BOSTON -- Following the signings of Mike Lowell and Curt Schilling, the defending World Series champion Red Sox have the luxury of knowing that both the starting nine and pitching rotation is virtually set for 2008. Perhaps that will give the front office more time to dedicate to negotiations on an extension for manager Terry Francona.

Though Francona has one year left on his existing deal, the manager and the club both have interest in extending the relationship before the 2008 season starts.

"We've been on record before as saying it's certainly one of our goals of the offseason to engage with Tito and his contract," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "That process is in the early stages, and hopefully will be done with the confidentiality that marked most of the Mike Lowell negotiations. We'll try to do it behind closed doors, but I don't want to give an exact timetable because a lot of it depends on the natural ebb and flow of the rest of the offseason as we engage in free agency and potential trades."

The Red Sox have won the World Series twice in the four years Francona has been the manager. It is conceivable Francona could make his stay in Boston a lengthy one, when you consider the way he meshes with the organization and the players.

"Certainly it's something that's very important to ownership and the front office, and Tito's interested in it as well," Epstein said. "We'll let [the media] know when there's anything to report, but right now everything is just in the preliminary stages."

Lowell, who officially signed his new three-year contact on Tuesday, credited Francona as one of the reasons he wanted to return to the Red Sox.

Yankees weren't first for Lowell: Did Lowell really consider the Yankees as one of the teams he would sign with if things hadn't worked out for the Red Sox? Sure he did. At least until Alex Rodriguez re-upped with New York, eliminating Lowell's chances of playing the hot corner for the organization that originally drafted him.

"Maybe I should preface it by saying that I understand that everyone in New England thinks that if you play for the Red Sox you have to hate the Yankees," said Lowell. "Unfortunately, although every time we play the Yankees, I want to beat them, I came up through their system and there were a lot of people in that organization who were very instrumental to me getting to the big leagues and having the career that I've had.

"Utter hatred for the organization, I just don't have, because they actually helped me in a big way. It was definitely a factor because it was another organization that I was familiar with. Like I said, the parameters of where I weigh a team is: Are they going to be a playoff contender? A team that year in and year out will do what it can to win a world championship. Obviously the Yankees fit that bill. I will say it was somewhat diminished by the fact of moving to first. I think it would have been more of a consideration if it would have been staying at third. Once again, I'm very happy staying here and I look forward to the rivalry between the two teams."

Levinson's levity: There was a humorous moment at the beginning of the media conference call to announce Lowell's new contract with the Red Sox. When the call went to the question and answer format, the first inquiry came not from a sportswriter, but from one of Lowell's agents -- Sam Levinson.

"Hi, this is Sam Levinson from the Staten Island Advance. My question is for Theo Epstein. Theo, will you please consider giving Mike a fourth year?"

Epstein had some fun with it.

"Sam, I've heard you ask that before. We're going to hold off. We're very happy with the contract we signed Mike to and we look forward to a great three years. We appreciate the interest though," said Epstein.

If not for the deliberation over the fourth year -- which Lowell badly wanted but the Red Sox didn't feel comfortable with -- his deal to remain in Boston would have been completed weeks ago.

The other free agents: Schilling and Lowell weren't the only free agents from the 2007 Red Sox. Reliever Mike Timlin, backup catcher Doug Mirabelli and outfielder Bobby Kielty are three players the Red Sox still are talking to about a return to Boston.

"We've been in touch with the representatives for all those players, and there is some ongoing dialogue," said Epstein. "As we get closer to the Winter Meetings, there will be more specific talk and the possibility of one or more of those players returning."

Epstein states that his primary acquisition needs at the moment are upgrading the bench and the bullpen.

The Winter Meetings take place in Nashville from Dec. 3-6.