Opening ceremonies are only two days away, when baseball's general managers and other key team personnel begin to schmooze down in Nashville, where the MLB winter meetings begin. But as he arrives to meet with his peers, the pressure on Red Sox GM Theo Epstein is every bit as great as it was a year ago.

Opening ceremonies are only two days away, when baseball's general managers and other key team personnel begin to schmooze down in Nashville, where the MLB winter meetings begin. But as he arrives to meet with his peers, the pressure on Red Sox GM Theo Epstein is every bit as great as it was a year ago.

It's true that Epstein doesn't have as many key shoes to fill as last off-season, when he completed several major signings at or around this time, including Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, Hideki Okajima and Julio Lugo.

But Epstein is still under the gun, his most pressing chore being the chase of Minnesota left-hander Johann Santana. To get that accomplished, he's going to have to part with several promising young players who'll be very difficult to lose. While this is happening, Epstein still has to come to a new contract agreement with the 2006 Cy Young Award winner. 

But wait, there's more! The Sox still have to flesh out their roster, whether it be with returning free agents such as Eric Hinske, Doug Mirabelli, Bobby Kielty and Mike Timlin, or with new free agent signings or more minor trade deals. Nothing is imminent, and these signings will likely wait until the disposition of a Santana deal. Saturday is the deadline for teams to offer salary arbitration to free agents. The players have until Dec. 7 to accept or decline.

This has been a typical off-season, with only scattered activity, with no major signings except by players' own teams. Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez re-signed with the Yankees, Curt Schilling and Mike Lowell with the Red Sox.

There doesn't appear to be a large number of big-ticket deals on the horizon, save for Santana, while several teams have made smaller-scale dealings, such as reliever Francisco Cordero moving from the Brewers to the Reds and catcher Jason Kendall moving from the Cubs to the Brewers. Kenny Rogers opted to stay with Detroit, Yorvit Torrealba with Colorado.

"There've been a few trades," Epstein said Friday. "Usually things don't heat up until the winter meetings. We'll see what happens. A lot of interesting names are being made available on trade market. Whether they're actually moved remains to be seen."

If nothing else, Epstein said, there's been a little more "chatter" than normal.

The Red Sox have dangled several names to entice the Twins to trade Santana. Their priority is to unload center fielder Coco Crisp while retaining as much youth as possible. Jacoby Ellsbury is said to be untouchable, and the team would like to try anything possible to hang onto starter Clay Buchholz.

The other obstacle remains a Santana contract, which could dwarf Josh Beckett's four-year, $42 million deal (the fourth year is a club option for $12 million) that took effect last season.

Epstein certainly did his best to pump up the key element of a Santana trade -- Crisp-who has hit only .266 in two seasons in Boston, losing his expected leadoff position. 

"I think we're very lucky to have two very good center fielders on the roster," the GM said. "They're not mutually exclusive. There can be a role for both players or even competition in spring training.

"Coco had an incredible breakthrough last year in defense. I thought he was one of the two or three best in baseball. There was no Gold Glove, but there should have been. He hasn't replicated his numbers of 2005 (.300, 16 homers, .345 OBP for Cleveland).  He's a player we're still excited about having. There's certainly room for improvement. To be honest, he hasn't performed offensively way did earlier in career.

"Jacoby is an emerging young player who does a lot of things well. There's a lot to like. We were excited about him since the day we first saw him at Oregon State. He adjusted quickly at every level of play in the New York-Penn League to performing on the biggest stage of the World Series. We're excited about the impact he might have going forward."

Eventually, Epstein will turn his attention to the bench. He says he's not married only to the idea of re-signing the current players. He did say, though, that any additions to the bullpen will likely come through trade.

Last year at this time, he added players such as J.C. Romero and Joel Pineiro, each of whom didn't make it through the season. Ditto for Brendan Donnelly, although he went down early with an injury.

Epstein also advises the he could promote from within. Outfielder Brandon Moss could be one player who benefits that way.

"There's some interest in bringing back some of the role players from last year," Epstein said. "Before we make any definitive decisions who the best players are to fill those roles, we have to make sure our corps of starting players is set in stone and make sure what type of players we're looking for. That's why role players usually sign a little later. I guess we'd be open to anything -- the trade route, free agency or even players from our own system to fill those holes.

"Whether or not something major happens I can't tell you. I can tell you we will explore opportunities to make us better."

There's one member of the Sox whose contract status will be put on hold until Epstein sorts out his roster. Manager Terry Francona has $2 million remaining on his two-year-deal and is looking for an extension beyond next season.

"I think we're probably going to look to complete those talks in relative privacy. We've been on record as saying that's something we'd like to get done this winter. That's still the case."

The Patriot Ledger