The Red Sox were in a hotly contested division race with the Rays last year, and even though it was early August, Francona didn't have a really good feel for which relievers would set up closer Jonathan Papelbon.
There are many questions that will answer themselves in the opening weeks of the season. And many of those questions revolve around newcomers Takashi Saito and Ramon Ramirez. Determining their comfort zones will go a long way in determining how they will be used.
"Hopefully not very long," Francona said when asked just how long that will take. "Last year, I think it took a while for us. There were a lot of inconsistencies for the first two, three, four months. We managed to be a pretty good team, but we didn't ever get a handle on it until the end."
More than slotting certain relievers into certain specific innings, Francona said on Thursday that he is more concerned with finding the comfort levels of his new relievers as it pertains to game situations.
"It's important," said Francona. "Who's comfortable pitching with men on base? Who's better off starting a clean inning? We've been through that with [Hideki Okajima] for a couple of years -- what's better? Sometimes it doesn't matter what's better, you get forced into situations you have to do. That's important, learning guys' strengths, what they want to shy away from."
Through two games, Francona has already managed to get all seven relievers into game action.
"I think what we want to do for the first couple of weeks ... is not overuse and not underuse, hopefully, anybody," said Francona. "I think we feel pretty comfortable that we could pretty much go to anybody, depending on what the situation is -- how early [in the game it is], who's up, who's coming up. I think it gives a few different options. The biggest thing is be consistent with the usage of guys, especially in the first couple of weeks."
Francona already has a comfort zone with five of the seven relievers, and they know that Francona will not hesitate using any of them in any situation. Even Jonathan Papelbon has been used in the eighth inning on occasion in his stint as Red Sox closer that began in 2007.
"Since I've been here, our relievers know, with the game on the line, there are going to be guys that have deserved or earned that right," Francona said. "But sometimes that comes earlier in the game. Sometimes the game is won in the seventh. And it seems kind of silly not to use somebody because you're waiting until the eighth, so we don't do that."
There are certain situations Francona indicated he would like to avoid, like using Justin Masterson as a middle reliever, given his value in the seventh and eighth innings.
"I don't know that we'd want to do that," Francona said of Masterson in long relief. "He certainly could. You're taking a guy that can pitch late in a game and if you pitch him three, four or five innings, you're going to have him down a few days."
Francona said he would rather use lefty Javier Lopez or Manny Delcarmen in long relief if the need arises.
While Saito surrendered a homer on Wednesday to the first batter he faced (Evan Longoria) in a Red Sox uniform, Ramirez was very impressive, striking out one in a scoreless seventh. Ramirez fanned 12 in 12 1/3 innings this spring after a shaky start in Grapefruit League action.
"I think it was just a case of [Ramirez] trying too hard, too much," Francona said. "His velocity ticked up the last couple of weeks, which we thought it would. He's got an interesting mix. That slider/changeup is hard. They're both actually almost the same miles per hour, but they seem to still give hitters fits. They're not that much off his fastball, but there's a lot of deception there.
"It's going to be interesting to see how he progresses, because he's so durable, he likes to pitch, he's had success, but we just haven't been around him a lot yet to know him real well. It's going to be fun to watch this kid get better."
Mike Petraglia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.