Thursday, February 8, 2007

Papelbon will likely remain in rotation

BOSTON -- One day in advance of his early-bird arrival at Spring Training, Red Sox manager Terry Francona held court with reporters at Fenway Park on Tuesday and touched on a bevy of issues surrounding his team.
Perhaps the most telling statement the manager made was in regard to Jonathan Papelbon, who is slated for the starting rotation despite the fact there are plenty of skeptics who think the righty will wind up back in the closer's role out of necessity.
"To be perfectly honest, I suppose the possibility exists, but I think it's a very long shot," Francona said. "I think a lot of things have to happen for that to eventually happen, and I don't see that happening. The first thing is that he'd have to be medically cleared to do it, and that's the reason he's in the starting rotation.
"It's not because we don't think he can close. If I had my druthers, he would be our closer. That's how I feel. It's not happening. We have to respect the medical people's advice -- and I do. I'm not fighting it. They think for his long term, not only success, but health, this is the way to go about it. And I understand that, so we'll do it. Unless that changed, it can't happen.
"On top of that, we'd have to have a bullpen that was struggling, we'd have to have him as a starter that was struggling, which I don't foresee happening. There's too many things that would have to happen for him to go back to the bullpen that I don't think are going to happen. But to completely rule it out, I don't know if that's fair. But you've heard what I just said, it's a really long shot."
And be sure about this. There's no chance Papelbon will be the closer on Opening Day in Kansas City.
"No, that won't happen in Spring Training," said Francona. "I'm telling you, that's not going to happen. I was talking way into the season."
If not Papelbon, then who will be the closer? Barring an upset, it looks to be a four-horse race between Julian Tavarez, Brendan Donnelly, Mike Timlin and Joel Pineiro.
"I have some ideas how it's going to unfold," Francona said. "The four right-handers, we'll sit down and talk to them individually and as a group when I get down there and explain to them that those are the four veteran guys that we want to see throw some innings late in the games. We'll explain to them that we want them to build arm strength in the beginning; we don't want guys going out the first week and throwing 3-0 breaking balls and trying to have a low ERA in Spring Training so they can be the closer.

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"As we get into the spring and we're gearing it up, we'll tell them how we feel, what we're looking for. And then we'll put it together. The hope would be by the end of camp, we've got roles for everybody. It doesn't always work that way. If they pitch well and throw strikes, it will work that way. And then there's guys like [Craig] Hansen and [Manny] Delcarmen. Where they fit, we honestly don't know. The way they pitch will tell us."
Not all the buzz is over the bullpen. For Spring Training figures to feature plenty of Matsuzaka-mania. Everything Daisuke Matsuzaka does this season will be a focal point.
The Red Sox are doing everything they can to make the transition a smooth one for the Japanese star. Pitching coach John Farrell recently spent time with Matsuzaka in Southern California.
"John came back and was really pleased with his visit," said Francona. "He said he's basically a normal 26-year-old, likes to have fun, quick to smile, threw the ball real well off flat ground the day he saw him [and] gave a lot of input during their lunch together, which was good. Again, we're at a disadvantage communicating, which can be frustrating. But we need to get around that as much as we can."
Another interesting thing to watch will be how Matsuzaka adjusts to a five-man rotation after so many years of pitching every sixth day in Japan. Look for Francona to ease that adjustment early in the season by giving all five of his pitchers and extra day of rest every time there is an off-day.
"You know what, he's thrown a lot of innings," Francona said. "He's 26, but he's got a lot of innings under his belt. He's made a lot of adjustments along the way through his career. And the other thing is, too, we have some age in [Curt Schilling] and [Tim Wakefield]. So we may use it this year differently than we have in the past. We may not skip a guy, we may go ahead and just keep five starters, especially in April. It won't completely be different [for Matsuzaka], at least in the beginning."
Then there are the rehabbing pitchers. Jon Lester is coming off cancer and Matt Clement is still on the road to recovery after comprehensive surgery on his right shoulder.
"I had a conversation with [Lester] about a month ago about being cautious and being slow, and he didn't want to hear any part of it," Francona said. "But he is a smart enough kid to understand that we have his best interests in mind. I'm not smart enough medically to know what that is. When we get down there, I think we'll sit with him, the doctors and the trainers and try to put together a schedule with the trainers that we think is in his best interest.
"We don't want to hold him back. If he's hard worker, which we know he is, we don't want to hold him back just for the sake of holding him back. But we also don't want to let him hurt himself, because he is a good kid and a hard worker. He's had a traumatic winter. We need to be smart in how we handle him -- and we will."
Though there was speculation that Clement would miss all of 2007 after having his rotator cuff and labrum repaired, the righty is said to be making good progress.
"He has not started a throwing program yet. But I believe he is doing very well," Francona said. "There's some thought to maybe him starting his throwing program a little quicker because he's doing better than normal. You'll see him in Spring Training along with the rest of the guys, but he'll definitely be on his own program."
Of course, anticipation for Spring Training would not be complete without wonderment about Manny Ramirez's happiness. Again, a winter of trade rumors led to no trade for one of the best right-handed hitters in baseball.
"I think I talked to him in early December," Francona said. "I think he's talked to Pookie [Jackson] and the clubhouse kids lately, but I haven't been part of that. I think he's OK. I don't think there's any problems."
Francona didn't say if Ramirez would report with the rest of the position players on Feb. 20. Last year, the team granted Ramirez permission to report on March 1.
One player who won't be reporting to camp with the Red Sox is Todd Helton. Trade discussions with the Rockies ended last week. Mike Lowell, who was rumored to be going to Colorado with Tavarez and a prospect or two, has already ended any awkwardness that might have existed when he reports to camp.
"He has a very good understanding of this game," Francona said "When I called him, the way he answered the phone was, 'Now hitting sixth for the Rockies.' He's got a good grasp of what's going on; he's been around the game long enough, he knows. He's easy to like. Nobody is trying to run him out of town."
Last year, catcher and captain Jason Varitek was a shell of himself because of injuries to various parts of his body. His hitting suffered mightily.
This year?
"Jason Varitek feels great," said Francona. "Physically, he feels fantastic and he's ready to go."
Non-roster invitees: In other news, the Red Sox officially announced their list of 18 non-roster invitees for Spring Training.
The six pitchers are Abe Alvarez, Adam Bernero, Mike Burns, Bryan Corey, Runelvys Hernandez and Travis Hughes. The three catchers are Dusty Brown, Kevin Cash and Alberto Castillo. The six infielders are Jeff Bailey, Luis Jimenez, veteran utilityman Joe McEwing, Ed Rogers, Bobby Scales and third base prospect Chad Spann. The outfield trio is led by top prospect Jacoby Ellsbury and also includes veteran Alex Ochoa (making a return from Japan) and Kerry Robinson.

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