Epstein, Francona reflect on '09 season

Epstein, Francona reflect on '09, look forward

BOSTON -- On a sunny and crisp Monday at Fenway Park, less than 24 hours after the Red Sox saw their season end in jarring fashion amid a furious ninth-inning comeback by the Angels, the American League Division Series 2009 logo was still covering the grass behind home plate.

Game 4 of the ALDS would have been played Monday night, but instead, the Red Sox did that day-after thing and cleaned out their lockers.

"I think yesterday was kind of tough," said ace Josh Beckett. "When you acquire that much off-time, I think that a lot of guys say they didn't really know what to do, because we're so regimented and we have pretty much something to do every hour of every day throughout the season, starting in Spring Training. Whenever it ends so abruptly, you don't know what to do."

Manager Terry Francona experienced similar emptiness.

"Normally when the season's over you're either exhausted or beat up," Francona said. "We knew all along this year that there were times we were a little beat up, and we'd take our lumps, move on and try to get to the postseason. So we were really careful to try and position ourselves when we got here so we would be healthy.

"We went out to Anaheim and didn't swing the bats, came back here [Sunday] -- I think we all know when you're down 0-2, 0-3, if you make a mistake, it can cost you. And that's kind of what happened, so we're going home. It's frustrating, because none of us are ready to go, but that's the way it is."

Then there are the decision-makers, led by general manager Theo Epstein. Perhaps the best way to end the pain of the way 2009 is by starting to configure the 2010 roster, which is what Epstein and his group will spend the next few months doing.

Epstein and Francona had a lengthy media session on Monday, in which they looked back and ahead.

There were plenty of interesting topics discussed.

More consistency needed from Big Papi: Though designated hitter David Ortiz rebounded from his horrific start to produce solid power numbers (28 homers and 99 RBIs), Epstein made it clear that the Red Sox need more consistency from the slugger, who turns 34 on Nov. 18. Ortiz went 1-for-12 in the ALDS sweep against the Angels.

LOOKING AHEAD
With their season over, the Red Sox have some decisions to make on members of this year's squad.
Player Position Contract Staus
Brian Anderson OF Free agent
Rocco Baldelli OF Free agent
Daniel Bard RHP Under club control
Jason Bay OF Free agent
Josh Beckett RHP Vested club option for 2010
Clay Buchholz RHP Under club control
Paul Byrd RHP Free agent
Manny Delcarmen RHP Arbitration eligible
J.D. Drew OF Signed through 2011
Jacoby Ellsbury OF Under club control
Joey Gathright OF Free agent
Alex Gonzalez SS Mutual option for 2010
Nick Green INF Free agent
Casey Kotchman 1B Arbitration eligible
George Kottaras C Under club control
Jon Lester LHP Signed through 2013, club option '14
Mike Lowell 3B Signed through 2010
Jed Lowrie INF Under club control
Victor Martinez C Club option for 2010
Daisuke Matsuzaka RHP Signed through 2012
Hideki Okajima LHP Arbitration eligible
David Ortiz DH Signed through 2010, club option '11
Jonathan Papelbon RHP Arbitration eligible
Dustin Pedroia 2B Signed through 2014, club option '15
Ramon Ramirez RHP Arbitration eligible
Takashi Saito RHP Club option for 2010
Junichi Tazawa RHP Signed through 2011
Jason Varitek C Dual option
Billy Wagner LHP Free agent
Tim Wakefield RHP Club option for 2010
Chris Woodward INF Free agent
Kevin Youkilis 1B Signed through 2012, club option '13

"Predicting future performance is tough," Epstein said. "Obviously, that's part of my job. I don't think I can sit down specifically and say what he's going to do. I think the last four months of the season were certainly better than the first two months for him. [Hopefully] he can find a way to prepare himself for the season where he can build on what he did from about June 1 on and then maybe grow from there.

"We need him to be -- if he's going to be the DH on this team, we need him to be a force. We're a different team when he is that force. There will be conversations about what he thinks he needs to do to get back there. It's important. It's important for this club, for him to be that force as the DH."

Dice-K's conditioning critical to 2010 success: It's equally vital for right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka to become a permanent cog in the rotation, instead of someone who was limited to 12 regular-season starts because of two disabled-list stints, the latter of which was forced so that Matsuzaka could improve his conditioning and shoulder strength.

Matsuzaka finished the season strong, going 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA in four September starts. He wasn't used in the postseason, though the righty would have joined the rotation if the Red Sox had advanced to the AL Championship Series.

"We want him to have a really productive offseason and come into camp in the best possible shape, both with his conditioning and making sure his core is strong," Epstein said. "We want to make sure we can notice right away that he's had a strong offseason of workouts. And also with his shoulder, that he does the shoulder program to such an extent that he's ready to go out and throw 200-plus innings, and those are things he didn't accomplish last [winter].

"He did accomplish them in a condensed offseason that we had in late summer. That's not the time to do it. The time to do it is throughout the winter. That's been clearly communicated. There will be follow-up and our strong expectation is that he shows up in fantastic shape on Day 1 of Spring Training [next] year. I see it as a necessity, not really an option."

Faith in Papelbon: Closer Jonathan Papelbon had been invincible in the postseason until Sunday's ninth-inning meltdown. That said, the Red Sox won't change their viewpoint of the four-time All-Star. They still have faith in him going forward.

"I think he set the standard so high for himself that any chink in his armor is magnified," Epstein said. "I think that's true both when you look at his regular season this year [and against the Angels]. There were clearly some things that weren't the same. He was dominating, but if you look at his numbers, he wasn't quite as dominating, if you compare it to some year's past.

"If you look at his stuff, it was still closer's stuff, but maybe it wasn't the same at times so those differences were exaggerated, because he set such a high standard for himself. That's the way it goes. Then if you look at the postseason, he's still a historically good postseason pitcher, but the one hiccup that happened yesterday, that's what will be talked about. He has such a high standard that what happened yesterday really stands out.

"I look at it as a really good season from a closer that helped us win a lot of games. But I know Jonathan is going to go home and focus on getting better, because he can be better than what he was this year, even though that was really, really good."

Beckett made it clear there's nobody else he'd rather have closing games for his team.

"Everyone in this clubhouse would say the same thing," Beckett said. "There's not a guy alive that we'd rather have out there than him. He's the guy we'd give the ball to in that situation 100 times out of 100 times and he'd probably get it done 99 percent of the time."

Though the Red Sox didn't play in many crucial games down the stretch of their regular season, Francona doesn't think that had any impact in Papelbon being unable to close out the Angels with two outs, two strikes and nobody on base in the top of the ninth.

"We were very careful with how we pitched everybody," Francona said. "He was champing at the bit and feeling good about himself. He couldn't command to his glove side. Everything was across the plate. He threw nine pitches out in Anaheim. The timing was really good."

Insurance needed for Jed Lowrie: Whether or not the Red Sox retain shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who has a mutual option, Epstein said that the team isn't in a position to bank on Lowrie to be an everyday player. While the club still has high hopes for Lowrie, he hasn't been able to stay healthy in his first two seasons. Lowrie had left wrist surgery in late April, but wasn't right for the entire season.

"Lowrie is an important factor for us as well," Epstein said. "This is a young player we really believe in who has been hurt as a big league player. We've not seen the type of player he can be yet at the big league level, because he's been playing hurt the entire time. At some point, the player has to get healthy to be able to show what he can do and to be able to help the organization.

Lowrie was able to take just 68 at-bats for the Red Sox in 2009, hitting .147 with two homers and 11 RBIs.

"I don't think we can hand a job to him, because he hasn't proved his health yet at this point," Epstein said. "But at the same time, I wouldn't be surprised if we're sitting here at this time next year, hopefully with champagne and not having one of these postmortems, but looking back and saying, 'Wow, he really got healthy and proved himself in winning that job or playing his way into a meaningful role.' So we'll see. Now it's on him. He's got to get himself healthy and make an impact. We can't stake our season on the hope that he'll be healthy. We have to have other options."

Gonzalez did everything the Red Sox hoped -- and probably more offensively -- after returning in an August trade from the Reds.

"Alex really stabilized things the last couple of months of the season," Epstein said. "We'll sit down and we've already done some of this analysis, but we'll do a little bit more analysis of supply and demand and then try to figure out what the market might look like before we decide on Alex's option for next year. That's certainly one way we could go, is bringing him back. I think we'd all be comfortable having him back here under the right circumstances."

Will the captain be back? Unlike last offseason, when catcher Jason Varitek's uncertain future was the biggest topic surrounding the Red Sox, the captain has gone into the background this time around. This is because Varitek's role has been reduced, and star hitter Victor Martinez has become the primary catcher.

The Red Sox and Varitek have a dual option. If the Red Sox pick up the option, it is worth $5 million. With Martinez now in the fold, the Red Sox will likely decline. However, Varitek can kick in his option at $3 million. The question is whether Varitek would want to come back as a captain who doesn't play that much.

After a strong power start in 2009, Varitek's offense tailed off badly the final four months of the season. He wound up hitting .209 with 14 homers and 51 RBIs.

"We haven't talked with 'Tek yet. We're going to," said Epstein. "There are decisions that need to be made on both sides. I don't think it's fair to discuss those publicly before we get to sit down and talk about it."

If Varitek does come back, he will probably get his share of playing time catching Beckett. The two have formed a productive rapport the last four years. Beckett voiced how big a role Varitek can play for the team, even when he is on the bench.

"He's definitely one of those guys I'd love to see back," said Beckett. "I think even if the transition starts, like it started at the end of the year, I think that there's a lot of things that a lot of people can learn from him.

"And him being around -- it's never a bad thing. He's so great with young guys. He knows how to run a clubhouse. That's why he wears that "C" on his chest."

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