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RED SOX PREVIEW

Top of the hill

Pitching staff's performance may determine whether Sox stay there

Mariano Rivera is human, the Yankees are humbled, and the Red Sox can do no wrong. Yawkey Way, once a boulevard of broken dreams, is heaven incarnate.

What does one possibly have to look forward to?

"I don't have to hear, `This is the yea-hhhh' anymore,'' offered Johnny Damon.

Before, Calvinism bred acceptance. In the words of Achilles', "Everything's more beautiful because we're doomed.''

Here now, in post-10/27 Boston, the doom is gone, the beauty still largely intact. A lineup that led the majors in runs with 949 might have gotten better. Out went Orlando Cabrera. In came Edgar Renteria, not to mention a healthy Trot Nixon. When your biggest issue in camp is where to hit your 100-RBI men (Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Renteria), you're in pretty decent shape.

The health of the pitching staff is the wild card, or rather, the Sox can win the wild card if their pitching staff is healthy. A focused eye must be trained on Wade Miller's rotator cuff, Curt Schilling's ankle, and David Wells's knees and back. The occasional glance must be shot at Matt Mantei's shoulder, Alan Embree's elbow, and Blaine Neal's elbow.

The season will open with four men in the rotation (Wells, Matt Clement, Tim Wakefield, and Bronson Arroyo), one expected to pitch on or around April 13 (Schilling), and another (Miller) due on the Boston mound sometime near May 1.

Those six are not young - average age 34. But, if they're healthy, the Sox would have four starters who posted ERAs below 4.00 last season: Schilling (3.26), Miller (3.35), Clement (3.68), and Wells (3.73).

Wells is back in the American League after a year in San Diego, while Miller and Clement have never pitched outside the National League. Their adjustment should be eased by Jason Varitek, the Sox' most important player. The club acknowledged that in the offseason, stitching a captain's ``C'' on his uniform top.

It was his clutch hit - of Alex Rodriguez - that helped turn last season around on July 24.

``It wasn't one day,'' insisted Sox principal owner John W. Henry. ``He worked on that task the entire season. He was probably the most frustrated of any of us when things weren't going well. He did everything he could to get this team going.''

Given the delicate pitching staff, he might have to once again.

STARTING LINEUP
CF Johnny Damon

He's still ticked that he didn't knock in 100 (he came up six shy) or lead the league in runs (he was one shy). Damon has predicted he'll do the latter this season, and he'd love 100 RBIs entering free agency. He could command $40 million for four seasons. Do the Sox pay, or do they look elsewhere, perhaps to Double A shortstop Hanley Ramirez?

RF Trot Nixon
Consummate dirt dog missed all but 48 games with quad and back ailments. He came to camp 14 pounds lighter and should be the Nixon of 2001-2004, when he averaged 145 GP, 26 HRs, and 90 RBIs. He hit .271 between 1996-2002 and .308 since. His .391 OBP over the last two seasons landed him second in the batting order.

LF Manny Ramirez
Set to board a plane full of major league all-stars bound for Japan last November, Ramirez complained that his quad was bothering him. Asked by a team official which quad, Ramirez bent down and grabbed a calf muscle. Manny's Manny. That won't change. Hopefully, his production won't, either. His 43 HRs and 130 RBIs were his most since 1999 (44 HRs, 165 RBIs).

DH David Ortiz
Byung Hyun Kim (2 years, $10 million) goes down as Theo Epstein's worst contract to date. Ortiz's extension in May 2004 is the GM's best - $5.25 million this season and $6.5 million in 2006. Senor Octubre (.400, 5 HRs, 19 RBIs last October) hit 10 regular-season homers in 2000, then 18, 20, 31, and 41. Why not 50?

SS Edgar Renteria
According to Tony La Russa, no one was more beloved among his Cardinal teammates than the Columbian-born shortstop. Renteria lacks Cabrera's elan and Nomar's power, but he's one of baseball's most well-rounded and well-adjusted players. ``You give him a hello, he gives one back, and he goes and plays,'' Terry Francona said.

1B Kevin Millar
The Sox would like a more consistent season out of Millar, who had just 25 RBIs through July 20 last summer, then piled up 49 the rest of the way. "Hitters rise and fall to their level,'' Francona said. "He ends up there. He just gets there in the damndest way.'' Millar will make $3.5 million this season and most likely would take a hometown discount to stay.

C Jason Varitek
His .390 OBP in `04 ranked third among switch hitters behind Lance Berkman (.450) and Jorge Posada (.400). He fell four batting points shy of joining Johnny Estrada and Ted Simmons as the only switch-hitting catchers since 1923 to hit .300 and catch 100 games. That said, hitting is the 12th most-important thing to Varitek behind the 11 Boston pitchers.

3B Bill Mueller
At 34, and coming off two knee scopes in the last year, this is an important season for Mueller. The Sox gladly picked up his $2.4 million option following a postseason in which he hit .321 (18 for 56) and drove in Dave Roberts in Game 4 off Rivera. Tough to call at this point whether he'll be wearing a Sox uniform in 2006.

2B Mark Bellhorn
He'll hit ninth, where he had just 29 at-bats last season, instead of second, where he had 398. ``There's probably more pressure at the top of this lineup, to get on base for Manny and David,'' he said. ``I think maybe subconsciously last year I knew that was my job to get on base for those guys. Anywhere else down the lineup you react to whatever situation develops.''

BENCH
C Doug Mirabelli

When Mirabelli tested free agency he didn't find any team willing to commit to him as its starting catcher. He realized he didn't want to back up anyone but Varitek, which made re-signing a no-brainer. Last season, Mirabelli contributed 9 homers and 32 RBIs, helping the Sox to 27 HRs and 105 RBIs out of the catcher position.

OF Jay Payton
Payton won't get 400 at-bats unless Ramirez, Damon, or Nixon is injured. Payton will spell Nixon against lefties and pinch hit. The difficulty for Payton, 32, will be the adjustment to playing sparingly. He's appeared in at least 104 games each year since 2000, averaging 137. Payton is no Dave Roberts. He has 25 steals in 49 career attempts.

INF Ramon Vazquez
Can play third, short, and second but will appear mostly as the backup at second base and shortstop. Career, he's played 181 games at SS, 100 at 2B, 35 at 3B, three at 1B and one at DH. As of now, he's the Sox' only lefthanded hitter off the bench. Has the least career pop of any Sox hitter - one HR every 166 ABs.

3B/1B Kevin Youkilis
Mueller's knee woes last season allowed Youkilis to play 72 games as a rookie. A third baseman, Youkilis was told to break in a big mitt over the offseason. In his first spring start at first base he made three above-average plays. ``Last spring I don't know if I would have told you he's a good defensive player,'' Francona said. ``He's worked his [butt] off.''

1B/OF/P Dave McCarty
Rule 5 outfielder Adam Stern (fractured thumb) and first baseman Roberto Petagine (arthroscopic knee surgery) went down in camp, helping McCarty make the team. He'll spell Millar in the late innings and could bail out of the bullpen in a blowout. Having signed a split contract he could be a regular on the Lou Merloni shuttle.

ROTATION
RHP Curt Schilling

Want to know whether a pitcher is any good? Check out his strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Schilling's was 5.80 last season, tops in the American League among starting pitchers. In the majors he trailed only Ben Sheets (8.25) and Randy Johnson (6.59). Schilling, who will begin the season on the disabled list, figures to make 30-31 starts, which should mean 18-22 wins.

LHP David Wells
He might get beat, but he won't beat himself. Wells walked just 20 batters each of the last two seasons, leading the AL in walks per nine innings in 2003 (0.85) and the NL in 2004 (0.92). The key? ``That's clean living I'm living,'' Wells said in jest. "It works for some people. I don't recommend it for everybody.''

RHP Matt Clement
Clement's adjustment to the American League could take a little time, but he has excellent stuff, especially a nasty slider. Clement, who began last season 5-1 with a 2.29 ERA only to finish 9-13 with a 3.68 ERA, could use a good start to ease his mind and that of the fan base. If he replicates his 2004 ERA, he should win 15-18 games.

RHP Tim Wakefield
This is the last season of his four-year, $13 million contract, and Wakefield - now in his team-leading 11th year in Boston - would like to pitch two or three more. If Wakefield wins 10 games, he'll vault into third on the Sox' all-time wins list behind Roger Clemens and Cy Young. He should be good for 12 wins and a mid-4 ERA.

RHP Bronson Arroyo
Arroyo made a name for himself in 2004, even if A-Rod can't remember what that name is. He forced himself to throw inside more often to righthanded hitters this spring and had success. He posted a 4.03 ERA last season, but, offered that number for 2005, you'd probably have a hard time betting the under.

BULLPEN

LHP John Halama
Halama, a starter in 114 of his 205 career appearances, figures to work mostly in long relief. He came cheap ($750,00), having posted a 2.46 ERA last season in relief and a 6.03 ERA as a starter in Tampa Bay. In all likelihood he's not as good a reliever as the numbers indicate, nor is he as bad a starter as the numbers suggest.

RHP Blaine Neal
Knowing San Diego had a bullpen stocked with similar options, Neal expected to be dealt last month, just not to the defending champs. ``It's probably the best opportunity in baseball,'' said the 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound righthander. Neal figures to be ``a sixth-inning type,'' Francona said. Despite an elbow scope in September 2003, Neal throws 93-94 miles per hour.

RHP Matt Mantei
Despite a history of arm trouble, he's still capable of touching 97 miles per hour. Mantei ranks fifth among active pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched in strikeouts per nine innings. The top five: Brad Lidge (12.71), Billy Wagner (12.26), Francisco Rodriguez (11.83), Armando Benitez (11.37), and Mantei (11.36). Should be a steal at $750,000.

RHP Mike Timlin
Respected setup man appeared in a career-high 76 games last season. He turned 39 last month, and his 812 appearances are fourth among active pitchers. He's not a young man, but he's the consummate professional. While many Sox pitchers posted mediocre numbers in spring training and took little stock in those results, Timlin compiled a 1.08 ERA.

LHP Alan Embree
The Sox will keep an eye on Embree, 35, and be mindful of avoiding overuse. He made a career-high 71 appearances last season. Ideally, Mantei's addition lightens the load for Timlin and Embree. He could use the blow. He struck out 81 in 62 innings in 2002, 45 in 55 innings in 2003, then 37 in 52 in 2004.

RHP Keith Foulke
Some people in New England still might be waiting for color to return to their faces, color that dissolved as Foulke pitched to Tony Clark with two on and two outs in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. But he got Clark and made himself a legend of the fall. In fact, he should have been the World Series MVP. His ERA per season since 1999: 2.22, 2.97, 2.33, 2.90, 2.08, 2.17.

LHP Mike Myers
Francona wanted this guy back to face the Hideki Matsuis of the world. Without Myers, the Sox would have had just two lefties in the pen in Embree and Halama, the latter of whom has no experience as a lefthanded specialist. Myers, who has more appearances (671) than any other pitcher the last nine seasons, held lefties to a .233 average in `04.

OTHERS
RHP Wade Miller

Miller has been rehabbing his right rotator cuff since last summer and is expected to be ready a month into the season. Since 2000, Miller is one of only 10 pitchers with a sub-4.00 ERA and at least 50 wins, 600 IP, and 7.5 Ks per 9 innings. The others: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, Kerry Wood, Roger Clemens, Jason Schmidt, and Javier Vazquez.

OF Adam Stern
Stern had only two at-bats, both infield singles, before fracturing his right thumb March 5. A lefthanded hitter with gap power and an above-average arm, Stern would be the fastest player on the team. The 25-year-old will not be ready to play until mid-to-late May. A Rule 5 player, the Sox must keep him for the season or offer him back to Atlanta. The Braves would take him in a second.

1B Roberto Petagine
Lefthanded power hitter played the last six seasons in Japan, where he posted a staggering 1.051 OPS. He hit. 317 with 223 HRs and 594 RBIs. Surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee truncated his spring. He's not expected to be healthy for at least a month. He has a flexible out in his contract that would allow him to return to Japan if he's playing in the minor leagues.

COACHING STAFF
Manager Terry Francona

Francona is more at ease in his second season, both with the team and the media. GM Theo Epstein noticed the difference just days into spring training, citing an ``increased sense of confidence and sense of role.'' He's taken to the city so much that he's looking to buy a house in greater Boston and move his family here full time. He's in the second season of a three-year deal.

Bench coach Brad Mills
He and Francona go way back, to the University of Arizona (where they were roommates), to their playing days (teammates in Montreal from 1981-83), and to Philadelphia (where Mills was Francona's first base coach from 1997-2000). Mills tells Francona exactly what he needs to hear, even if it's not what he wants to hear. This is the second year of a two-year contract.

Pitching coach Dave Wallace
Wallace was left unconscious for hours Dec. 8 after his SUV was struck by a vehicle driven by the Patriots' Dan Klecko. Wallace has no recollection of the accident. Despite that ordeal he worked tirelessly in camp. Many days he'd watch a Sox pitcher throw a side session at the team's complex, then hop in a car to cross the state to see another Sox pitcher hurl in an actual game.

Hitting coach Ron Jackson
The Sox led the majors in runs (949), OBP (.360), slugging (.472), extra-base hits (620), doubles (373), and total bases (2,702). Their .282 average tied Anaheim for tops in the bigs. That's why the man they call Papa Jack doesn't attempt to force anything on anybody. ``I'm a suggestion box,'' he said. ``Take it or leave it.'' Ever optimistic, he's embraced in the clubhouse.

1B coach Lynn Jones
Jones was struck in the eye by a screwdriver last May while working on a water softener in his Pennsylvania home. He needed multiple surgeries and missed almost three months of the season. Francona has pinpointed base running as something that must get better, and a full season with Jones should help.

3B coach Dale Sveum
Sveum was booed during World Series introductions. "That has to stop,'' Francona said. The good news: Tampa Bay CF Rocco Baldelli, who gunned out three Sox at the plate in a nine-day span, will miss a few months with a torn ACL. Baldelli "ruined half of Dale's season,'' Francona joked recently. A switch hitter in his day, Sveum is someone Varitek seeks out for hitting advice.

Bullpen coach Bill Haselman
The former Sox catcher was hired on an interim basis last season to coach first base when Jones was out. "Hass was so awesome,'' Francona said. "That's why he's on our staff. He did an unbelievable job.'' Haselman replaces Euclides Rojas, who was let go after last season.

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