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Francona bullish on restocked bullpen

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By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / January 21, 2011

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Before last season ended, manager Terry Francona said the offseason priority for the Red Sox had to be improving the bullpen.

The additions of Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler, and Matt Albers would seem to have accomplished that.

“I’m really happy,’’ Francona said yesterday before the 72d dinner hosted by the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. “But saying that, I bet you every other manager you would ask today, nobody’s not happy.

“That’s the way the game is. You get to spring training, nobody’s hurt. Nobody’s gotten nicked up. Nobody’s ERA is high. Nobody is being ineffective.’’

After seeing his bullpen sink to the lowest levels in the American League, Francona likes the idea of having Jenks available late in games as a complement to Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard. Wheeler is a reliable presence as well.

The Sox also added an assortment of lefthanders to compete for a spot, including holdovers Hideki Okajima and Rich Hill.

“I do think we have reason for optimism,’’ said Francona. “We have some guys that can make some guys swing and miss. We have a couple of extra arms hopefully if something happens, which it always does.

“I’m sure going into camp we’ll have a little bit of competition for jobs and there’s some spots. We have some lefthanders who want to show what they can do and there’s a need.’’

Jenks has been in Boston working out this week. Francona has gotten to know the burly former White Sox closer a little.

“[He] seems very excited, and that’s good,’’ said Francona. “That’s normally what happens. Guys come to a new place and they want to put their best foot forward.’’

Good combination When the Sox began last season with Mike Cameron in center field and Jacoby Ellsbury in left, the hope was for premier defense. It never worked out that way, as both players were affected by injuries. Now the Sox will have Ellsbury back in center and Gold Glover Carl Crawford in left. “We kind of envisioned [Ellsbury] being Carl Crawford; now we have Carl Crawford, that’s even better,’’ Francona said. “It should be really good. You’re not going to see a lot of balls hit the grass. General manager Theo [Epstein] should be commended for what he did this winter. There’s a lot of excitement and there should be.’’

Status quo The Sox will not be moving in the fences in right field at Fenway Park to create more space in the bullpens. The team said yesterday it had withdrawn its request with the state to consider the adjustment. With the season approaching, time was one issue. The idea also met with resistance because of Fenway’s status as a landmark. The Sox said there is no timetable for a decision and they would review submitting the idea again.

Awards night The dinner, which drew a large crowd to the Westin Copley Place, featured a number of awards. Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino received the Fuchs Award for long and meritorious service to baseball. Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester were named Red Sox Co-Pitchers of the Year. Awards also went to Ryan Kalish (Rookie of the Year), Jed Lowrie (Comeback Player), Scott Atchison (Unsung Hero), and Tim Wakefield (Community Service). Darnell McDonald received the Jackie Jensen Hustle Award. Ron Washington of Texas was named Major League Manager of the Year. Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit, who came back from surgery to pitch well for the Rays in 2010, received the Tony Conigliaro Award for perseverance.

Moving forward Anthony Rizzo was on hand to receive the Red Sox Minor League Player of the Year award. The first baseman, along with righthander Casey Kelly and outfielder Rey Fuentes, was traded to San Diego in December for Adrian Gonzalez. Rizzo was visiting Kelly in Florida when they received the news. “It was kind of bittersweet at first,’’ said Rizzo, who survived a bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008 to become a top prospect. “I had formed a lot of relationships with people in the organization and they had helped me through life. I was molded and developed by the Red Sox.’’ Rizzo was invited to major league spring training by the Padres. “It’s exciting,’’ he said. “Ever since I was a kid, my dream was to play in the big leagues. Obviously when I got drafted by the Red Sox, it was to play for the Red Sox. But now it’s for the Padres.’’

Father of the bride Francona, who had a second knee-replacement surgery in the fall, successfully walked his daughter Leah down the aisle at her wedding over the weekend . . . McDonald attended the funeral of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, one of the victims of the shootings in Arizona. Her father, John Green, was the Orioles scout who signed McDonald to his first contract. “It makes you appreciate every day,’’ McDonald said. “I felt like I wanted to reach out to John and his family. He was a big part of my life.’’ . . . Wakefield, 44, who is in the final year of his contract, did not discount pitching in 2012.

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