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Manny questions yet to be answered

There is a long checklist of issues to be addressed during the upcoming Red Sox season, but one that has been in hibernation since the winter meetings in December is Manny Ramírez's frame of mind.

The people who know -- or think they know -- just aren't saying, or they're hedging.

Sox manager Terry Francona, who leaves for Fort Myers today, said at a press gathering yesterday that he hadn't talked to Ramírez since December, though some clubhouse employees have.

"I think he's OK," said Francona. "I don't think there are any problems."

There's not much information flowing on this topic, though the Red Sox entertained trade offers for him the past two seasons. Talks took up at least three days at the winter meetings this past December, with the hottest suitors being the Giants. But they didn't want to part with their young pitching and didn't have enough otherwise to give up.

Ramírez spoke to the media only once last season -- the day he reported to spring training -- and there are hints that he might do the same this season. One of his agents, Gene Mato, said, "I'm not going to talk for Manny. He comes back next week. I'm not commenting until he gets back."

Mato said he has spoken to Ramírez several times since last season ended. Asked if he knew what Ramírez's frame of mind was, he said, "Yes, I do."

What is it?

Mato wouldn't go there.

Ramírez's other agent, Greg Genske, won't even take phone calls on the topic.

A source close to Ramírez said yesterday that the left fielder was hurt by suggestions in the media that Ramírez quit on his team last year when he sat out with patellar tendinitis.

What is known is that general manager Theo Epstein shut down all trade talk on Ramírez after the Giants situation fell through. Mets general manager Omar Minaya, who has known Ramírez since he was in high school, seemed irked that the Red Sox never approached him about a deal.

Though Ramírez came to spring training in a good mood last year after potential deals with the Orioles, Mets, and Angels fell through, Francona will likely have to contend with Manny being Manny again. But the manager weighed in on a few other hot topics at his final Hot Stove press conference.

For one thing, Francona didn't rule out Jonathan Papelbon returning to the closer role.

"To be perfectly honest, I suppose the possibility exists, but I think it's a very long shot," Francona said. "I think a lot of things have to happen for that to eventually happen, and I don't see that happening. The first thing is that he'd have to be medically cleared to do it, and that's the reason he's in the starting rotation. It's not because we don't think he can close.

"If I had my druthers, he would be our closer. That's how I feel. It's not happening. We have to respect the medical people's advice -- and I do. I'm not fighting it. They think for his long-term not only success but health, this is the way to go about it. And I understand that, so we'll do it. Unless that changed, it can't happen."

While the Sox would like to see free agent Joel Pineiro emerge as the closer, Francona also will consider three other veteran righthanders: Julian Tavarez (Francona said he was OK after a mild sprained ankle in winter ball), Brendan Donnelly, and Mike Timlin.

"I have some ideas how it's going to unfold," Francona said. "The four righthanders, we'll sit down and talk to them individually and as a group when I get down there and explain to them that those are the four veteran guys that we want to see throw some innings late in games.

"We'll explain to them that we want them to build arm strength in the beginning; we don't want guys going out the first week and throwing 3-and-0 breaking balls and trying to have a low ERA in spring training so they can be the closer."

It doesn't appear the closer mix, at least initially, will include youngsters Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen, who might start out at Triple A. Francona made a point to say that Hansen, 23, hasn't pitched a lot of minor league innings (63, including playoffs).

"This kid needs to pitch a little," Francona said.

However, he added, "If we were convinced he could do it [close] -- and I hope we do reach that decision -- then we would have a heck of a decision to make. I hope that happens."

Francona also said he will sit down with Jon Lester, who is cancer free after undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma, to map out a spring training schedule.

"I told him about being cautious and slow and he didn't want to hear any of it," Francona said. "But he's smart enough to know we have his best interests in mind.

"When we get down there, we'll sit with him, doctors, and trainers and put together a schedule. We don't want to hold him back just for the sake of holding him back, but we don't want him to hurt himself because he's a good kid and hard worker.

"Baseball players aren't the best self-evaluators, so we'll have to hold him back a little bit. The last thing, his legs are slower to bounce back. He's about seven pounds below his normal weight. I don't want him to hurt his arm just because we needed him two weeks earlier."

Francona also spoke with excitement about having a healthy Coco Crisp, who he feels will look far different than he did last season when he battled finger and shoulder injuries. Francona feels Crisp can get back to driving fastballs, whereas last year he'd foul many of them off.

"He'll show a lot different approach offensively simply because he's healthy," said Francona. "Between the finger and shoulder, he had no ability to make adjustments. When a ball changed planes and changed speeds, he had no ability to make adjustments. It was very tough for him."

The manager also committed to Dustin Pedroia as his second baseman, and said his uppercut swing won't have to be altered.

Francona said Matt Clement, who underwent extensive shoulder surgery last season, could begin his throwing program in spring training, but he will be on his own schedule. He also spoke to Wily Mo Peña about his role as the fourth outfielder; he would like Peña to see action at all three outfield spots and maybe get 400 at-bats. But he didn't seem enthused about trying Peña at first base.

Francona acknowledged that communicating with Daisuke Matsuzaka will be challenging, and said it will be important for pitching coach John Farrell and catcher Jason Varitek to get on the same page with the Japanese hurler.

He said he has spoken to Mike Lowell about his being mentioned in trade talks with Colorado for Todd Helton. In a phone conversation, said Francona, Lowell relieved the awkwardness immediately by saying, "Now batting sixth for the Colorado Rockies . . ."

Although Francona would not commit to a batting order, he did say Julio Lugo will lead off and Kevin Youkilis would likely bat second.

In conclusion, if Manny is happy, if the Sox figure out who's the closer, and if Papelbon and Matsuzaka make easy transitions, Francona believes he'll have a special team.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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