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ON BASEBALL

Class in session

Fresh faces will provide shots in arms

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Now, if everyone would just lower their voices a little . . . Here is why the Red Sox, A-Rod or no A-Rod, should still be favored to win the American League East.

Top to bottom, from Pedro Martinez to Bronson Arroyo, the Red Sox have better pitching than any team in the division, including the Yankees. By adding Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, spectacularly filling the holes the Sox had at the front and back ends of the staff, while sacrificing just a modicum of offense (Todd Walker out, Ellis Burks in) and upgrading the defense (Pokey Reese), Sox general manager Theo Epstein has given the Sox a competitive edge over the Bombers for the first time in years.

It may be a slight one, but it's there, nonetheless.

"I like our pitching staff a lot," Epstein said here yesterday morning, wearing the cap of a Super Bowl winner (the Patriots) and the look of a man unruffled by the furor of the last few days.

"It's a good feeling to sit here and know we have quality and depth. We can throw Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling out there, who can match up with any 1-2 in all of baseball. Derek Lowe as your third guy has the potential to dominate like the top-of-rotation starter he really is. Tim Wakefield, our No. 4, we have no doubts about Tim Wakefield. We know what he can do.

"And our fifth spot has a tremendous upside. Byung Hyun Kim has a chance to take that job out of spring training. His ceiling is still exceptionally high. And we have excellent protection in Bronson Arroyo."

That's just for starters. The pen has an anchor in Foulke, who led the American League in saves last season, but it is the depth of the pen that is truly impressive. Mike Timlin and Scott Williamson, who have both closed, are the righthanded setup men, Alan Embree is the lefty, and either Arroyo or reclamation project Ramiro Mendoza will be the long man. There are seven other pitchers in camp who will be competing to win a spot as the second lefty out of the pen.

No Sox team in recent memory has ever been this loaded.

Questions? Sure. Martinez's health, first and foremost, and his state of mind in his walk year. Schilling, making the adjustment to the American League, only because you don't want to get too excited about the possibilities. Lowe, coming off as soft a 17-win season as a pitcher can have, proving that he can indeed dominate the way he did two seasons ago. Wakefield, bearing no scars from Aaron Boone. Kim, showing that the club is best served with him as a starter and not a reliever, and that Yankee phobia is a media invention. Foulke, his changeup as effective in cozy Fenway as it was in the wide-open spaces of Oakland.

But any uncertainty surrounding the Sox' pitching staff is of small consequence compared with the questions revolving around a Yankee staff that over the winter lost Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and David Wells, who combined for 53 wins last season and possess a total of eight World Series rings among them.

The Yankee rotation in 2003: Pettitte, Clemens, Mike Mussina, Wells, Jeff Weaver.

The Yankee rotation in 2004: Mussina, Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez, Jose Contreras, Jon Lieber.

Mussina is a rock, but for what it's worth he has never won 20 games in a season. Brown, 39 next month, can be as nasty as anyone in the game, but he has been on the disabled list seven times since the start of the 2000 season and missed most of two seasons with elbow and back problems. "Brown could blow any day," said one industry insider. "The over-under on him for starts this season is 20, and I'd probably take the under."

Vazquez, only 27, could turn into the ace of the staff. He averaged 33 starts over the last four seasons in Montreal, had a career-best ERA of 3.24 last season while striking out a career-high 241 batters. But it's different pitching in the vast empty spaces of Olympic Stadium in Montreal and the packed houses he'll face in the Bronx and in the Fens. There is no reason to believe he will falter, a la Weaver, but until he performs, no one -- even George Steinbrenner -- can be certain.

Contreras is still separated from the family he left behind in Cuba; how that weighs on a man's heart, who can say? Last season, he only showed flashes of the talent that caused last winter's bidding war between the Yankees and Sox.

Lieber hasn't pitched in a big-league game since 2002, having undergone Tommy John tendon transfer surgery on his right elbow. He was a 20-game winner for the Cubs in 2001, but at 34 (his birthday is April 2), how close he will be to his former self remains to be seen.

And while the Yankees can put out an everyday lineup of eight All-Stars, they don't have eight starting pitchers like they did in spring training a year ago. There's not much in the way of a safety net behind these five, which is one reason GM Brian Cashman issued a minor league invite to former Sox pitcher John Burkett, who elected to retire instead.

The bullpen? On paper, it's terrific, especially compared with last season, when Joe Torre ran through 19 relievers. Cashman added quality righthanded setup men in Paul Quantrill (89 appearances last season) and Tom Gordon, Steve Karsay should be back from injury, and Gabe White and Felix Heredia are the lefties. But Gordon is 36 with a long history of elbow woes and Quantrill is 35, and while Timlin is living proof that it doesn't have to happen, slippage is possible. And Mariano Rivera, the peerless closer, is 34, and the Sox had their moments against him, too.

"The Yankee pitching is fantastic," the insider said, "but there's a high collapse factor there, too."

The number crunchers over at Baseball Prospectus, employing a set of formulas that only true seamheads can love, are saying that the Sox' pitching staff is not only the best in the league, but by a wide margin. They're predicting big things for Kim, saying he could make a greater impact than Mark Mulder, Roy Oswalt, Pettitte, or Clemens.

Sox pitchers and catchers report today. First workout is tomorrow. If Terry Francona had this kind of pitching staff in Philadelphia, he'd still be a Phillie. And until A-Rod shows he really is the Babe and can pitch, too, the Sox are the team to beat.

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