BOSTON -- If the Red Sox are to get back to the pinnacle of the baseball world and win their second World Series championship in four years, the catalyst figures to be a loaded starting rotation that, at least on paper, looks to be one of the best in the game.
Few teams can offer the type of dynamic and deep rotation the Red Sox look to have in store for 2007.
The addition of Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka creates a storyline that everyone will be watching. With an arsenal of five to six pitches and a fastball that sits in the mid 90s, it would seem that Matsuzaka's stuff will translate just fine from one baseball nation to another.
Matsuzaka is just one of three 26-year-old hard-throwers in manager Terry Francona's rotation. Josh Beckett, who showed flashes of brilliance but was inconsistent in 2006, looks to show that his adjustment to the American League is complete. And Jonathan Papelbon, an All-Star closer last season, thirsts to produce similar results in the rotation.
The three young guns will be complemented by the two battle-tested veterans. Curt Schilling, coming off a 15-win season, doesn't expect anything less of himself despite the fact he is now 40. He's still the ace and is all but certain to take the ball on Opening Day in Kansas City. And veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, coming off a rare injury-plagued season, wants to again become the durable innings-eater he's been for so many years.
All in all, there isn't much letup in Boston's rotation.
"We certainly hope it's one of the best in the league," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "We try to stay away from making too many predictions or putting too much stock in how things look on paper, because baseball can humble you quickly when you do that. So we'll just say that we're excited about our rotation for this year and our future with so many good young pitchers in our organization, and certainly hope for the best."
Last year at this time, there was an obsession about how the Red Sox seemed to have too many starters. With Schilling, Beckett, Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo, David Wells, Papelbon and Matt Clement, Francona had some tough decisions to make.
It turns out that many of those decisions were made for him, and by midsummer, the Red Sox were short in the starting pitching department. Arroyo was traded for Wily Mo Pena during Spring Training. Wakefield, Clement and Wells all broke down with injuries. Papelbon was needed in the bullpen.
Boston Red Sox
In other words, the Red Sox will savor their depth heading into this spring instead of worrying about how the pieces will fit. Beyond the front five, there's also Jon Lester, the promising lefty who is believed to be cancer-free after a winter of chemotherapy treatments. The Red Sox have yet to outline a specific schedule for Lester, but he will be in the mix at some point.
Clement, who had his right rotator cuff and labrum repaired in September, will presumably spend the first few months of the season rehabbing.
There's also the possibility -- perhaps a long shot -- that Roger Clemens could at last return to Boston for a bookend finish to his legendary career. The Rocket doesn't know where or if he'll pitch in 2007, but the Red Sox -- along with the Astros, Yankees and retirement -- are again the finalists.
There are still more options that could emerge. The Red Sox liked what they saw in swingman Kyle Snyder in 2006, despite his 6.02 ERA.
Left-hander Kason Gabbard and right-hander Devern Hansack both came out of nowhere to impress the brass during spot starts last year. Reliever Julian Tavarez proved in September that he can be a viable option if the need arises.
If the Red Sox have injuries to the rotation this year, they should have the depth to withstand them, at least for the short term.
"Our depth is unbelievable when you look at the starters we project," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "I don't think you can ever be too deep. That excites me. Maybe you can throw someone in the 'pen who has starter's stuff. We need to be healthy. We'll see how that goes."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.