In preparation for his sixth season as manager of the Red Sox, Terry Francona will fly to Fort Myers, Fla., on Wednesday -- eight days before the official reporting date for pitchers and catchers. As he got some things in order at his Fenway Park office, Francona took some time out of his busy schedule to do a phone interview with MLB.com, in which he spoke about a variety of issues surrounding the 2009 Red Sox.
MLB.com: The shortstop situation you have heading into the spring, how do you see that shaping up with Jed Lowrie and Julio Lugo fighting for the spot?
Francona: Well, I would say right now it's pretty wide open. I've never really been in that situation here. It's kind of a unique situation. You've got a guy who you give a four-year deal to for a lot of money and he gets hurt. A guy comes in and plays really well for a while and then he kind of tails off -- but again, he handled himself really well and I think his future is really bright. He was also injured, to boot. Saying that, I don't know if I believe in competing in Spring Training. What we'll do is we'll sit down with both of them the first day, we'll explain to them how we feel. And we'll try to put the best team out on the field. I'm also a firm believer that things take care of themselves. We're not going to look at their batting average every day and things like that. We're just going to try to put our ballclub in the best position to win. However that ends up, it will be my responsibility.
MLB.com: I'm sure there are 30 managers right now in Major League Baseball who have optimism at this time of year. But what are some of the things in particular that excite you about the 2009 Red Sox heading into Spring Training?
Francona: I think you're right, every manager will speak glowingly of their team this time of year, that's just the way the game is. Everybody is excited. I think we have reason to be excited. I think, we all know what we had last year, but I think what's maybe a little bit better is I think our bullpen looks to be more well-rounded, a little deeper, which is exciting.
And the rotation too, where we have some extraordinary extra arms. We've got a guy like John Smoltz coming in. Hopefully we will have guys in position, like Michael Bowden and Clay Buchholz, where I'm not saying they can't make the ballclub, but we don't have to rush them and can use them when they're ready to win, as opposed to us being in need. That's a tough way to win. I think we've got versatility, I think we've got some depth. I like our team.
MLB.com: Every offseason has its own dynamic, but was this one any tougher because two of your leaders, Jason Varitek and Mike Lowell, were in limbo for parts of it?
Francona: I think it was tougher for them. I was certainly aware of it and certainly try to be aware of those things -- the human element. I understand that our ballclub is going to feel the need to put out there the best team that they can. That's the business side. I'm glad I'm not a part of that. But I try to remember who we're dealing with and I try to stay in contact. Again, it's not always the easiest thing in the world. It's not always comfortable. But you just do the best you can.
MLB.com: As far as Varitek and his role, there's been a lot of talk that he's going to be scaled back this year. How do you look at that situation?
Francona: I've heard all the talk but I've never had anyone ask me before. I think it's unfair to say that before the season starts. Knowing Tek, he works so hard. Just for me to come right out before the season starts and say, yeah, we're going to do this or do that ... you know what? That's not the case. The season will take care of itself.
If Tek needs rest, that's my responsibility, to know that he needs rest. But again, that's like saying you're going to pinch-hit for a guy in February. I really don't want to. That's like saying a guy is going to have a tough year before the year starts. We're talking about the captain of our team, and he means a lot. I just have to a believer in him so we'll let it play itself out. If he needs rest, we'll give it to him. And again, you have to realize, he will be 37 years old. I understand that. I don't want to run him into the ground because I've probably done that before because we rely on him so much. We'll try to use good judgment.
MLB.com Is consistency the one thing you need more of from Jacoby Ellsbury this season?
Francona: Consistency, for anyone, is huge. I thought last year was a real learning year for him, which is not unique in a first-year player -- especially in our market and what they expect from guys. I thought, with all the ups and downs, he finished at .280 and I think his future is very bright. If it goes like we want it do, we can hit him leadoff and let him run wild. If we have to protect him, we can do that.
MLB.com: You've been through this before with the World Baseball Classic. You're going to have quite a few guys playing, just like last time. How do you keep a cohesive camp when guys are going to be in and out?
Francona: The one good thing from our standpoint this time is that we have all our catchers. That was tough last time with Tek being gone. Other than that, you watch the pitchers and you pray they don't get hurt. Having [Kevin] Youkilis and [Dustin] Pedroia gone, we'll miss them in camp, but it won't hurt our getting ready for the season. The first 10 days, we will spend a lot of time on fundamentals. Then when they all get back, we'll do it again. It will create an opportunity for someone who wouldn't have gotten that much of an opportunity and that part is always good. Just like we do with everything, we'll try to turn something that could be a negative or seen as a negative and turn it into a positive.
MLB.com: The Daisuke Matsuzaka situation is a little different because he is going to start Spring Training in Japan and you won't actually see him until after the World Baseball Classic. How concerned are you about that dynamic and how do you see that playing out?
|"I think we have reason to be excited. ... I think we've got versatility, I think we've got some depth. I like our team."|
|-- Terry Francona|
MLB.com: With Rocco Baldelli, how much are you looking forward to getting down there and just kind of seeing where he's at?
Francona: That's an important one. It will be important for us to get a read on him and we've already talked about this. I think his maturity as a person and as a player will help, because when you're young, your first thought is, 'I've got to do this, I can't sit out this drill.' We understand that. We don't need to have him in the middle of the rundown drills. We just want to try to prepare him to play as much as we can, and we don't know what that is yet, myself included. I don't think he does either. But we'll do the best we can and we'll just try to use common sense.
MLB.com Everyone knows that Smoltz is such a competitor and obviously the team's plan is to bring him along at a slower pace. Do you think you'll have to slow him down at times?
Francona: I think he'll need a reminder every so often, which is OK. He's really bought into what we're doing, which I think is good because this wouldn't work if he didn't. We're all on the same page. If we need to sit back and remind him, we certainly will. But again, I think we've all been on the same page right from the beginning.
MLB.com: David Ortiz. He had a tough year last year with the left wrist. How much are you looking forward to seeing where he's at now that he's had a full winter of rest and rehab?
Francona: I thought we all pretty much knew what we had in David last year. Having him back, even when he's not at 100 percent, you take, because he's that threat right in the middle of the order. If you parlay his numbers out over a full season of his at-bats, he still would have been in pretty good shape. With that wrist having a chance to rest is going to be huge, to be able to watch him swing the bat with the authority that he's used to. He still swung the bat with authority but just being able to generate the bat speed that he can, sure, it's exciting.
MLB.com One more thing on the injury front. Lowell coming off the hip surgery. He's one of those guys too that you might have to hold back. How much do you think you'll have to remind him this spring to not overdo it and suffer a re-injury?
Francona: Yeah, but that's the same kind of thing that makes guys great. I've already talked to him a few times and I've reminded him already, Opening Day is a lot more important than the exhibition game against Boston College. We'll keep an eye on him and we'll have him go at his own pace. Whatever that pace is, it's really good enough for me. I know players shoot for Opening Day, and I understand why, but having him healthy for the whole season is what's really, truly important.
MLB.com: You're pretty even-keeled as it is, but how long did it take you to get over the tough loss of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and coming so close to getting back to the World Series?
MLB.com: You had your own issues when the season ended. Your neck, hip and back were bothering you, and you had another knee surgery. How are you doing now? Do you feel refreshed at all?
Francona: Yeah, I do. It took me longer this year than I ever have, but I've worked hard and I think I put myself in a position where, this is as good as I'm going to feel. I hope it lasts. I got one of my knees done, I had an injection in my hip and I had therapy on my neck the whole winter. I'm as good to go as I'm going to be. But I feel pretty good. I lost weight like I always do in the winter. When guys start walking people, I'll probably start gaining weight. But I did the best I could. I think I did OK. I'm ready to go.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.