BOSTON (AP) – Tim Wakefield is looking forward to his 13th season with the Boston Red Sox, with or without his favorite catcher.

The club exercised its $4 million option on the knuckleballer on Monday, two days after Doug Mirabelli, who handled the fluttering pitch for most of the last five seasons, filed for free agency.

“I’d love to see him back but I understand the organization’s standpoint,” Wakefield said during a conference call. “I’m open to anyone else who’s going to be back there.”

General manager Theo Epstein was noncommittal about Mirabelli, a light hitter with a knack for catching the knuckler. The Red Sox also have Jason Varitek, who usually sat out every fifth game so Mirabelli could catch Wakefield. Another possibility is George Kottaras, acquired late in the season from San Diego for pitcher David Wells

“I’m sure we’ll continue to talk” with Mirabelli’s representative, Epstein said. “We want to find the catcher who’s the best fit for the Boston Red Sox to back up Jason, whether it’s Doug or somebody else.”

Wakefield spent from July 22 to Sept. 13 on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his ribcage. He finished the season at 7-11 with a 4.63 ERA in 23 starts. For his career he is 151-134 in 480 games over two seasons with Pittsburgh and 12 with Boston.

Early in the 2005 season, Wakefield agreed to a $4 million, one-year contract extension through 2006 that gave the Red Sox the ability to keep their longest-tenured player for the rest of his career. The team can keep renewing his contract annually at the same salary.

“I want to pitch as long as my body will let me,” he said.

The Red Sox have three pitchers who will be 40 years old when spring training starts – Mike Timlin, Wakefield and Curt Schilling.

They’ll work with new pitching coach John Farrell, who took over after Dave Wallace’s contract was not renewed. Wakefield doesn’t know Farrell personally but spoke with him for about 45 minutes.

“I’m going to miss Wally but I think John brings a lot to the table,” Wakefield said. “It seems like he has a lot of passion for the staff that’s going to be assembled.”

Wakefield also said he was feeling “a lot better” and that time was “the cure-all” for his rib injury. He plans to resume throwing in early December. The Red Sox have to make sure someone can catch him.

Boston had traded Mirabelli to San Diego for second baseman Mark Loretta after the 2005 season. They reacquired him on May 1 in a trade that sent Josh Bard to the Padres after Bard had 10 passed balls in Wakefield’s first four starts.

“I don’t know if we would do anything different” in preparing a new catcher to handle his knuckler, Wakefield said. Bard “tried probably harder than anybody I’ve ever had back there.”

Epstein also formally announced the signing of Timlin to a one-year contract for his fifth season with Boston. Timlin had agreed to a $2.8 million, incentive-laden deal during the World Series.

Timlin was 6-6 with a 4.36 ERA and nine saves in 17 chances in 68 games. The right-hander spent part of May and June on the disabled list with a strained right shoulder.

“We need to do everything we can to protect his arm now that he’s going to be 41 and try to learn from what happened this season and take preventative measures” against another injury, Epstein said.

AP-ES-10-30-06 1812EST

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