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Red Sox quick hits

Red Sox quick hits

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Three high-profile additions hope to blend in with the returning core to give the Red Sox what could be a special team.

The successful courtship of Daisuke Matsuzaka from Japan was as legendary as it was expensive. Now all eyes will be on him as he joins a loaded rotation.

Right fielder J.D. Drew replaces a fan favorite in Trot Nixon, but the Red Sox are confident that Drew's presence in the No. 5 hole will open more avenues for David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.

Shortstop Julio Lugo has the tough task of replacing a defensive stud in Alex Gonzalez. However, he also brings an energy and spunk at the top of the order that the Red Sox missed last year.

And many of the familiar faces are back, led by Ortiz, Ramirez, Jason Varitek, Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield.

The pieces seem to be in place for another title run. But you never know until a team actually takes the field for real.

Team strength: The rotation is the deepest the Red Sox have had in a while. Schilling, though 40, still pitches at a high level. Josh Beckett, with all that talent, could finally be on the verge of that elusive breakout season. Matsuzaka's hype precedes him, but he also has a wide array of nasty pitches. Jonathan Papelbon has electric stuff, be it as a closer or in his new (and old) role as starter. The venerable Wakefield is healthy again and should once more baffle opponents with his knuckleball.

Achilles heel: Who is the closer? That question might not have an answer until the last week of Spring Training, or later. The candidates have been well publicized by now -- the quartet of Mike Timlin, Joel Pineiro, Brendan Donnelly and Julian Tavarez. If you're looking for a dark horse, think Devern Hansack. If the Red Sox don't find someone dependable for this role, things could get unsettled in a hurry. Look back to the first half of 2003 for a reference point.

spring training 2007
Spotlight on the Red Sox
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
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Top newcomer: Matsuzaka was nothing less than a national treasure in Japan. Red Sox Nation hopes he'll become a Fenway force. Backed by a fastball, curve, changeup and slider, Matsuzaka has a diverse arsenal. But he's never seen the loaded lineups he'll face in the American League this year. Matsuzaka should become one of the best pitchers in the game at some point. The question is how long it will take.

Ready to make The Leap: Dustin Pedroia is set to become Boston's first rookie position player to start on Opening Day since Shea Hillenbrand did so in 2001. Nobody bettered his physique in the offseason more than Pedroia, who lost his pudgy look by dropping nearly 30 pounds. Pedroia will hit ninth, so the team merely needs him to be adequate, but he has the confidence to think he'll be a lot better than that. Don't let his lack of size fool you -- Pedroia has pop in his bat. He should be steady at second base.

On the hot seat: This distinction will belong to whichever man is named the closer on Opening Day. And if the closer does not do the job, general manager Theo Epstein will feel the heat just as much, if not more.

You can bank on: Ramirez will hit 30-plus home runs and top 100 RBIs. How is this known before the season starts? Because Ramirez is a hitting machine who has reached those totals in nine straight seasons, and 11 of the last 12. There are few players in baseball as consistently productive as Ramirez.

Litmus test: If the rotation stays healthy and the bullpen finds some answers, the Red Sox should be one of the best teams in baseball. If not, a second consecutive frustrating season could be on deck.

Games you don't want to miss:
April 10-12 vs. Seattle: Matsuzaka should pitch in this series and have a most enticing matchup with fellow Japanese icon Ichiro Suzuki.

April 20-22 vs. New York: The Red Sox and Yankees, age-old rivals, renew acquaintances for the first of 18 meetings in 2007.

May 28 vs. Cleveland: Nixon makes his return to Fenway Park with his new team, and he is sure to get a thunderous ovation.

June 15-17 vs. San Francisco: Barry Bonds plays at Fenway Park for the first time, and he just might be on the cusp of breaking Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. This will also be the first time Dave Roberts has played at Fenway since he became a legend during the 2004 postseason.

June 8-10 at Arizona: Schilling could face his former team for the first time since the trade to the Red Sox prior to the 2004 season.

Sept. 14-16 vs. New York: Somehow you just know that this three-game set at Fenway is going to have playoff implications.

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

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