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Red Sox focus on pitching

Special to

Feb. 21

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In the Boston media, they talked about the Yankees' obsession with the Red Sox, and how there were a half-dozen New York newspapers here daily gathering quotes from Sox players about the Yankees. In the New York media, they talked about how obsessed the Boston players still are about the Yankees, because of the quotes, which sometimes turned into headlines that were six degrees from "Lost in Translation."

With the exception of David Wells' reminiscences about his relationship with Joe Torre and Mel Stottlemyre, no Red Sox player expressed anything but respect for Yankee players, with one exception: Alex Rodriguez. What began when Jason Varitek took exception to A-Rod's comments to Bronson Arroyo last July, when Arroyo hit Rodriguez with a pitch everyone but Britney Spears knew wasn't intentional, carried over into the playoffs with more words with Varitek and Curt Schilling. It then carried over to this spring because of a Bob Klapisch story on that included a comment about how when other players are still in bed or driving their children to school, Alex is done working out.

Curt Schilling
Curt Schilling will lead a revamped Red Sox rotation this season.

Hey, A-Rod didn't mean to sound superior to everyone else, but players all around the game were offended; there's also a huge history with the Red Sox.

But when there are a half-dozen New York beat writers covering the Red Sox and the questions are only about the Yankees, reality is that most of what was said was an attempt to play with A-Rod's head not because they are obsessed with him but because they think he is obsessed with himself. Still, enough is enough. This is just silly.

The real spring focus for the Red Sox isn't trash-talking Rodriguez, it is trying to figure out their pitching staff.

"We lost a couple of quality pitchers who won a lot of big games for us," manager Terry Francona said of Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, who left for a combined $88 million. In their place, for a guarantee of less than $30 million, are Matt Clement, Wells, Wade Miller, John Halama and Matt Mantei.

"Wells is one of the most underrated pitchers of this era," Red Sox GM Theo Epstein said. "He has made 30 starts nine of the last 10 years, and he's a quality left-hander with one of the best deliveries in the game." Fenway is very much a left-handers' park, and after being shelled there early in his career, Wells has made 14 regular-season and postseason starts since 1997 and is 7-2 with a 3.53 ERA in those starts.

Clement has long had the reputation of having great stuff and losing tough games. "We think he's right at the point of his career where he's ready to take off, and Varitek will be a big help to him," Epstein said. Last season, Clement made 10 straight starts without winning, mostly because of a lack of run support, and, in his free-agent year, it affected him.

"I thought I learned a lot last season," Clement said. "Especially from the time I spent with Greg Maddux, who is one of the most modest, understated great players I've ever met. I really look forward to learning from Curt Schilling. And one of the reasons I came here was Varitek, whose reputation carries around the game; I just watched him on television and because of his intensity and his obvious caring for his pitchers, I wanted to work with him."

The day Schilling reported, he said "the Yankees have the best rotation in baseball." The way he is moving and throwing, he should be fine while recovering from surgery on his right ankle. But against the reconstructed Yankees staff, the Red Sox have to replace the combined 399 2/3 innings and 4.62 ERA Martinez and Lowe posted -- and beat the Yanks with depth. Hence, Miller is a huge factor.

"There's no way of knowing that I will make it through the season," said the 28-year-old Miller, who was 45-25 in 2001-03 before breaking down last June with shoulder problems. "But I am encouraged. I'm up to 150 feet long-tossing; my range of motion feels right; and I am in the right arm slot, which was a problem last season. I feel really good about this season."

The Red Sox aren't even thinking about trying to rush Miller. In fact, they intend to hold him back. If he is ready by the first of June, then they will consider him the equivalent of a significant in-season trade. "When you look at his tapes," one Sox official said, "and see his fastball explode, the 91-mile-an-hour cutter and that curveball you shake your head. He has special stuff."

As does Mantei, who pitched in only 12 games for Arizona last season after undergoing what he terms "minor" shoulder surgery. "It really was a minor thing," said the 31-year-old Mantei, who has World Series rings from the Marlins ('97) and Diamondbacks ('01) but didn't actually pitch in either World Series. "But I feel great."

In his early throwing sessions, Mantei has demonstrated his peak electric arm speed, and if he can hold up, he could be a significant factor in the setup role in front of closer Keith Foulke that Scott Williamson could not perform in during the 2004 season. Because of Williamson's breakdown, Francona said he "overused" Mike Timlin and Alan Embree, who -- after two seven-month seasons with heavy, intense and very successful postseason work -- are at the point in their careers where Francona would like to use them less frequently.

Byung-Hyun Kim

There's also Byung-Hyun Kim, who actually has thrown the ball better thus far this spring than he has the last two years. The Kim who pitched in Arizona would be another welcome addition, but there are layers of issues that cloud his return to Boston. More likely, he will end up being traded to one of the teams that intend to come watch him this spring, among them the Mets, Astros, Brewers, Rockies and Dodgers. But with the concerns about the use of Timlin and Embree the last two years, the Sox will not give Kim away if he can pitch in the seventh or eighth inning.

The core of the Red Sox position players remains. "What enables teams to win is character through the whole team," Schilling said. "That's what carried us through. That's what carried the Yankees through. Dave Roberts, Gabe Kapler ..."

The bench was a vital factor in the Red Sox's winning the World Series, and Epstein knew he could not hold it together. So Roberts, Doug Mientkiewicz, Pokey Reese and Kapler are gone. Jay Payton, Ramon Vazquez, Roberto Petagine and either Adam Stern or George Lombard -- who, after recovering from shoulder surgery, had two very encouraging months for Triple-A Pawtucket last season -- are their replacements.

Petagine, a 35-year-old whose previous major league career was, to be kind, forgettable, is a fascinating signing for $750,000. He went to Japan in 1999, where he became a star. His Japanese career OPS was 1.051. In the four years in which he and Hideki Matsui played together in Japan, look at their numbers:

Matsui 170 414 1.091
Petagine 160 429 1.085

Obviously, there is a big difference in their all-around ability, as the Red Sox players and staff consider Matsui one of the 10 best players in the league. But in the first week of spring training, what they saw in Petagine was a hitter with a Fenway Park stroke who clearly learned the Japanese work ethic. When one of the clubhouse kids complimented him on his career in Japan, Petagine replied, "I haven't done it here. That's what I'm here for."

Junior in good health
The first good news of the spring is that Junior Griffey's knee is healed, he feels great and he is moving very well. As Reds hitting coach Chris Chambliss said, "better than he has in a while." But after four years of seven trips to the disabled list and 274 missed games, the 35-year-old who was baseball's Michael Jordan before the injuries and the 1998-2001 home run boom knows there is a lot of luck in staying on the field. Griffey's last three injuries have been to his knee, ankle and hamstring.

Ken Griffey Jr.

"I'm not going to change the way I play," he said. "The game should be played hard. But I still have a lot of game left. I just want to be healthy."

Griffey already has 501 career home runs, and how far he goes will be determined by his health and how long he wants to be away from his children. His son Trey is 11, and if he doesn't go to college to be a premier running back, he will be the first pick in the 2012 draft. His daughter, 10-year-old Taryn, is a great basketball player. This is Junior: He plays DVDs of them on the dashboard of his car. "They will determine how long I play," he said. "I want to see them in high school. Trey told me that if I'll keep playing until I'm 42, he'll play baseball, but that may be too many of his games that I'd miss."

As for the steroids controversy, as someone who twice hit 50 homers in a season (1997 and '98) and is in the 500 club, Junior said, "I don't concern myself with what someone else may or may not have done. I don't begrudge anyone anything. I just know I never even thought about using steroids. My game was speed, playing center field. My arms aren't any bigger than they were when I was 20. When I'm 50, I don't want to be hunched over or in a wheelchair -- I want to be playing with my kids because they're a lot more important than home runs."

Reds on the rise?
There is a lot of optimism in Cincinnati, where single-game tickets went on sale Saturday and Opening Day was sold out in eight minutes. With some extra money, GM Dan O'Brien got veteran pitching help in Eric Milton and Ramon Ortiz and signed some veteran relievers (Kent Mercker, David Weathers) to pitch in front of closer Danny Graves. Do they have the frontline pitching to match the Cubs, Astros and Cardinals? No, but with the offense the Reds have, they are much better.

What will be interesting to follow will be to see how manager Dave Miley sorts out his outfield, if Griffey and Austin Kearns are healthy. O'Brien believes his budget will allow him to keep Sean Casey and sign both Adam Dunn and Kearns, two monster talents. If everyone is healthy, come July, it could be Wily Mo Pena who becomes available, which would whet the appetite of Washington GM Jim Bowden.

Chambliss believes "if Adam [Dunn] can get his strikeouts down to about 130 [from 195], he could be unbelievable," and 25-year-old Dunn is coming off a 46-homer season in '04. "He just needs to work on his two-strike approach."

"I also need to not take as many pitches early in the count," Dunn said. "I don't need to get deep in counts quite as often."

If Griffey and Dunn stay healthy, the two-year drought of 50-homer hitters might end.

News and notes
  • The Mariners are very eager to bring back Mike Cameron, and Scott Spiezio and Randy Winn are two names being mentioned as trade bait.

  • The Red Sox are thrilled the Nationals got the opportunity to acquire Alex Escobar -- always a Jim Bowden favorite, one he thought he had acquired for Barry Larkin back in 2000 only to have Larkin nix the deal. To make roster room for Escobar, the Nats had to let go of 22-year-old middle infielder Alejandro Machado, who between Class A and Double-A last season had an on-base percentage of .385, batted over .300 and had tremendous defensive numbers. "He reminds me of all the great Venezuelan infielders," Red Sox scout Craig Shipley said. The Red Sox middle infield hasn't exactly been Omar Vizquel/John McDonald, in other words high caliber, the last few years, and watching Machado, Hanley Ramirez and Ramon Vazquez work both sides of the bag recently was an exhibition.

    Kyle Lohse

  • The Twins won't wait long on the arm of Kyle Lohse, who throws 95 mph but whose ERA has climbed the last three years to 5.31. If Lohse gets off to a slow start and Joe Mays stays healthy, either J.D. Durbin or Scott Baker might get a chance in the rotation and Lohse might go to the pen -- where he might turn into a star.

  • Terry Mulholland, in Twins camp, will be 43 in two weeks, seven years shy of his goal of pitching with an AARP card in his back pocket. As he went through the usual first day drills of covering first base, he was asked how many times he has covered first in spring training drills. "This is my 21st year, we average 45 days and 15 times covering first a day," he said, so after Monday, that adds up to 13,515 times covering first base in his career.

  • The Rangers are raving about Chris Young, who put on 10 pounds, dropped his body fat and spent the winter working with pitching coach Orel Hershiser. "He keeps showing he can get better and better," manager Buck Showalter said of Young. "He could really help us."

  • The A's might trade Eric Byrnes to the Pirates soon -- if Pittsburgh will part with the right young pitcher.

    Victor Martinez

  • Indians GM Mark Shapiro printed out Gordon Edes' Boston Globe story on Jason Varitek from Feb. 13 and gave it to his catcher, Victor Martinez. It is worth reading, and explains what makes Varitek so special. For other suggested reading: Joel Sherman's column on the steroids issue in Sunday's New York Post and Chris Snow's brilliant piece on George Lombard -- the only major-leaguer whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower -- in Monday's Globe.

  • Reds people say the Angels got the right guy in right-handed pitcher Dustin Moseley, who was acquired in the Ramon Ortiz trade.

  • Here are my first candidates for Baseball's Dream Job:

    Brad Ausmus, Barry Bonds, Dave Roberts, Paul Lo Duca, Kent Mercker, Torii Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, John Smoltz, Kevin Millar, Lance Berkman and George Lombard.

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