Optimism abounds as Sox head south

Optimism abounds as Red Sox head south

BOSTON -- Whether you're a rookie or a 40-year-old veteran, the excitement of a new season never diminishes. Only in baseball can a three-word phrase -- "pitchers and catchers" -- say so much.

For the 2007 Red Sox -- a team that has much to be optimistic about -- pitchers and catchers officially report to Fort Myers, Fla., for Spring Training on Friday, and the enthusiasm is palpable.

"The itch [to return to Spring Training] never leaves," said ace Curt Schilling. "And once you start working out and throwing again, there's an itch to get down there and get going."

Coming off a disappointing 86-win season, the winter was productively dramatic for the Red Sox. Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka has been added to a pitching rotation that should be among the best in the league.

Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon give the rotation two youthful hard throwers and venerable Tim Wakefield will be serving up knuckleballs for his 13th season in Boston. Schilling, 40, now says that 2007 won't be his last season.

The offense, which dipped sharply over the last two months of 2006, features two big upgrades. J.D. Drew will bat fifth and play right field, giving the Sox a dynamic bat and a solid defender. Sparkplug Julio Lugo will lead off and play shortstop, and he just might be the type of energy player the team has lacked since the departure of 2004 hero Orlando Cabrera.

"I think we have reason to be optimistic," said manager Terry Francona. "Everybody is optimistic this time of year. If you're not, [something's wrong]. We have a legitimate reason to be optimistic. We have some things that should go right. And if they do, it should be exciting."

Pitchers and catchers will have physicals and conditioning on Saturday. The first workout will be Sunday. Position players report to camp on Feb. 20, and the first full-squad workout will take place two days after that.

Until the games begin on Feb. 28, the Red Sox will hold their workouts at the Minor League complex, which is a couple of miles down the road from City of Palms Park.

Workouts are open to the general public and, as usual, they're likely to be packed.

"This is going to be a special team -- I really believe that -- not just this year, but next year," said Schilling. "And there's some excitement to what we can potentially do this year and next year."

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