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Rotation already shaping up well

Sox’ fit pitchers impress Epstein

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By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 11, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein was watching some minor league players take batting practice yesterday when he noticed Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka emerge from the clubhouse to play catch on an adjacent field.

Epstein immediately headed over, eager to get a look at three-fifths of his rotation. He came away pleased by what he saw.

Beckett, whose return to form could be the key to the season, clearly is in better shape. The same is true of Lackey, who said he dropped 15 pounds. Matsuzaka, who reported to camp with a sore back last year, was tanned, toned, and gleefully spinning around as he threw the ball.

Epstein took it as a positive sign that the trio reported to camp three days earlier than required.

“I think it indicates they’re highly motivated and feel good about the winters that they just had,’’ he said. “Usually the guys who are 15-20 overweight and didn’t pick up a ball yet aren’t the early arrivers because they’re kind of embarrassed. The guys who had really good winters and want to show off the shape that they’re in and the progress that they’ve made, they show up early.

“It’s nice to see these guys out here. Every single one of them looks to be in improved condition.’’

In All-Stars Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, the Red Sox had two of the best starters in baseball last season. In Beckett, Lackey, and Matsuzaka, they have three pitchers who have been at that level before but stumbled in 2010.

Beckett had the worst season of his career, going 6-6 with a 5.78 earned run average and making only 21 starts, all after agreeing to a four-year, $68 million contract extension.

“Josh certainly can do better this year than he did last year and he knows that,’’ Epstein said. “Looks like he went out and had a really strong winter, getting in great shape. The biggest thing is at the end of [last] year, he didn’t hide from the year that he had. He took accountability for it.

“He knows there’s more in there, that there’s better in there. I wouldn’t bet against him going forward at all.’’

Beckett, who was married last month, did not speak to reporters beyond saying hello.

Lackey went 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA in the first season with the Red Sox after signing a five-year, $82.5 million deal. He dropped his ERA to 3.97 in the second half of the season with a WHIP of 1.21.

“I feel good. It was a good winter,’’ Lackey said. “I feel like I’m ready to get going.’’

Said Epstein, “John had a stronger second than he had a first half. I think that’s a sign that he’s adjusted to his new surroundings and the American League East. I look forward to a typical John Lackey season from him.’’

Matsuzaka was 9-6 with a 4.69 ERA, extending his stretch of inconsistency to two years. The Red Sox regard him as little more than an expensive No. 5 starter now. But the fact that he arrived in good condition is a positive sign, given that that has not always been the case.

Epstein, manager Terry Francona, the coaching staff, and the baseball operations department will hold a series of meetings this weekend to finalize their preparations for camp.

“Health has to be the biggest question — it usually is,’’ Epstein said. “But in our case, we have so many players coming off surgery or coming off injury that we’re going to keep a close eye on them and really look forward to having a full squad of healthy players out there playing together.’’

New first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who had shoulder surgery in October, is projected to start swinging a bat around March 1 and play in a game 10-14 days later.

“But if he’s doing as well as it seems, there might be some flexibility to move that timetable up,’’ Epstein said. “I think we all feel like he’ll be ready for Opening Day. We’re going to get together and map out a schedule that makes sense. We’re excited that he feels so good and is here early.’’

Second baseman Dustin Pedroia (broken left foot) will be watched carefully.

“Obviously, we’re also going to take a conservative path with him this spring,’’ Epstein said. “The goal is to get him ready for Opening Day, not for the college exhibition games.

“He had some ups and downs over the winter mainly, I think, due to the fact that his foot was immobilized for so long, he was in a cast. We’ll see how he looks and go from there. We’re not expecting him to be overly limited once we get going.’’

Third baseman Kevin Youkilis (thumb), center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (ribs), and outfielder Mike Cameron (groin) have no restrictions, their injuries having healed.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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