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Spring training preview

February 13, 2007|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

Is Daisuke Matsuzaka for real?

The Boston Red Sox shelled out $103.1 million ($51.1 million just to talk to him and a six-year, $52 million contract) to sign the 26-year-old right-hander away from Japan's Seibu Lions. The Most Valuable Player of the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Matsuzaka throws his fastball in the low- to mid-90s and reportedly throws four other pitches for strikes. If he can transfer his dominance (108-60 record in eight seasons with Seibu) to the big leagues, he could lead an impressive starting rotation that includes World Series heroes Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett. Or he could be the second coming of Hideki Irabu. Don't count on the latter, though.

Is the Big Unit still electric?

His New York experiment failed, Randy Johnson heads back to Arizona and the team with which he won his lone World Series championship. But that was back in 2001, when he was a spry 38-year-old. Now he is 43, coming off a career-worst 5.00 ERA and October surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back.

His spring may be limited to workouts and rehabilitation, but he might get in a few starts as he tries to return to the Diamondbacks rotation by mid-April.

Who will be the next Detroit Tigers?

Throughout the spring, we'll hear teams invoke the 2006 Tigers when they talk about their 2007 chances. The Tigers, after all, had 12 straight losing seasons before winning 95 games last year on their way to the American League pennant. All struggling teams will use that turnaround as inspiration. But are there any that can go from also-ran to champion this season?

The Orioles would like to think they can, but being in a division with the Red Sox and New York Yankees makes such a quick reversal fairly dubious. The best candidates to emulate the Tigers' meteoric rise are the Milwaukee Brewers, the Diamondbacks and the Cleveland Indians, who won just 78 last year after posting 93 wins in 2005.

Can John Patterson pitch every day?

The Washington Nationals are also hoping to be Tigeresque, but the club they may most emulate is Detroit's 2003 version, which lost 119 games. Those Tigers stripped down to the marrow, allowed their youngsters to play and built a contender for 2006.

A full rebuilding plan has started in Washington, and that's most evident in the starting rotation, which right now, incredibly, features only Patterson, the club's 29-year-old ace who pitched just eight games last year because of injuries. The other four spots are open, and as many as 10 pitchers are in the mix. The best behind Patterson is Tim Redding, a 29-year-old right-hander who hasn't won a big league game since 2004. Tradition requires the Nationals to have at least four starters, so the competition should be heated this spring.

Who didn't the Cubs buy?

The most interesting offseason was turned in by the club with the most consistently depressing regular seasons: the Chicago Cubs. They spent $136 million for second baseman-turned-contented outfielder Alfonso Soriano and $73 million to retain third baseman Aramis Ramirez. They also added a manager (Lou Piniella, $10 million), two starters (Ted Lilly, $40 million; Jason Marquis, $21 million), a second baseman (Mark DeRosa, $13 million) and a couple of reserve outfielders (Cliff Floyd, $3 million; Daryle Ward, $1.05 million). That's a lot of millionaires to mix into a weak National League Central race, so if the club can jell early, it could be worth the investment. Then again, these are the Cubs.

Where will the Rocket land?

Roger Clemens isn't retired; he's just taking another spring sabbatical. It would be an upset if the likely Hall of Famer ends up in a camp before the teams break for the regular season, but it's possible. What's more likely is that Clemens starts pitching for some club's minor league affiliate - the guess here is the Yankees' - in two months in preparation for a June return to the big leagues.

Can Sammy still slam?

He sure couldn't in Baltimore, but Sammy Sosa is looking for another chance to get to 600 career homers and rekindle the warm, fuzzy feelings he had in the late 1990s. He's 38 now, took last year off and was dismal for the Orioles the year before. But he said he's invigorated, and the Texas Rangers are willing to give him a non-guaranteed shot this spring. He'll get a steady diet of breaking balls to see if his 2005 flinch is still in effect.

Who closes in Boston?

The best in-camp competition will be in Fort Myers, Fla. The Red Sox strengthened their lineup with J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo and fortified their rotation with Matsuzaka. But it won't mean much if they can't close out games. Former closer Jonathan Papelbon is penciled in the rotation, so closing duties will fall to someone among candidates Joel Pineiro, Craig Hansen, Mike Timlin and, perhaps, Papelbon again.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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