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Sox looking for playoff return

Red Sox hoping paper adds up to production

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The 2007 Red Sox can be considered a paperweight of sorts. In other words, this team, with star players on both sides of the ball and enormous expectations, goes into the year feeling the weight of how good they look on paper.

The paper is about to blow away in the Florida breeze and be replaced by actual results. Soon, everyone will begin to find out if this edition of the Red Sox is special enough to wash away the bitter taste of 2006.

It all starts on April 2, with ace Curt Schilling taking the ball in Kansas City against the Royals. At roughly 4:10 p.m. ET that day, Julio Lugo will step into the batter's box against Gil Meche and the 2007 Sox will officially begin to take shape.

As Spring Training came to a close, there seemed to be a palpable sense of anticipation in the clubhouse.

"I'm excited," said Schilling. "This is a very, very good team. I really don't see a weakness offensively. Defensively, we're going to be good. And pitching, we have a chance to be great. There's 10 or 15 teams saying the same thing in other Spring Trainings. We've just got to stay healthy."

That was something the Red Sox couldn't do in the second half of last season. It all fell apart when captain Jason Varitek twisted his left knee, Tim Wakefield fractured his rib cage and Jonathan Papelbon hurt his shoulder, and on and on it went.

But the Red Sox got through this spring healthy and optimistic.

"This is a good team," said new right fielder J.D. Drew. "Up and down the order, the pitching staff, you look at it on paper and it lines up really well. Time will tell as the season goes on how well everybody gels together and plays together. There's a lot of potential and that makes a player excited about his chances to win a championship this year."

Look at the roster, and you can see why a player would be excited.

Japanese right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka -- with his wide variety of pitches -- looks ready to live up to the enormous expectations. Josh Beckett seems primed to revert to his Florida Marlins form and escape from the bad habits that led to the 5.01 ERA and those 36 homers allowed last year.

As with any team, there are question marks. Can Dustin Pedroia be an everyday player? Will Varitek bounce back from last year's down year at the plate? Is the Cleveland version of Coco Crisp going to emerge this year?

opening day 2007

But one huge question mark -- the biggest on the team -- disappeared on March 22 when Papelbon was reinstated as the closer.

"It gives our bullpen, I think, a drastically different look," said Schilling. "I think that the trickle-down effect is immense in the bullpen."

Papelbon should have a stronger supporting cast than he did last year, particularly once Mike Timlin returns from the oblique injury he suffered in late February.

Brendan Donnelly, converted reliever Joel Pineiro and left-hander J.C. Romero will be asked to get most of the big outs in the setup capacity until Timlin is activated, which should be on April 10.

"We just got deeper," manager Terry Francona said. "The idea is to shorten games if you can. J.C. Romero has actually been throwing the ball terrific, [Hideki] Okajima is becoming very effective. [Joel] Pineiro we think is going to be a solid, solid bullpen guy. Mike Timlin, we just have to get him on the mound. All of a sudden you start naming some names like that and you get three deep, you have a chance to win every night."

And the rotation is the deepest it's been in a while, when you factor in the front three of Schilling, Beckett and Matsuzaka and add in the venerable Wakefield. The fifth spot will be occupied by Julian Tavarez, who became re-energized when moved to the rotation last September.

If Tavarez winds up not being a good fit, lefty Jon Lester, who became cancer-free over the winter, could be waiting in the wings. And the Red Sox will keep their ear to the ground when the annual Roger Clemens sweepstakes officially begin.

Lost in the shadow during the meltdown that took place late last season is that the Red Sox stopped hitting. From 2003-05, they mashed teams into submission with what general manager Theo Epstein proudly called a "relentless lineup."

Thanks to the addition of Lugo at the top and Drew in the five-hole, the hope is that the "r" word will be back in vogue on those warm summer nights at Fenway when the wind is blowing out. Monster mashers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are ready to team up for a fifth season.

"The whole idea is to have 1-9 where there's no easy innings," said Francona. "On some days, you've got David and Manny, and one of them hits a three-run homer. That's part of the way we operate. But having J.D. behind Manny, having Lugo at the front, the way Youkilis approaches his at-bats, it's nice to have a guy in front of David and Manny that works a pitcher because as dangerous as they are, if they can get a little frustrated going into those at-bats, that certainly can help.

"We've got [Mike] Lowell and Varitek, hopefully we'll get Varitek on track and get Coco healthy and hopefully that part of the order takes care of itself and it can lead to some long innings."

Drew, who has played for postseason teams in St. Louis, Atlanta and Los Angeles, was asked if this can stack up with any team he's ever played for.

"If you look at it on paper, I think so," Drew said. "I've had a chance to watch everybody in spring and watch guys take at-bats and we have really good hitters. Everybody that I've seen pitch and play the game, it lines up really well."

Over the course of 162 games, just how well will it line up? Only then, will the Red Sox know if paper adds up to production.

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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