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Starting could relieve Papelbon

NEW YORK -- With just more than two weeks left in the regular season, the Red Sox have essentially made their first big decision of the offseason.

Jonathan Papelbon, whose dominance as a closer this season evoked memories of Dick Radatz, said yesterday he expects to be part of the starting rotation in 2007.

``Nothing is set in stone," Papelbon cautioned, but this doesn't sound like a plan written in pencil, either.

``When I look at what we got going on next year, with Schill, Beckett, me, Wake, we can put together something pretty good," Papelbon said, ticking off the names of Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, and Tim Wakefield. ``You've got to have starting pitching to get to your closer."

While manager Terry Francona continues to say that he and general manager Theo Epstein will sit down and discuss Papelbon's future with him, that conversation already has been initiated, Papelbon said after last night's Sox-Yankees game was rained out.

``They know I can start, I know myself I can start, I've done it before," said Papelbon, who was the ace of the staff in Double A Portland in 2005 before the Sox promoted him to the majors and used him as a reliever at the end of that season. ``This'll be another notch on the belt, I guess.

``Theo knows. He's thinking about me going into the rotation. So is Tito. [But] right now it's a thought."

A thought that has been endorsed by all parties involved, it appears, the Sox going so far as informing Papelbon's agent of their intentions.

``I think they like it," said Papelbon, who also indicated that while he plans to start playing catch here this weekend, he won't pitch again this season ``unless something crazy happens."

``I like it. It's a mutual agreement, and hopefully we'll be able to run with it. I'll take my offseason as a starting pitcher in training."

Actually, that was the plan on paper headed into this season, as the Sox nominally held onto the conceit that Keith Foulke would reclaim his closer's job, even though privately club officials expressed little confidence that would be the case.

That charade lasted until the third game of the season, when the Sox were in Texas and passed over Foulke to bring in Papelbon to record a save against the Rangers. Papelbon went on to record saves in his first 20 opportunities, and by July 2 he'd broken Radatz's record for saves by a rookie with his 25th. Papelbon was named to the American League All-Star team, and at the time his right shoulder slipped slightly out of its joint Sept. 1 during a game against the Blue Jays, Papelbon had posted a 4-2 record with 35 saves and an 0.92 ERA.

He ranks as a leading candidate for the AL rookie of the year award, and even as recently as yesterday afternoon, Francona made it sound as if the decision to remove him from the closer's role would be a tough one, though perhaps made easier by concerns about his health. Papelbon's injury has been diagnosed by the team's medical staff as a ``transient subluxation" of the shoulder, and will require him to strengthen the muscles around the joint to keep the ball of the shoulder from slipping out again.

``From where I sit, it's so hard to say, `Well, you know, we can keep him as a reliever,' because in my opinion, as a reliever, he's as good as there is," Francona said. ``His numbers this year are unbelievable, OK? But when's enough enough? He's available for one [inning], he's available for 1 1/3, he's available for two. You get in a situation as a reliever, you always want more, because you want to win more. He's had this episode a couple of times. He kind of felt weak in Chicago [just before the All-Star break] and then this happened. We need to try to stay away from that.

``If we put him on such a strict program that we knew his health wouldn't be in jeopardy, I'm not sure we could win. We've had a lot of conversation about that, we'll sit down with Theo, me, and Pap. If this episode changes it, maybe it does."

The Sox have used 27 pitchers this season, including 13 starters. Schilling and Beckett have won 14 games apiece, Wakefield and rookie Jon Lester seven apiece. The other nine starters combined to go 13-23.

Lester, the first rookie lefthander in Sox history to win his first five decisions, now has a future shrouded in mystery as he undergoes treatment for a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a blood cancer. When he returns to pitch is a secondary concern.

Their best starting pitching prospects, such as Michael Bowden and Clay Buchholz, are in the lower minors, so it was clear the Sox would have to go outside the system to upgrade. Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt are the biggest free agents on the market, though they could be joined by a third, Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka, if his Japanese team permits him to go through the posting system and become a free agent.

The Sox also still have Matt Clement, who presumably will be healthy for the final year of a three-year, $25.5 million deal that calls for him to be paid $9.5 million next season.

The closing options in-house? Foulke could exercise a player option and return next season, while 2004 top draft pick Craig Hansen struggled in his first full season in pro ball. The free agent pickings among closers are skimpy, with oft-injured Eric Gagne of the Dodgers a possible attraction.

Papelbon said if the Sox were to acquire a big-time starter, he could wind up back in the pen again. But it was evident from his remarks that he is gearing up to start.

``I'll miss the adrenaline, I'll miss the excitement, I'll miss all that, the thought of going out there and getting the last, toughest outs of the ballgame, and the challenge of that," Papelbon said. `` [But] it's not going to take anything away from me going out there and having fun starting. I get a lot of enjoyment, a lot of thrill, a lot of challenging aspects to starting as well."

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