the winter meetings wound down. “We think he’s a bit of an underrated defensive player.”

Lugo will also bat leadoff, helping the team in two ways and maybe more: prospect Dustin Pedroia can now ease into the second base job, with Alex Cora there to back him up if needed.

Lugo started the 2006 season with Tampa Bay and was sent to the Dodgers at the trade deadline. He batted .308 with 12 homers for the Devil Rays and .219 without a homer for Los Angeles in the final two months of the season after he was shifted into a part-time role at third base.

“That was totally out of position for him. In a way, it was unfair for him,” Dodgers manager Grady Little said. “Julio Lugo played very well for us when he first joined our club.”

Little also complimented Drew, another former Dodger who agreed to a five-year, $70 million deal with Boston pending a physical. Drew hit .283 with 20 homers and 100 RBIs last season before opting out of the final three years of his five-year, $55 million deal with Los Angeles.

“The year that J.D. Drew had last year speaks for itself,” Little said.

Drew has a laid-back personality that is sometimes interpreted as apathetic. Epstein and Francona grew defensive when asked how he would fit into the passionate Boston baseball scene, but Little was outright dismissive.

The former Red Sox manager, let go after he notoriously decided not to remove Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the 2003 AL championship series against the Yankees, five outs from the World Series, was asked about the pressure Drew might face in Boston.

“No, I’m not aware of that,” Little deadpanned. “Could you tell me a little bit about it?”

AP-ES-12-06-06 2138EST


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