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Can Matsuzaka live up to expectations?

Can Matsuzaka live up to the hype?

It is a question worth $103.1 million -- or 12 billion yen -- and that alone explains why Daisuke Matsuzaka will be perhaps the most scrutinized player in Major League Baseball during the 2007 season.

By putting forth $51.1 million to the Seibu Lions just to earn negotiating rights for the Japanese star right-hander and another $52 million over the life of a six-year contract, the Red Sox are obviously confident that they have the answer to the question.

But you never know the answer for sure until you see the man pitch in a Major League environment. And that won't happen for real until Boston's season-opening series in Kansas City. Though nothing has been set in stone yet, look for Matsuzaka to get the ball in the April 5 finale of that series against the Royals.

That is the day the question will start to get answered.

What is the question?

Nothing more than this: Just how good will Matsuzaka be?

There are ways to expand on the question. Will he be the early hit that Hideo Nomo was with the Dodgers, only with a more sustained period of greatness? From a pitching standpoint, can he match the prowess of Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui? Is there any chance that he turns into a flop the size of Hideki Irabu?

Judging by all the scouting reports, the possibility that seems almost unfathomable to unfold is the Irabu one. It's hard to believe that so many trained experts could be so wrong.

From what a variety of eyes have seen, the 26-year-old Matsuzaka should be successful right out of the gate. It just seems a matter of how successful.

For the most impartial view, consider what Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells had to say recently.

"I got a chance to watch. I didn't face him [in the World Baseball Classic], but I saw him pitch when we went over for the [2004] Japan [All-Star Series] tour," said Wells. "There was one game I didn't play in and he two-hit our team in a heartbeat. It was interesting and fun to watch, and I'm glad I had that day off."

Some pitchers rely on pure power, others master the art of finesse. Much like Pedro Martinez when he was in his prime, Matsuzaka seems to have a striking combination of both.

"He has command of everything, which normally you'll find with Japanese pitchers -- they have command of all their pitches," Wells said. "And he's not afraid of you -- no matter who you are. He's going to throw his fastball, and he's going to throw his 'gyroball' or whatever. Hopefully, we just make enough contact on that thing to do some damage."

In reality, Matsuzaka doesn't throw the mythical "gyroball," which was actually invented by Japanese physicists. But he seems to have more than enough real weapons in his arsenal to thrive.

"He certainly has the velocity on his fastball, and when he wants, he can reach back for more," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "He also has a sufficient slider, tough changeup, split-finger, curveball, cutter. That's quite an arsenal. He's also an artist and craftsman on the mound, and as I mentioned earlier, he has the character and makeup of a bulldog."

While Matsuzaka's pitching ability seems beyond reproach, the more difficult questions to answer revolve around how he will adapt to the schedule of Major League Baseball, the communications barrier and a new culture of living in the United States.

Matsuzaka has always pitched in a six-man rotation in Japan; that will change with the Red Sox, for whom he'll pitch every fifth day.

"As you know, starting up in a five-man rotation is a new experience for me," Matsuzaka said recently at a press conference in California. "I'm basically trying to get my overall strength up in preparation for that."

Red Sox manager Terry Francona will try to ease that transition as much as possible.

"We have some age in [Curt Schilling] and [Tim Wakefield]," Francona said. "So we may use it this year differently than we have in the past. We may not skip a guy [when there's an off-day]; we may go ahead and just keep five starters, especially in April. It won't completely be different, at least in the beginning."

Give the Red Sox credit for this: they have gone to several lengths to make communication as easy as possible for Matsuzaka. Pitching coach John Farrell has spent much of his offseason learning to speak Japanese. Schilling has also taken some tutorials. Francona has sent Matsuzaka words of encouragement through an interpreter.

"From my standpoint, when I go out there [to the mound], he's coming out. That's not that tough," said Francona. "I'll put my hand out, 'Give me the ball.' If he pitches great, I'll pat him on the back. That's not that tough. John and Jason [Varitek], they're going to have to work at this a little. And they will. But from where I stand, besides the fact of communicating, which I love to do, it won't interfere with the game."

Another matter not to be overlooked is diet. A man must eat well to pitch well, right? Matsuzaka, who has spent a considerable portion of the last few weeks in Southern California, is learning to find options he likes when it comes to American food.

"Much to my surprise, I've found out that the vegetables here are great, the fish tastes great," said Matsuzaka. "So far, so good. I've been able to lead a comfortable few weeks here."

And just how uncomfortable Matsuzaka makes opposing hitters will provide the ultimate answer to one of the biggest questions in baseball in 2007.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["spring_training" ] }
{"content":["spring_training" ] }