Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Francona Happy with 2008 Core Red Sox

When Red Sox manager Terry Francona did his annual Winter Meetings media session on Wednesday morning, Josh Beckett was still his unquestioned ace. In other words, no deal had been struck for two-time American League Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana.
Perhaps, as it turns out, Santana will wind up staying with the Twins or going somewhere else. Francona didn't seem to be on the edge of his seat waiting for a definitive answer.

"Oh, I wouldn't even touch that," said Francona. "I think the best way I can answer that is that I and we love our young players. There's so much stuff that seems to fly around that lobby. Wow, it's interesting."

The case can be made that no manager is more at peace with his situation these days than Francona. And that's not only because the Red Sox just won the World Series for the second time in the past four seasons. For Francona has a team stacked with accomplished veterans and talented young players, and the entire core from the 2007 champs are under contract for next year.

These are good days to be the manager of the Boston Red Sox -- Santana or not.

"You know, it's not a lesser sense of urgency like, 'Oh, we won.' But I think it's different," said Francona. "We're in a different point than we were four years ago."

Though the Hot Stove still has some time to burn, it's fairly certain the Red Sox will be a strong favorite entering 2008.

"Oh, it doesn't matter," said Francona. "And we'll talk about that the first day of Spring Training, how we handle moving forward. Because that's what we need to do is to move forward. In '04, we talked about it, but obviously none of us had been through it."

Unlike the '04 team, which lost key participants such as Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Orlando Cabrera, the '07 Sox aren't likely to subtract any core veterans.

When Curt Schilling and Mike Lowell re-signed with the Red Sox, it saved general manager Theo Epstein from having to scour the market for replacements. And it saved Francona from having to break in new players to fill those spots.

"You know, Theo brought Lowell and Schill back, and the other guys, they are ours," Francona said. "Really, besides maybe fine-tuning the bench, we have our position players in place and basically our staff. So it's a good feeling."

Both players also took lesser financial packages with Boston. And when a reporter suggested that Lowell and Schilling left money on the "table," Francona couldn't resist taking a good-natured jab at the latter player.

"I'm thrilled," Francona said. "I think that's the first time Schilling ever left anything on the table. I'm sure he'll appreciate that [comment], too."

Part of Schilling's new contract includes a weight-clause incentive that the right-hander suggested himself.

"I've had some fun at his expense," Francona said. "But I'm excited that he wants to do that. We talked about this last year, and not just Schill, but guys in general. When you get some age on you, you have to work harder to keep your level."

Speaking of 40-something Red Sox starters, Francona provided an update on knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who was left off the roster in two of the three postseason rounds because of a back-shoulder injury.

"Good," Francona said of Wakefield. "He was in Boston the other day. He looks terrific. He's in great shape, and it's December. He's not even restricted now. He tested out the other day great."

The 2008 season will have a different feel to it from the start, considering that Opening Day is slated for the Tokyo Dome against the Oakland Athletics. Francona and pitching coach John Farrell continue to be thorough in their preparation to make sure the entire team is as prepared as possible.

"As far as going to Japan, I think we're all excited," Francona said. "I think there's a little trepidation because two of the games count and our routine is definitely interrupted. But our job is to not let it affect us. I'm sure Daisuke [Matsuzaka] will be excited, as he should be. But when the games count, it takes away some of the sightseeing aspect of the trips. You want to win games."

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