After straining a gluteus muscle last spring, then requiring surgery Aug. 3 to repair a torn meniscus cartilage in his left knee, Varitek struggled at the plate last season. His average fell from .281 in 2005 to .238 in '06, 29 points below his career average of .268. Limited to just 103 games, his production fell, hitting just 12 home runs with 55 RBIs.
"He was searching," Francona said. "It's an interesting dynamic with him because he is a switch-hitter. But being a catcher, even though he plays a lot, he'll go three or four days without facing a lefty. And all of a sudden, in the ninth inning of a game, here comes the kid from Toronto throwing about 94 with the game on the line. And we expect him to be a good hitter because he's Jason Varitek, but he hasn't had a lot of practice. So, it's an interesting dilemma sometimes."
Francona attributes Varitek's struggles last year, at least in part, to not having a full Spring Training to prepare for the season.
"I think the World Baseball Classic had some things to do with it," he said. "Guys were trying to get ready and compete before they were ready. He came back. He always goes through his Spring Training soreness. But he had to be ready to go. You know how Jason is. You tell him to play a game, he's going to go play."
While Francona would like to get his catcher sufficient rest throughout the season, he would only sit Varitek if it would physically benefit his player.
"I know him well enough and [have established] a relationship enough where I think I got a pretty good idea when he needs to sit," Francona said. "When you see him sit a game and not come in a game, that's when I felt he needed a blow, a real blow."
Kicking the dip: Francona is determined not to lose his bet with Sox president Larry Lucchino, and stay off chewing tobacco for the rest of the season. If he is able to abstain, Lucchino will make a donation of $20,000 to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. If Francona resumes his habit, he will be the one writing out the check for the same amount to a charity to be named later.
"If I had my, I don't think 'druthers' is the right word, I'd rather be chewing," Francona said. "I love it, but I'm not. That's why I made the bet big enough. So I wouldn't.
"I'm trying to give it up. I don't want to start patting myself on the back yet. It's only a month in. I needed to [quit]. It's not a good habit. It's a horrible habit, but one that I really love."
The manager said his players have not been making it easy for him.
"No, the players are horrible, horrible," he said. "They know it's killing me. [David] Ortiz is putting it under my nose. I saw a bag the other day and actually smelled it. It was wonderful. But I'm not going to do it, because I don't want to do it. But it's still not easy."
Snyder to 'pen: With the starting rotation virtually locked up, and the bullpen still facing some uncertainty, right-hander Kyle Snyder will become a reliever.
"We wanted to get him somewhat stretched out for a couple of reasons," Francona said. "We don't know how the spring is going to go, and he needs to use four pitches. I think if you start him in the bullpen in Spring Training, you're going to take away some of his pitches. I don't want to do that. Now, we've got to a part in the spring where he needs to try to make the club. We obviously like this guy."
Francona is not concerned that Snyder, the former No. 1 pick of the Royals out of the University of North Carolina in 1999, will have to shelve any of his pitches -- a fastball, changeup, split-finger fastball, curveball -- by moving to the bullpen, a move that is frequently required of relievers.
"I think that's the way he's successful," Francona said. "We talk all the time about somebody going to the 'pen, you take a pitch away. He needs to throw his arsenal of pitches. He needs to throw strikes, keep his fastball down, and throw all his pitches. I was a little bit concerned if we started him in the bullpen in the beginning, we wouldn't see that."
Timlin still mending: Mike Timlin, whose strained left oblique was examined by Sox medical director Dr. Thomas Gill on Wednesday, is not yet ready to pitch and will sit out a few more days.
Francona said it was too soon to determine if Timlin would be ready for Opening Day, April 2 in Kansas City.
"I think if we put artificial deadlines, it makes it tougher for Mike," Francona said. "We'll let him get better. As he gets better, then we'll make the decisions. We just don't want him to rush into something so we lose him for two months. That doesn't make sense to me."
Pitcher up: In Spring Training games, American League teams playing on the road must request from National League clubs to be able to use the designated hitter. With the Sox facing the Mets on Thursday and Dodgers on Friday on the East Coast, the Sox requested from both teams they be able to employ the designated hitter. Both teams denied the request.
"We always request," Francona said. "I always tell them if they want to let us use the DH, they got a chance to see an Ortiz or a Ramirez. I always let them know they're costing their fans a chance to see one of the premier players. Sometimes they go for it, sometimes they don't."
Instead, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka, the starters Thursday and Friday, respectively, will bat. Francona said he would urge his pitchers to proceed to the plate with caution.
"It's a real unsettling time for us, because they haven't been swinging a bat, and the last thing you want is for a guy to miss time because he's trying to take a big swing," Francona said. "We need [them] to win games pitching."
Up next: The Sox travel to Florida's east coast Thursday to face the Mets in Port St. Lucie at 7:10 p.m. ET. Josh Beckett gets the start, followed by Javier Lopez and Devern Hansack. Oliver Perez starts for the Mets, followed by Billy Wagner and Scott Schoenweis.