boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
ON BASEBALL

Epstein rings in a new year

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Theo Epstein was not wearing a wedding band when he made his first appearance of the spring here yesterday. There just wasn't time, he said in a casual aside after he and manager Terry Francona held dual press conferences, first with New England's knights of the keyboard, then with the new Japanese imports.

Wedding plans had been rather hastily drawn up, he said. In this transaction, Epstein's ring was the player to be named later.

Then, with words that should resonate favorably back home, 40 years after Dick Williams's famous declaration that "we'll win more games than we lose," Epstein offered a clever variation of a familar cliche. "You win rings in October," he said, "not in April."

We trust that Marie Whitney, the new Mrs. Epstein, is not slighted. Sox fans, meanwhile, will surely appreciate the message that Epstein's focus has not lost its edge. After a season in which the Sox fell to third place, 11 games behind the Yankees in the American League East, the team took meaningful and expensive steps this winter (was there enough cash left over for jewelry?) toward putting themselves in position to be, as Epstein said yesterday, "a pretty special club."

We tend to forget, of course, that the 2006 edition of the Sox was not as misshapen as it looked at the end of the season. Their 61-38 record on July 25 was their best record after 99 games since 1979, and they were still in first place on July 31. But they lost nine games in the standings in a brutal August (9-21), bottoming out when they were swept at home five straight by the Yankees, and by the end of the month, a wave of injuries left them with a lineup that on Aug. 30 in Oakland had just one player, third baseman Mike Lowell, playing the same position he played on Opening Day.

Such shortcomings appear a distant memory in February, especially after the Sox cornered the free agent pitcher with potentially the highest ceiling in the game (Daisuke Matsuzaka), added bats in J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo, cleared room for a rookie of some promise (Dustin Pedroia), and boosted their bullpen with veteran depth (Brendan Donnelly, Joel Pineiro, J.C. Romero, and Hideki Okajima).

So why, then, did Francona, with a pained expression, arise stiff-legged off the picnic bench on which he'd been sitting while answering questions with Epstein?

"I've been sitting in nonstop meetings the last four days," he said. "There isn't a part of me that doesn't hurt."

The biggest questions that could not be answered revolve around the bullpen, as both men acknowledged.

"The bullpen is the biggest issue," Epstein said. "Identifying the closer, sorting out the roles."

"You all know the names," Francona said when asked about the closer.

For now, Epstein maintains the stance that converting Jonathan Papelbon to starter is the most advisable course. "Right now, our medical people feel the best thing for his health is to be on a five-day program," Epstein said.

But there were enough qualifiers to reinforce the notion that the Sox will change course with Papelbon if they deem it best for the club. Papelbon has worked hard, Epstein said, on building the muscles around the shoulder joint that had allowed it to slip out of the socket on the first day of September last season, and they were optimistic about him staying healthy all season.

The Sox sounded more cautious about lefthander Jon Lester, whom Francona plans to meet with this morning as part of the solo sessions he intends to conduct with each pitcher on the staff. As splendid as Lester feels in the aftermath of four months of chemotherapy for a rare form of blood cancer, the Sox are of a mind to let him continue to build up his strength. Francona said he'd reserve saying more until after talking with Lester, but it seems Lester would have to be lights out all spring if he wants to break camp with the club.

Still looming as a potential distraction is Manny Ramírez, who as of late last summer had informed the club he really, really, really wanted to be traded this time. Neither Ramírez nor his agents have said anything publicly on the club's failure to do so this winter. Neither Francona nor Epstein has spoken with Ramírez, they said yesterday. But Ramírez has been in touch with "medical people, things like that," Francona said. "Manny's all set."

The Sox have heard from Ramírez's agent, Greg Genske, and have been assured their cleanup hitter, who starts the season 30 home runs shy of 500, is in a positive frame of mind and intends to report to camp. Will he be there Tuesday, the official reporting date for position players? No guarantees, but it would surprise no one in the Sox clubhouse if he does.

Not even an unseasonable nip in the air -- frost warnings were out for last night --could chill the high spirits that maxed out in a jocular meeting with the Japanese media, which had both Epstein and Francona yukking it up in response to questions about where Matsuzaka would be slotted in the rotation (too soon to say), and whether the Sox intend to allow Matsuzaka to pitch for Japan in the qualifying round of the Olympics in November. ("Let's go back to the rotation," Francona cracked.)

Pedroia? In great shape, much leaner than last spring. David Ortiz? He, too, is trimmer. Josh Beckett? Much more comfortable than a year ago. Curt Schilling? Any talks about a contract extension would be held on the QT. Trades? "Nothing on the horizon," Epstein said. "There's no deal, big or small, that we're working on right now."

In short, all was right in the Nation. It usually is, in February. Now, about those rings . . .

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES