THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

No crafting controversy at this camp

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 21, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Four and a half months after their October postmortem press conference, Theo and Tito were together again yesterday, basking in the afterglow of the first workout for Red Sox pitchers and catchers.

General manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona answered questions about the awkward Mike Lowell situation, and Jacoby Ellsbury moving to left field. Theo touted the pitching and defense of the 2010 Sox. Tito said Jason Varitek gets to keep the “C’’ on his chest. They spoke of Jeremy Hermida playing corner outfield and expectations for Clay Buchholz as a staple in the rotation.

Dozens of news-starved, microphone-wielding media folk devoured every word, and NESN aired an amazing three hours of guys playing catch and spitting sunflower seeds.

It was all about the baseball, and it made me miss the bad old days of players arriving late, out of shape, and disgruntled. It made me long for the days when the Rocket would go AWOL and Pedro would snub the franchise to stay in the Dominican for dad’s birthday.

I told Theo I blame him for weeding out the egos and assembling this obedient cast of professionals.

“This is nice,’’ said the GM of tranquility base. “In those old days we had guys talking [expletive]. But I think if we’ve found a way to win our 95 and play well in October, I think fans will be excited about our team.’’

OK, fine. So how was your winter?

“I was busy being smug,’’ he said. “You always call me smug. It’s overrated. You should see me after hours.’’

Theo no doubt is a wild and crazy Theo when we’re not around, but he has built a ball club in the image of his flat-line public persona. And the winter of 2009-10 will be remembered as the one in which the Sox went for leather over wood. It was the winter of pitching and defense. Bats need not apply.

“I’m a lot happier now than I was at the end of October when we looked at the board and looked at our five-year plan,’’ said Epstein.

He lit a brush fire at the winter meetings when he spoke of a “bridge’’ year. Some of us interpreted this as giving up on 2010, waiting for young players to develop. He felt he was misinterpreted.

“A little bit, but I don’t blame anyone for it,’’ he said. “That’s a phrase that I’ve used internally. Never did I mean that we’re not going to be competitive this year or next year.

“I simply meant that if you look back at what’s happened over the last six or seven years - we’ve been pretty good and used a certain model. Those players and that way of playing is not necessarily available to us right now. We’re getting older and some holes are starting to emerge. We have one of the better farm systems in baseball, but most of the best players in our system are not going to be there this year or even next year.’’

Ever wake up at night and worry about your offense?

“Every year’s club has something that keeps you up at night,’’ said Epstein. “Sometimes I worry that we might be vulnerable to a really good righthanded pitcher with a good breaking ball.

“We have more righthanded hitters than we’ve had in the past. Certain guys’ approaches are a little more vulnerable to guys with power stuff and a good breaking ball. If we don’t score as many runs as we did last year, I certainly think we’ll make up for that in terms of our run prevention. Our defense is going to be so much better.’’

Defense is the theme. But were the Sox really that porous last season?

“It was bad,’’ he said. “Any way you look at it. We were really bad at turning balls in play into outs. It’s remarkable we allowed the third-fewest runs in the league. That’s a testament to our pitching staff and some good situational pitching.

“You saw Jon Lester early in the year hurt by balls that got by the left side of the infield and by double plays that were not turned. It’s the same stuff that the numbers will tell you if you look at it.’’

Some of us (the same nitwits who worry about offense) question the reliability of modern defensive statistics.

“There’s been a lot of progress in that area in the last few years,’’ said Epstein, adding that the Sox do their defensive stat work in-house (they do not use UZR - ultimate zone rating). “I think it’s just as important to trust what your eyes are telling you. I think if you make any decision exclusively on what some numbers say, you’re taking an unnecessary risk. You have to combine what the numbers are telling you with what you see with your eyes.’’

OK, we’ll buy it. For now. But can you jazz things up down here, just a little?

“We’ll try,’’ he said. “I could light my hair on fire . . . or yours.’’

Nothing smug about that quote. It’s not Lou Gorman pledging, “The sun will rise, the sun will set, and I’ll have lunch,’’ but it’s a start.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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