FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This is how Red Sox manager Terry Francona typically reacts when someone tries to pin him down about a contract situation involving one of his players, especially one who will either get a new deal from the club or become a free agent.
"If I'm out there politicking for a guy, that doesn't help Theo do his job."
Those were Francona's exact words to WEEI radio hosts Michael Holley and Dale Arnold in November when they asked him about Jason Bay, who already had filed for free agency but was still negotiating with Sox GM Theo Epstein for an extension.
Yes, Francona would acknowledge that he'd like to have Bay back, but quickly added that that's what he thought Bay wanted, too, and that the player had earned the right to free agency. He managed to show loyalty to both the player and the team, while making it abundantly clear that whatever his personal feelings were, he was prepared for either outcome.
Now, contrast that to Francona's remarks when asked Friday about Josh Beckett, who is in the last year of his three-year, $30 million contract. Francona had been standing to the side when Jon Lester made a strong case to reporters for the Sox to re-sign Beckett.
"I think it would definitely help out this organization, not only on the field but off, for however many years they sign him," Lester said.
" I think it would be a huge loss for this organization for him not to come back. Obviously on the field, but definitely in the clubhouse, he would be a guy missed in there."
Francona said he didn't catch all of Lester's remarks, but knew immediately which guy he was talking about.
"Beckett," he said, "is important to a lot of people in there. We let him know that today. He is the leader of the staff. He's earned that respect, and a lot comes with it. People look up to him, and I think he's proud of that. He should be."
Now, if that's not politicking, then Scott Brown never should have taken the pickup truck out of his garage.
But does that mean Francona has suddenly changed his own rules? Doubtful. What it could mean is that the manager has a strong sense of how this is going to play out. He didn't even wait for a reporter to finish asking how much he thought Beckett's contract situation would be a distraction.
"Zero," he said. "Zero."
Why so sure? Was it because of how Beckett, who last time signed a year ahead of free agency at a price that was a bargain for the Sox, takes less than a scorched-earth policy toward these things?
"I just know how he approaches things," Francona said. "I know how Theo approaches things. It's not a concern.
"We'd all like Beckett to be here for a long time. That's stating the obvious."
There were no qualifying escape clauses -- "but he's earned the right to test free agency" or "but I don't want to make Theo's job tougher on him."
Francona sounded like a man who not only expects to have Beckett on his side for years to come but might even know what day they're planning to have the news conference announcing Beckett's new deal.
Presumptuous on my part? No doubt. But Francona is seldom careless with his words on matters of such import to the franchise, and he certainly sounded like someone who has been assured that Beckett isn't going anywhere.
It would have been easy, for example, for Francona to instead emphasize how Beckett was one terrific arm among many and how the leader of the rotation by the end of last season -- at least measured by the team's choice to start the first game of the playoffs against the Angels -- was Lester.
Lester was my choice to win the AL Cy Young Award last season, and I'll stick with that pick again in 2010. A dreadful start, and fantastic seasons by Kansas City's Zack Greinke and Seattle's Felix Hernandez, eliminated him from serious consideration in 2009.
Last season, Lester had a 3-5 record and 6.07 ERA after his first 10 starts. Opposing hitters were batting .307 against him and had posted an .864 OPS (on-base plus slugging). In just 59 1/3 innings, he had given up 11 home runs while walking 21 batters.
Then, he struck out a dozen Blue Jays in just six innings in Toronto on May 31, beginning a run of 22 starts in which he went 12-3 with a 2.31 ERA. The opposing batting average dropped to .213, the OPS to .576, and he gave up just 9 home runs while walking just 43 in 144 innings.
"It was my time to struggle," Lester said Friday. "The more I look back on it, I didn't do anything wrong. I made some bad pitches when I didn't need to. I had some bad innings that just crept up on me. My process was there, so that was the frustrating part. I did everything right until I let go of the pitch and the pitch just wasn't executed."
That's why, he said, he doesn't intend to do anything differently this spring.
"There is nothing that I can physically do in spring training to prepare myself for that," he said.
Francona noted that Lester wasn't alone in his struggles.
"Beckett went through some of the same sort of tribulations," Francona said. "[Lester] had a tough six weeks. He didn't feel very confident I don't think he felt good about himself. He felt good physically, but he wasn't getting results.
"Then he got on a roll, took off and never slowed down."
Lester said he'll let others decide who the staff is. More important, he said, is that in John Lackey the Sox have another quality arm to share the load.
And nobody, least of all Francona, sounds too worried that Beckett won't be a part of that formula for years to come.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.