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Sunshine state

Citing depth, Sox say they are well-armed

Email|Print| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / February 15, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - It's too early to say, publicly at least, who will be the Opening Day center fielder. The Red Sox have a Plan B if Daisuke Matsuzaka cannot accompany the club to Japan. The injured Curt Schilling is here, but didn't talk, and while the Sox are leaving their options open, they're satisfied they can compensate for his absence with the talent they have. Tim Wakefield, the team's other 41-year-old pitcher, played catch and is on track to give the club the kind of innings he normally does. Progress is being made toward a contract extension for the manager, but all in due time.

And the Sox might have more catching in their system than people realize.

Those were the primary topics covered yesterday, the official reporting day for Red Sox pitchers and catchers, by general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, who jointly addressed the media.

Many of the questions focused on Schilling, who arrived early yesterday morning with his 12-year-old son, Gehrig, in tow, but remained in the clubhouse and left without speaking to the media. Epstein said it will be 6-8 weeks before Schilling is far enough along in his shoulder-strengthening program to begin baseball activities, "and we'll see where we go from there."

Schilling's doctor, Craig Morgan, has said there is "zero" chance of Schilling pitching without surgery to correct a disintegrating biceps tendon; the club disagreed, and Schilling elected to follow the Sox' plan after a third party, Mets medical director David Altchek, endorsed the team's recommendation.

The Sox signed Schilling to a one-year, $8 million contract extension after he passed a physical and underwent an MRI last November, and were unable to obtain insurance for the contract, so they are obligated to pay him his full salary, whether he pitches or not. The only way they could avoid doing so, it appears, is if Schilling retires. Epstein contended that while the club was aware of potential health issues, especially for a pitcher of his age, Schilling's shoulder was "strong" and said he "wouldn't put fault on our medical staff."

Asked what happened to Schilling's shoulder in the interim, Epstein said there was "no black-and-white incident" but that when Schilling began his throwing program this winter, his shoulder "didn't respond." For now, Epstein said, the club is satisfied the team has sufficient depth to compensate for his absence from the starting rotation. Clay Buchholz figures to be the most likely candidate to slide into the rotation, but Epstein mentioned Julian Tavarez, Kyle Snyder, David Pauley, and Devern Hansack as potential contenders.

"We've looked into it," Epstein said when asked if the Sox considered acquiring additional pitching. "It's not a great market to do that right now. We like our internal options a little bit better than anything available outside the organization, especially if you factor the costs involved, either in terms of prospects to upgrade, or money for free agents. We'll keep all our options open."

A potential trading chip, should the Sox look outside, could be Coco Crisp, considered expendable with the emergence of rookie Jacoby Ellsbury, a World Series star after replacing Crisp in the lineup. And Bobby Kielty was signed to a nonroster deal as insurance if Crisp is dealt.

Francona insisted a decision hasn't been made, "but it's important to remember what Coco did for us . . . he's the incumbent."

Francona reiterated the team's plan to have the same two pitchers who start the opening two games of the regular season in Japan pitch the next two games when the Sox renew their series against the Athletics in Oakland. But when asked if he needed to know Matsuzaka's availability now to map out his pitching plans this spring, Francona said:

"We kind of know what we'll do, but there's no way, unless you want to talk to Daisuke's wife and ask her when she's going to spit out the baby. We're kind of at a loss here. We have a Plan B."

Matsuzaka's wife, Tomoyo, is pregnant with the couple's second child, and her due date is believed to fall within the week the Sox are in Tokyo. She is having the baby in the United States, and while Matsuzaka politely declined to answer questions earlier this week, presumably he is being earmarked, with ace Josh Beckett, to start the games in Tokyo. Given his huge popularity in Japan, a no-show by Matsuzaka in his native country would be a big story there and a delicate situation for the Sox. From a baseball standpoint, it would seem the Sox could juggle their rotation to accommodate one missed start by Matsuzaka, but for now the situation remains unresolved.

Wakefield, meanwhile, appeared on the field well after most of his teammates had left, and played catch. Epstein said the knuckleballer, who had pain in the back of his shoulder that caused him to miss the postseason, is in "good shape" and he's approaching the season like "any other year, looking to give us a lot of innings."

Epstein addressed the state of the organization's catching, noting that while they realized Jason Varitek, who turns 36 in April, "is not going to play forever, he's our captain and catcher for the present and hopefully for the future, too." Varitek's four-year, $40 million contract expires after the season, and the Sox are expected to offer him an extension.

"I think our minor league catching gets shortchanged a little bit," Epstein said. "We haven't had a guy take a major step forward and declare himself 'the guy' who's going to come up and force himself into the big league picture, but Dusty Brown can catch and throw with the best of them."

Brown, 25, will probably start the season in Triple A, where George Kottaras, who struggled mightily in Pawtucket after coming in the David Wells trade but had a better second half, will also be in the mix. Epstein also mentioned Mark Wagner, who after an "excellent" season for Single A Lancaster is expected to begin in Double A.

"All have a chance to be good major league catchers," Epstein said. "We'll see what we have there, but we're certainly on the lookout for more catching from every possible avenue."

As for the manager, Francona chuckled when Epstein was asked where things stood with his contract extension.

"We haven't hidden the fact that signing Tito to a new contract is a priority," Epstein said. "We've made some progress. As of now, there's no announcement, but we hope and expect to get things done."

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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