"You know, that conversation takes place every winter, doesn't it, around these meetings?" Little said. "I think it is usually the topic of conversation, and what makes you think this [ending] is any different?"
Though things can always change -- it isn't as if Epstein will stop answering his phone -- indications are that the Red Sox are planning as if Ramirez will be stationed behind David Ortiz for another season.
"Our presumption is always to keep the core intact," said Epstein. "We're open-minded and even aggressive at times if we think something will benefit us for the short and long haul. It seems like the default position is always a good one -- keeping these really talented players intact and building off of that."
The building took place in earnest at these Winter Meetings.
In fact, the Red Sox, with both the signings of J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo merely contingent on the passing of physicals, seem to have the bulk of their team put together for 2007.
Barring any changes for the rest of the winter, manager Terry Francona's lineup should look something like this on April 2 when the Sox open their 2007 season in Kansas City:
Kevin Youkilis, 1B
Mike Lowell, 3B
Jason Varitek, C
Coco Crisp, CF
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
The Red Sox think that Youkilis is a better fit near the top of the order because of his ability to get on base, and the speedy Crisp would be more free to run near the bottom when he wouldn't be taking the bats out of the hands of Ortiz and Ramirez.
"I think Tito's already at work with the batting order and is going to set it up in a way that encourages the guys who can run and can run successfully to be able to take advantage of that element," said Epstein.
Wily Mo Pena will be the supersub in the outfield, with Alex Cora backing up at second base and shortstop. The rest of the bench is a work in progress, particularly when it comes to backup catcher. Alberto Castillo is expected to sign a Minor League deal with the Sox and the book is not closed on the possible return of free agent Doug Mirabelli.
The rotation would include Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon, Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka, assuming the latter reaches a contract agreement with Boston by the midnight deadline on Dec. 14. Left-hander Jon Lester, now cancer-free, will be a factor as well, but he might start the season a little late considering that his winter included six chemotherapy treatments.
The back end of the bullpen is the main grey area at this point. The Red Sox still do not have a closer, and don't be surprised if this is the area that is experimented with during Spring Training.
"I hate to give out that line about, 'We'll have a closer by Opening Day,' but we will," Epstein said. "It will be somebody. We're still exploring our options. That might be one area where we don't have a perfect solution going into the year. We've got to make it work. That's often the case.
"With bullpens -- and, again, I'm probably the last person in the room who should be able to pontificate about bullpen construction -- but often times, if you go and look at it, the ones that look good on paper at the start of the year aren't necessarily the ones that are good at the end of the year. As Tito would say, 'You have to mold it.' We might have an imperfect solution there."
Mike Timlin, Julian Tavarez, Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen and Japanese left-hander Hideki Okajima are the favorites to work in setup roles.
Though Epstein wasn't happy about the Red Sox falling out of contention so quickly in '06, he used the extra time wisely, gathering his staff to put together a mock offseason, complete with pseudo agents.
"In certain areas, we realized we had to be aggressive, and in certain areas, if we wanted quality, we had to act aggressively in terms of timing and in terms of financial commitment or else there would be a significant dropoff," said Epstein. "We just tried to plot things out. It never goes exactly according to plan."
At least for now, that plan seems certain to include a certain No. 24 batting cleanup and playing left field.