Tito touches on bevy of topics

Francona excited about possibility of Matsuzaka

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Thanks to the various holes that Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein is trying to fill, manager Terry Francona was in no position to start announcing tentative lineups for 2007 when he met with the media at the Winter Meetings on Tuesday.

However, Francona was more than happy to discuss a variety of other issues surrounding his team, including the potential acquisition of Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Francona joined Epstein, owner John W. Henry, chairman Tom Werner and president/CEO Larry Lucchino at a meet-and-greet dinner with Matsuzaka in Southern California last month.

"It was very enjoyable," Francona said. "It was an interesting evening. I thought they handled it with a lot of class. And I was actually kind of proud of the way we did it. I thought we did a good job."

With Matsuzaka's fate in the hands of Epstein and agent Scott Boras -- who have until midnight at the end of Dec. 14 to strike a deal -- Francona is trying to temper his excitement somewhat at the prospect of slotting such an electric pitcher into his rotation.

"The business part has to get done so the fun can happen," said Francona. "And fortunately for me, I don't have to be a part of that because I don't like it. But hopefully it gets done and then the fun can begin."

Francona has watched enough video of Matsuzaka to know what that fun might entail -- and the misery it could cause for opposing hitters.

"He's got a lot of pitches that he commands," Francona said. "He's got velocity on the fastball, he's got two breaking balls, he can elevate the fastball, but I think the thing that I've noticed that I like the best is the ability to throw a changeup any time it counts. It is kind of an old-fashioned screwball which you don't see too much anymore. That pitch, to me, is legitimate.

"All of his pitches are legitimate, but that is a pitch that makes you a big winner, and from what everybody talks about, the bigger the situation, the more he responds, the more he likes to pitch. I'm hopeful that something gets done and we get a chance to have this kid in our uniform."

While new pitching coach John Farrell is brushing up on his Japanese, Francona plans on speaking universal baseball language to Matsuzaka.

"For me, I can pat a guy on the back after eight good innings in any language -- that won't be difficult," said Francona.

There were plenty of other topics Francona broached, and here is a sampling of what he had to say.

Manny being Manny: It wouldn't be winter without Manny Ramirez being on the trading block. As usual, Francona has left that matter to Epstein, and he seemed to be at peace with however the saga plays out.

Francona did want to make it clear that his relationship with Ramirez, which turned a corner last season, continues to be strong.

"I actually spoke to him a couple of weeks ago," Francona said. "He called when I went through that toe infection to check on me. Manny's got great production. I mean, I think it was pretty obvious when we didn't have him on the field, what, the last six weeks, we weren't close to being the same team. See, I also see a different side of Manny, too ... I also see the guy that shows up at 10:00 in the morning and is lifting every day, you know. So there's a side of him that I do get to see that probably other people don't."

Who will catch Tim Wakefield? That is yet another work in progress for Epstein, as Doug Mirabelli is a free agent. Given Mirabelli's sharp decline offensively, it's unlikely he'll be back.

Might captain Jason Varitek catch Wakefield, as he did on a somewhat regular basis earlier in his career?

"I've talked to Wake about it considerably," said Francona. "We'll see how that plays out. We will just see how that plays out. I've not talked to 'Tek about it this winter. I've talked about it in the past."

Comeback kids: Francona seemed particularly confident that two of his veterans -- Varitek and setup man Mike Timlin -- will have significant bounceback seasons after their injuries and ineffectiveness of 2006. Both players participated in the World Baseball Classic, and their bodies didn't seem to respond.

"[Timlin] went to the WBC, came back, his shoulder was weak, he never had a chance to get going," Francona said. "He's been on a program this winter, I think he is going to have a huge rebound year."

Varitek, a consistent force at the plate for Boston in previous seasons, never got his bat in gear in '06. Left knee surgery in early August did not help matters.

"Jason came back [from the World Baseball Classic], he was limping with that glute muscle pull or something," said Francona. "Jason never looked like he got comfortable from either side of the plate the whole year. And I think that will give us a huge boost just getting him to where he's the threat he should be."

Confidence in Pedroia: Despite Dustin Pedroia's unproven track record, Francona thinks the diminutive right-handed hitter will be his starting second baseman in 2007. The Sox opted not to offer arbitration to veteran Mark Loretta.

"Things change, but I don't think any of us are afraid to make a commitment to him playing second," Francona said. "I think having [Alex] Cora there to help him would be terrific. I think not having to hit him leadoff, having the ability to maybe have a team where you can hit him down in the order would help. He is going to have to make some adjustments.

"There's a lot of things about this kid that we really like and I don't think any of us have a problem giving him a chance to play. We just have to be realistic and be patient because whatever number he ends up being, career-wise, you may not see that in April or May. So we have to be smart enough to know that."

Gonzo will be missed: In the end, the Red Sox didn't feel comfortable signing Alex Gonzalez to three years, so they watched him go to the Reds. But that said, Francona will miss witnessing the daily defensive wizardry of one of the best glovemen never to win a Gold Glove.

"We saw a year of defense like I don't know you'll ever see again, maybe even from him," Francona said. "You saw a spectacular shortstop have a spectacular year. That was fun to watch."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.