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The key question now: What of Terry Francona's future?

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  September 29, 2011 07:41 PM

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Terry Francona was asked a simple question this afternoon, how did he feel about returning as manager of the Red Sox?

“Theo [Epstein] and I talked today a little bit. I think we’ll continue to talk tomorrow. Maybe it’s best today to stay with where we’re at,” Francona said. “It’s still pretty fresh and pretty raw. It’s a fair question.”

Not exactly, "Well sure I would."

Epstein said he and Francona would meet with team owners John Henry and Tom Werner along with club president Larry Lucchino in the coming days to discuss the future. Francona has two one-year options on his deal worth $4.5 million each.

“We’re less than 24 hours removed from the end of the season,” Epstein said. “We need some time to calm down, get objective and look at ourselves, look at 2011, look ahead [and] make the best decisions for everybody.”

Epstein then exonerated Francona for the team’s September collapse, saying he had talked to ownership and all agreed that the manager wasn’t to blame for the team losing a nine-game lead in the wild-card race.

“That would be totally irresponsible and totally short-sighted and wouldn’t recognize everything that he means to the organization and to all our success, including at times during 2011,” Epstein said. “We take full responsibility for that. For all of us, collectively it’s a failure.”

Francona has been in a stressful job for eight years now. It has taken a toll on him and his family. He spent much of today's press conference discussing the lack of chemistry that obviously played a role in the team collapsing. He even admitted to calling a meeting on Sept. 7 to discuss it. In retrospect, it came too late.

“There were things I was worried about,” Francona said. “I thought we were spending too much energy on things that weren’t putting our best foot forward towards winning. We spent a few minutes in the clubhouse talking about that.

“There were some things that did concern me. Teams normally, as the season progresses, there’s events that make you care about each other and with this club, it didn’t always happen as much as I wanted it to. And I was frustrated by that.”

As an observer of the team from February to September, the Red Sox were a collection of talented individuals who didn't necessarily seem all that concerned with the guy next to them. Francona detailed that a bit.

“Ultimately you don’t need a team that wants to go out to dinner together. But you need a team that wants to protect each other on the field and be fiercely loyal to each other on the field,” he said. “That‘s what ultimately is really important. … I wanted us to handle things on the field a little bit better than we did. At times, we just didn’t get there and it was very difficult.”

It falls on Epstein and Francona to address those issues, assuming they remain together.

Was it corny that Rays manager Joe Maddon had his team wear college letterman sweaters on their last road trip? Sure it was. But don't the Rays seem a lot more in synch today? In recent years the Yankees have called off a day of practice in spring training to go play video games or shoot pool as a group. Does that help promote chemistry? It doesn't hurt.

CC Sabathia purchased Orlando Magic season tickets his first season with the Yankees and took a succession of new teammates to games. Those kind of things help make a team and the Red Sox have lacked that in recent years.

What Epstein and the owners have to decide is whether Francona can be part of the solution. Can he be tougher on the players in terms of conditioning and fundamentals while at the same time fostering chemistry?

And Francona has to decide whether he wants to stay here and rebuild what once was great or go work on television for a year. Or go manage someplace else. Because the day he becomes a free agent, his phone will ring.

Other issues were addressed today, too:

Epstein on John Lackey: "As far as rehabilitating, it's a big priority for obvious reasons and we have to attack it from a physical perspective, see if there's things we can do with him, physically, to put him in a better position to have success on the mound. From a fundamental standpoint, there's things we can do with him differently, fundamentally, to get his stuff and his command back to where it was. Then from a mental standpoint, so those are the three areas we attack issues with players. We're going to leave no stone unturned, really, with all of our players and the organization as a whole."

Epstein on Carl Crawford: That's another significant priority for us, along with Lackey, and that's getting Carl back to where he previously was in his career is a requisite for us this winter. We've spent an awful lot of time thinking about it, and we're going to spend a lot more time thinking about it and we're going to spend some time with him and put our heads together and see what can be done.

"He has taken responsibility for it. I think that's the first step. When I'm truly troubled about a player long-term, who I know is still talented, is when that player denies that there's an issue, [and says] `I had a good year,' and won't look in the mirror. Carl has taken full and very public responsibility for having a very disappointing year, and he did. That's the first step and the next step is what are you going to do about it? Well, we're not going to abandon him. We're going to work with him if it takes all offseason, or if it takes backing away and then addressing it later on during the offseason. We'll do whatever it takes to getting him back to the player that he was, because he's going to be very important for us going forward."

Francona on finding where Crawford fits best in the lineup: I think early in the season I would've been wrong to continue to hit him at the top of the order. We were starting out as a team struggling so bad and he wasn't getting on base, and we were trying to protect him a little bit, too. With all the players, we tell them wherever they hit, just play your game. Just play your game and we'll fit it in to what we're doing.

Epstein on the idea of the team being in poor condition: "I think we have high standards in that area and other areas, and I can't sit here and say those standards have been met across the board. So I'm not going to lump everyone in together, but I can say there were certain instances where we can and have to do better, and it'll be addressed.

"The way the clubhouse culture has evolved -- and this falls on me ultimately as a general manager -- we need to be more accountable. If we require players to be in first-class physical condition and look out across the field and want to be in better shape and better condition than our opponents and if that's not happening consistently, 1-through-25, on the roster, then that's a problem."

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