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12/09/08 1:08 AM EST

Francona starts reaching out to players

Red Sox skipper confident he'll have championship-caliber squad

LAS VEGAS -- When it comes to the Winter Meetings, Red Sox manager Terry Francona is content to leave the wheeling and dealing up to general manager Theo Epstein.

Francona will give his opinion when Epstein solicits it and even help in the recruitment of a free agent when necessary. But Francona is more concerned with keeping tabs with the players who are already on the roster.

"You start getting back in touch with the players," Francona said. "This is about the time of year you kind of start checking in on them. You give them their time away, and then you start checking in. When [Dustin Pedroia] signed his contract, that was exciting. Things like that I would probably get more revved up about."

While fans can't get enough juicy rumors on the Hot Stove front, Francona is content to let the process play itself out, knowing full well that he'll have a championship-caliber squad report to Fort Myers, Fla., in February.

Is he eager to see what the 2009 Red Sox will look like?

"Yeah, but also understanding that there needs to be a certain amount of patience, because you know, I think your fans want your team to be in place today, and it just can't work like that," Francona said. "But I think that I know these guys [in the front office] well enough that when we head down to Fort Myers, we will have a team that we think has a chance to win."

Francona has also spent part of the offseason getting his body back in working order after the long grind of the season. Back in October, Francona expected to have back surgery. He wound up just getting his knee operated on, which is commonplace for Francona.

"I'm getting old," quipped Francona. "No, I'm fine. I had a knee surgery. It's like an oil change, and I held off on my back just because I got a little scared. We'll get it figured out. I've had enough opinions that I'm just not real comfortable going through it right now."

Francona is far more comfortable speaking of issues surrounding his team than he is his ailing back.

Now that Coco Crisp is gone, Francona is excited that Jacoby Ellsbury is set in stone as the center fielder. The players split time in 2008, with Crisp actually supplanting Ellsbury during the American League Championship Series, which was the opposite of what happened a year earlier.

Francona said he spoke with Ellsbury a few weeks back.

"It was probably a couple of days before Coco got traded," said Francona. "[I] just wanted to make sure I touched base with him. Again, when the season was over, he was the one sitting a little bit as opposed to last year. I just wanted to touch base with him and remind him that, in my opinion, next year will be a huge year for him. Now that Coco is not here, I think that is stating the obvious.

"It's not realistic very often that kids are going to come up and play in this league and not have some hiccups, and he certainly had some. But at the same time, you look back -- stolen bases, batting average -- he didn't do too bad. This can be a very difficult league to play in, and I thought he handled himself pretty well."

What does Francona think of having Jed Lowrie and Julio Lugo compete for the shortstop position in Spring Training?

"We have not gotten there yet, but certainly it's something that if they are both on the team, we have to figure out how it best suits our team," Francona said. "But I don't know that answer right now. Lugo really worked hard to try to get back [from the quad injury], and he just could not quite get there at the end. Saying that, at a time when we really needed somebody to help us, Lowrie came in and was really productive. Now, again, the last six, eight weeks, left-handers were tough for him, and we recognize that.

"I guess if we get to a point where if we ruffle somebody's feathers because we have a player or two that thinks they should be playing that aren't, that probably means our team is in pretty good shape. I would rather have it that way than not have enough players."

Speaking of not having enough players, that could be a problem during Spring Training if the Red Sox have a large throng invited to the World Baseball Classic. Clearly, Francona is bracing for that.

"You know what, I don't know how it's going to impact us yet," Francona said. "It's not perfect. You know, because we have a pretty good team, we are probably going to lose ... my guess will be between seven and nine guys. That's hard to run a good Spring Training when you have guys gone."

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