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03/04/11 10:56 PM ET

Red Sox don't see themselves as favorites

Despite front-runner label, Boston not taking division for granted

TAMPA, Fla. -- December's Winter Meetings had just ended, and Terry Francona and Brian Cashman were headed to separate gates at Orlando International Airport, while in the midst of very separate offseasons.

Francona's Red Sox had just hauled in both Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, two dynamic talents who change the face of their lineup. Cashman's Yankees, on the other hand, were still awaiting a decision by Cliff Lee, in what would turn out to be a fruitless pursuit for front-end rotation help.

The two men were at Au Bon Pain, grabbing a snack before their respective flights, when Cashman made a remark he would come to repeat several times over the next couple months. He told Francona that the Red Sox were now the "favorites" to win the American League East in 2011.

"I laughed," Francona said. "He didn't offer to pay, so I didn't really listen to him."

When the general manager of a storied franchise openly admits his rival is currently better-positioned for the season ahead, plenty of people listen. Cashman's comments about the Red Sox being the "hunted" and the Yankees being the "hunters" have been plastered all over the newspapers and on the Web.

And as the Yanks and Red Sox were getting ready Friday for their first of two spring meetings before their 18 head-to-head battles in the season proper, Cashman reiterated those remarks.

"We're not conceding anything," Cashman said. "But Theo [Epstein] and their ownership got a lot of areas that were question marks answered in the wintertime. I didn't. I might have the answers right here, but because I can't say we do just yet, I'm going to be honest and say they've got the inside pull. They are the hunted and we are the hunters, and it's a simple as that."

It will be several weeks before we start to see just how well situated both these clubs are. Boston's 5-3 victory on Friday night at George M. Steinbrenner Field was hardly a preview of things to come, given that the Sox only sent three position players to Tampa who are likely to crack the Opening Day roster -- Darnell McDonald, Jed Lowrie and Jason Varitek.

Such is the nature of spring exhibitions, though this was a night for Clay Buchholz to sharpen his stuff against the likes of Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada and Andruw Jones and for Bartolo Colon to submit his bid to land a starting slot with the Yanks.

That the Red Sox are so well settled in their starting five and the Yanks are auditioning retreads like Colon and Freddy Garcia is the primary reason so many agree with Cashman's early sentiments. But Francona has dismissed any speculation painting New York as an underdog, given its payroll.

"I spend so much time getting up and worrying about the Red Sox that I don't lose a lot of sleep worrying about Cash," Francona said. "I love Cash, but I hope he doesn't figure [the rotation] out."

And Francona is quick to point out that, if he were so inclined, he could lose plenty of sleep about the other teams in the American League East, not just the Yanks. Somebody asked Francona if this might be the deepest this division has been in years.

"We don't know yet," Francona said. "I hope not. But I know what you're talking about. New York's New York. Tampa's still good. Baltimore's lineup is going to put up some crooked numbers. And Toronto, other than the manager, they're good. But I think we got better, too. We needed to. We came in third."

Aside from his little dig at former pitching coach John Farrell, who is now managing the Blue Jays, it was a diplomatic response by the leader of a Red Sox club some are labeling the deepest in the game.

Injuries decimated Boston last season, but a return to health for Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury, combined with the high-profile additions from outside the organization, make the Red Sox primed to claim the division for the first time since 2007.

"These guys are special," Cashman said of Crawford and Gonzalez, "but we've got a lot of special players here, too. I have a feeling that's why they went out and got those players."

To that point, Cashman was asked if he viewed the Red Sox's eye-catching winter moves as a sort of delayed reaction to the winter before the 2009 season, when the Yankees added CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, en route to a World Series title.

"I don't think it's a reaction," Cashman said. "I just think that the timing of what we did the winter after the '08 season, with a lot of payroll coming off and with a lot of quality free agents available ... the timing meshed with vacancies on our club, as well as $100 million in payroll coming off the books. Same as the Red Sox. They had some options and vacancies, and they had some pretty tremendous free agents or trade candidates who were available, so it was perfect for them."

We'll see how perfect when the season starts and the Red Sox try to prove a rival GM right.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.