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Not skipping out on expectations

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By Nick Cafardo
February 14, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Sometimes it’s not the best thing to be the best team on paper, because then you’re expected to be the best team on the field.

Of course, generally you’ll take the best-team-on-paper designation and run with it. And that’s what Red Sox manager Terry Francona is hoping to do.

With all of the Sox’ offseason moves, Francona received a lot of text messages, such as the one from Houston manager Brad Mills, his longtime bench coach, who told Francona after Boston acquired Carl Crawford, “now don’t [expletive] it up.’’ And really, while it is this superb roster that must perform to that level on the field, it’s the manager who has to put the players in the best position to excel.

It’s no different than the pressure Charlie Manuel faces in Philadelphia having four all-world starters. The Phillies must be the Sox’ opponent in the World Series for either team to have had a successful season after the work their respective front offices did to create these fantastic “on paper’’ teams.

One will recall that back in 2004, when Francona was hired, ownership and general manager Theo Epstein enhanced the Sox roster by acquiring Curt Schilling. The subtle, if unspoken, message was to get the team to where Grady Little couldn’t. Then came the Nomar Garciaparra deal, and while it was already a very good team with a deep roster, Francona didn’t mess it up, and so the end of the 86-year curse ended under Francona’s watch.

Here we are in 2011, two championships in the books, and a year after injuries decimated a pretty good roster and helped create the disappointment of not making the playoffs.

Now the unspoken message is “get this team not only back into the postseason, but into the World Series.’’

Francona kidded that he not only received one of those “get it done’’ texts from Mills, he also got one from Epstein.

Epstein’s trade for Adrian Gonzalez and ownership’s willingness to dish out $142 million for free agent left fielder Crawford and another $12 million on a two-year deal for reliever Bobby Jenks means Francona will have excellent players to manage. That also creates more pressure, no?

“I don’t know. I think our expectations are high, and they should be,’’ Francona said. “Our front office and ownership did a terrific job this winter. Our goals on the field never change, whatever your talent is perceived to be. I can’t imagine playing the game differently. Right is right, wrong is wrong. So we’ll do the best we can.

“We’ve had high expectations the last eight or nine years. I don’t think we’ll be consumed with the pressure of our expectations.’’

Part of Francona’s job will be to deal with the many players coming off surgeries or injuries. So while spring training might not look pretty, players such as Gonzalez (shoulder surgery), Dustin Pedroia (foot surgery), Kevin Youkilis (thumb surgery), Jacoby Ellsbury (broken ribs), Mike Cameron (sports hernia surgery), Marco Scutaro (pinched nerve in neck), and J.D. Drew (hamstring woes) will have a chance to ease in during camp and then to be ready by Opening Day.

“We have some obvious competitions in our bullpen,’’ said Francona, “a few lefthanders who are interesting. We get enjoyment and challenges out of everything — even things that seem mundane. We’re trying to get the most out of everyone who comes through our door. We’re pleased with our depth. Things don’t always go right and maybe guys don’t pitch as good or they get hurt . . . ’’

Ah yes, injuries. Those are out of a manager’s hands. But if you have depth, you can survive.

The Red Sox will have Tim Wakefield, Alfredo Aceves, and possibly Felix Doubront as depth in the rotation if they need it.

While Jed Lowrie has been fragile early in his career, Francona likes the fact he can play all the infield positions, but the manager also wonders if he needs another backup infielder. Don’t be surprised if the Sox add a veteran they can stick in Triple A at some point, unless Yamaico Navarro can fill the bill.

The lefty reliever competition could end quickly if Hideki Okajima is back on track, but Rich Hill, Dennys Reyes, Andrew Miller, and perhaps even Doubront are in the mix.

The Sox don’t believe catcher is a position of concern. Francona and everyone else on the staff love Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

“We have [Jason Varitek] and Salty and I think we’re pretty comfortable with that, maybe more than people realize,’’ Francona said. “Salty’s had a tremendous winter. This guy’s potentially a power-hitting, switch-hitting catcher. If that doesn’t come to fruition right away, that’s not the end of the world. We love the way he wants to run the game and he aspires to the run the game. And Tek’s in a good spot. He feels good about where he is, and that makes us feel better.’’

So it comes down to lineups, batting orders, resting players at the right time to get maximum effort. It comes down to starters Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka trying to match Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. It comes down to a guy like Ellsbury returning to pre-2010 form, possibly creating an incredible dynamic with Crawford as the two best base stealers in the league.

Francona said he doesn’t want to rein in Crawford and Ellsbury on the bases but he also wants them to have a high stolen base percentage.

As for where everyone will hit, Francona has had those discussions with his staff, but he believes it’s way too early to have a public discussion about it. He did say Ellsbury is his choice to lead off assuming the center fielder is up to it. He also wants to put Gonzalez in the best possible place in the order to take advantage of him as a pure hitter and potential 40-homer talent.

Francona will have Youkilis back at his natural position at third, but he will need to monitor whether the move from first base causes more wear and tear on Youkilis and thus could create some time for Lowrie.

The manager will be keeping an eye on the players in the final year of their contracts — Jonathan Papelbon, David Ortiz, and Drew in particular.

He has to watch how Jenks adapts to being a setup man. He must monitor how antsy Daniel Bard is to become the closer.

Yes, Francona will have the best roster on paper in the American League. Now comes the tough part.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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