boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

For Sox, decisions rest mostly with pitchers

And now for a preview of Red Sox spring training, Non-Daisuke Division:

If your idea of spring training is all-out competition for jobs, then this camp is not for you. Outside of a spot or two in the bullpen, manager Terry Francona's roster is all but set, even before pitchers and catchers report Friday, and position players four days later.

Let's take a quick spin around the diamond, setting aside the bullpen.

Catchers: Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli.

Infield: David Ortiz (DH), Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Julio Lugo, Mike Lowell, with Alex Cora in reserve.

Outfield: Manny Ramírez, Coco Crisp, J.D. Drew, with Wily Mo Peña and Eric Hinske in reserve.

Starting rotation: Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Matsuzaka, Jonathan Papelbon, Tim Wakefield.

There is little room for surprise there, outside the question of whether the Papelbon conversion to starter really will occur.

So, what are the spring's 10 most compelling story lines, beyond the one that will have 100 media members staking out Edison Avenue on a daily basis?

1. Trade winds
The Sox have made only one trade of consequence this winter, the one that netted them veteran middle reliever Brendan Donnelly from the Angels for lefty Phil Seibel. Before last season, they made six deals, acquiring key pieces Crisp, Beckett, Lowell, and Mark Loretta while giving up the National League Rookie of the Year in Hanley Ramirez. The last deal made was the one that stirred up camp, sending pitcher/vocalist Bronson Arroyo to the Reds for Peña. Don't be surprised if newlywed Theo Epstein does it again. He has some movable pieces in Julian Tavarez, Lowell, Youkilis, Peña, and Crisp, and could revisit the Todd Helton talks or a deal for a closer.

2. The closer
The house money is on Joel Pineiro to make a successful conversion from horrid starter (21-35, 5.60 ERA his last two seasons in Seattle) to reliable closer, but the Sox haven't gone all in on that one. It has been repeated many times and will be said here again: Francona did not pick his closer until the third game of the regular season last year, when Papelbon trumped Keith Foulke once and forever. Forever, that is, until Papelbon's shoulder popped out of its joint, which has the Sox citing medical reasons for converting the most electrifying closer since Dick Radatz into a starter. Maybe it will go down that way, and Pineiro or Devern Hansack, the one-time lobsterman, will emerge, but unless Epstein can shake a closer out of somebody in a trade, the pressure will build to give Papelbon last call.

3. The Manny factor
Unless he had something done secretly in Brazil, Ramírez did not require any special treatment on the sore right knee that limited him to 10 of the last 38 games in 2006. When Epstein was asked about the condition of Ramírez's knee at the winter meetings in Orlando, he pointedly replied: "Great. It hasn't shown up on any offseason problem report list." Ramírez turns 35 in May; he needs 30 home runs to reach 500, which all but guarantees him admission to the Hall of Fame. He has hit at least 30 home runs and driven in at least 100 runs in each of the last nine seasons, only one of six players in big-league history to do so nine or more years. His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of 1.058 was his highest in four years. Owner John W. Henry said he was relieved Ramírez wasn't dealt, as if any trade involving Manny could be made without him signing off on it. When position players report Feb. 20, expect Ramírez to be there, if not earlier, for the start of the seventh of eight years guaranteed on his contract. It may not be the Pursuit of Happyness, but it's a living, and the hope springs eternal that he'll go back to playing 150-plus games, as he did the previous three years.

4. Outfield defense
Here's an overlooked reason the Sox are excited to have J.D. Drew. Last season, by one defensive metric that employs a plus-minus number, the Sox ranked last in the majors at minus-69, which in broad terms means they allowed 69 balls to fall for hits that average outfielders would have caught. The next-worst team was the Phillies (-48), while the Braves were best at plus-63. Drew should help improve that significantly, as will a healthy Crisp, though his knack for the spectacular obscured some erratic play in center. Francona's life would be made so much easier if Peña could catch the ball; Peña swears he spent much of his winter wearing a glove. Finding a way to get Peña 400 at-bats is a riddle not easily answered.

5. Dustin Pedroia
The kid admittedly didn't show much last September, batting .191 in 31 games while impressing no one in the field, but it's truly short sighted to write him off. Patient fans are expected to give him at least until St. Paddy's Day before rendering a judgment. Pedroia plans to show up in much better shape than last spring, and Cora makes a nice insurance policy. But at every level, Pedroia has made a practice of proving the wiseguys wrong.

6. Lineup shuffling
Francona said he likes the combination of newcomer Lugo and on-base machine Youkilis at the top of his order, ahead of Ortiz, who posted the best slugging percentage of his career last season while hitting a club-record 54 home runs. That relegates Crisp to the bottom and suggests the Sox believe he is separated from Johnny Damon by more than a fractured finger. Five AL teams scored more runs last season than the Sox, even though Boston finished first in the league in OBP; the late-season collapse accounts for much of that drop-off, and having no pop in the No. 5 hole behind Manny was deadly. Having Drew in the 5-spot and Lugo could trigger an offensive revival.

7. Tek-nical difficulties
Varitek, who turns 35 April 11, will be looking to blow up the notion that creeping age had anything to do with his performance at the plate last season. He was limited by knee surgery to just 103 games, his fewest since 2001, and batted just .238. Varitek got off to a slow start at the plate (.228 through May 24), then was a mess after rushing back from surgery, hitting just .213 in September and striking out a stunning 13 times in his last 18 at-bats. Agent Scott Boras said Varitek's knee is strong and he's primed for a bounce-back season. But a cautionary note: Since 1964, only one catcher 35 or older has had a higher on-base percentage in a season than Varitek's career .348 -- Carlton Fisk, who had a .378 in 1990 and a .355 in 1983.

8. Schilling, deal or no deal
Outside of a small handful (Carlos Zambrano, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Jason Jennings, Mark Buehrle) whose status could well change between now and the end of the season, the list of prospective free agent starters in 2008 evokes little excitement. Schilling gave the Sox 204 innings last season, and led the majors with a 6.54-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Schilling has set a deadline of Opening Day for an extension, which adds a little extra drama to the proceedings, but look for something to get done.

9. Lefty in the pen
As a COD (Companion of Daisuke), Hideki Okajima would appear to be assured of a spot. Okajima does bring some bona fides to the table; he is a 10-year veteran of the Japanese leagues, the first nine spent with Yomiuri, and he did a little bit of everything for the Giants while he was there. He's at the twilight stage of his career, but even so he struck out 63 batters in 55 innings last season, and held hitters to a .230 average. How the likes of Jason Giambi and former teammate Hideki Matsui handle his overhand curveball will be a key gauge to his usefulness. Newcomer J.C. Romero or Javier Lopez should have first dibs if Francona elects to keep another lefty, with Craig Breslow the long shot.

10. Gauging the kids
Had Craig Hansen lived up to the early projections, the Sox wouldn't be casting about for a closer. But Hansen (2-2, 6.63 ERA in 38 appearances) clearly wasn't ready for prime time last season, and the Sox may elect to proceed far more cautiously in 2007. It's not out of the question that the team elects to have Hansen get regular work in Pawtucket. The Sox retain high hopes for both Hansen and Manny Delcarmen, but with Epstein having stockpiled veteran arms, plus Rule 5 draftee Nick Debarr and nonroster invitee Travis Hughes, spots in the pen will be hard to come by. Jacoby Ellsbury, the center fielder of the future, will be in his first big-league camp, and 2006 top draft pick Daniel Bard, the righthander who hit 100 miles an hour in instructional league, will be making his pro debut down in minor league camp.

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

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES