Elite rotation boasts power and finesse

Sox elite rotation boasts both power and finesse

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The way Curt Schilling sizes things up, he will barely be the ace of the Red Sox this season. Schilling looks at Boston's rotation much like a loaded, five-card deck. He sees it as a quintet that, if things go as planned, will pitch the Red Sox into the deepest part of October.

"I expect to be the ace of the staff," said Schilling. "I expect to have some of these guys have phenomenal years, and I'll barely outpitch them, and we'll win a World Series."

Yes, the Red Sox are still trying to get their bullpen figured out, and that puzzle might not be solved until right around Opening Day. But the rotation looks deep and talented enough to serve as the team's backbone.

"It's going to be fun to watch," said No. 2 starter Josh Beckett. "It's also nice to have some other guys that kind of pitch the same way you do. You can ask them, 'Well, how did you get this guy out or how do you get that guy out?' I think that's going to help us all."

And as Schilling -- who has pitched for three World Series teams -- can attest, deep starting rotations are perhaps the most common thread in championship teams.

This is the type of rotation that has the potential to be elite if it avoids injury. There are four power arms and then there's Tim Wakefield, the ultimate study in finesse.

But first there is Schilling, who has 207 wins and an ongoing thirst to remain one of the best in the game at 40 years old. And then there is Beckett, whose goal is to make the adjustments necessary to offset a disappointing first year in Boston.

Factor in Japanese sensation Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose total acquisition price of $103.1 million speaks enough to how good the Red Sox think he can be.

Add Jonathan Papelbon, who was one of the best closers in baseball last year and seemingly has the type of overpowering stuff to make him nearly as effective as a starter.

Finally, there is the man who is as much a fixture for the Red Sox as Fenway Franks or the Green Monster. At 40, Wakefield -- and his knuckleball -- is still going strong.

Can you say "loaded"?

"On paper, yeah," said Schilling. "I've been on a lot of [great] rotations on paper. We're going to have to stay healthy. We've got a lot of options."

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When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, the entire rotation -- Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo -- somehow stayed healthy for the entire season. Nobody missed a start.

Health will again be a key this year, but the Red Sox would seem to have some good alternatives if there's an injury or two.

Lefty Jon Lester is one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball, assuming he gets back to 100 percent strength following a winter of chemotherapy treatments. Lester will probably start the year in Triple-A Pawtucket and be readily available in the event of an injury.

Matt Clement had his labrum and rotator cuff operated on last September, but his goal is to re-emerge at some point.

But the front five -- maybe the Fab Five if things go right -- hopes to stick together all year.

"Nobody knows our potential," said Papelbon. "We could be better than what everybody is telling we'll be, or we could be worse. That's a funny situation with the potential that we have, but I just expect us to go out there as a starting rotation and be a consistent group of guys that our team can rely on."

There are some "X" factors in the rotation, for sure. How much of a leap will Beckett make? Can Matsuzaka possibly live up to expectations?

"I'm very, very excited about watching Josh," said Schilling. "I think he's going to fly under the radar and stun some people this year. He is an ace in the making every bit as much as Daisuke is. He's got a year in this league under his belt. And I don't think last year sat very well with him when the season ended."

Schilling himself has adjustments to make. No longer comfortable relying on his fastball and his splitter, he's working on a changeup that he plans on using as a vital weapon.

"I think it's good enough to be my No. 2 pitch on some nights," he said. "That's why I'm starting to use it. I think it can be a pitch that I strike people out with, [that] I can get outs with. And so it's definitely going to be an integral part of Spring Training and, hopefully, going into the season, a very big part of my success this year."

For Wakefield, not much changes except his supporting cast. This is his 13th season in Boston. So who better to judge how this rotation might stack up with previous Red Sox starting fives?

Wakefield was asked if it could potentially be the best Boston rotation he's seen.

"Since I've been here, yes," said Wakefield. "I'd have to say that. We had some good teams in the past. We have five solid starters, experienced starters, besides Pap, but he proved last year that he could pitch up here."

There figures to be a bit of a competitive rivalry in such a top-caliber rotation.

"There always is," said Wakefield. "But that stays between us."

The success level, however, will not be a company secret. It will be a highly public answer that just might tell how far the Red Sox go in 2007.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.