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Spring in his step

New first baseman (and knee) uplift Francona

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / December 8, 2010

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It had been nearly two months since Terry Francona met with reporters, and two things were immediately noticeable yesterday: His mood and his gait have improved.

The trade for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has lifted Red Sox spirits and nearly washed away the memories of finishing third in the AL East last season. Francona is literally moving better, too, his left knee having been replaced by a titanium model.

“It’s amazing how one hitter can really make you feel, not just feel, but look different,’’ Francona said on the second day of baseball’s winter meetings. “You stick him in the middle of the order, whether he’s hitting third, fourth, wherever, we’re a lot different team.

“Now all of a sudden you get that legitimate bat, that’s pretty exciting. It was an exciting way to start the meetings. It still seems exciting the next day, and I’m sure when we leave here it will be exciting.’’

Seven eventful years as Sox manager have given Francona the experience needed to survive the changing tides of the offseason with his perspective intact. He knew good days would follow the bad ones.

“Like two weeks ago when Victor [Martinez] left for Detroit, it was like Boston was going to fall off into the ocean,’’ said Francona. “You have to remind people it’s a long winter, and we have good ownership, and we have a smart front office and let the winter play itself out.

“It’s not played itself out yet, but we’ve got a really good first baseman.’’

Francona addressed other lingering issues, including how the lefthanded-dominant Sox lineup will adjust against lefthanded pitchers. J.D. Drew had a .611 OPS against lefties, with David Ortiz at .599.

There are no plans, Francona said, to platoon Drew in right field.

“Maybe drop him down the lineup as opposed to not playing him,’’ said the manager. “I think that’s probably a better way to do it. There are certain lefthanders that you’re doing him a favor by giving him the day off. But I don’t think you want to have a platoon out there. That seems like a little bit much.’’

With Ortiz, the hope is for less ego and more acceptance of lineup changes. The slugger’s relationship with Francona was damaged during his early struggles last season.

“The idea is not to sit him against lefties,’’ said Francona. “I think the idea is to get David to understand if we do want to sit him against a lefty, it’s not that we don’t believe he can play.

“Last April was miserable. You can talk, you can spin it any way you want to, it was miserable. It was hard on David, it was hard on me, it was hard on our team. It was hard on everybody.

“I think there are times when, like J.D., you give him a break against a tough lefty and you’re doing him a favor. I also believe for him to swing the bat like he needs to, he has to face some lefties. I think that’s important.

“But I think you’ve got to be able to get to a place where whatever is best for the team, you end up doing.’’

Francona revealed that the plan for Jed Lowrie is to use him as a backup at all four infield positions. His versatility and switch hitting makes him an ideal candidate for that role.

“That may not be his ultimate goal, and I respect that,’’ said Francona. “But as far as our team goes, that would be a really nice fit.’’

Francona also discussed the idea of using Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek behind the plate to replace Martinez. He is high on the potential of the 25-year-old Saltalamacchia but expects Varitek to play a significant role.

“The way Tek swings the bat righthanded, ultimately we can talk about mentoring and tutoring, we’ve still got to win games,’’ he said. “I think Tek is still at that point where he can do that too.

“So I think it’s a real good fit. Tek’s going to play more than probably the average backup catcher.’’

Francona was asked about talking to Jonathan Papelbon in the wake of the Sox unsuccessfully trying to sign Mariano Rivera to be their closer.

But of all the offseason issues, Papelbon’s grasp of current affairs is not a concern.

“No, I will. I’d reach out to Pap from time to time,’’ Francona said with a chuckle. “But he may not even know.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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