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Red Sox driven by atypical '06 finish

Red Sox driven by atypical '06 finish

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A lot has changed since Theo Epstein and Terry Francona last watched their team take the field.

Among them, a Japanese pitching sensation has burst onto the Boston scene without throwing a single pitch in the Majors. A new No. 7 will be patrolling right field. And Jonathan Papelbon has been moved from the closer's role to the starting rotation.

And starting Saturday, the Red Sox's general manager and skipper hope to improve upon their club's uncharacteristic third-place finish in the American League East last season.

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As pitchers and catchers report for their physicals, 2006 will be a distant memory. It will have to be if they want to meet the collective goal of putting the Red Sox back into the playoffs.

"We never start the season talking about the Wild Card," Epstein said. "I think we always recognized that the American League East was an extremely competitive environment, and that's what we focused on. Now, it's equally true that the entire American League is an ultra-competitive environment.

"Every American League team knows it has to be very well prepared, work hard and get breaks to be in competition for a playoff spot at the end of the year. That's how we look at it."

For the record, something else was uncharacteristic as Epstein and Francona sat side-by-side -- the weather. Everyone was bundled up in Fort Myers, with little or no sun to be seen and the temperature just above 50.

Neither Francona nor Epstein sought sympathy Friday for the weather or the 2006 season. Beginning with the club's fall out of contention in early September, Epstein and his staff had more time than they would have liked to plan for 2007.

"From a front-office standpoint, it was certainly added motivation," Epstein said of his club's 86-76 record. "We got an early start on the offseason with our ability to do some planning in September and October, and that's not something we ever want to repeat, but I think it was our duty to make the most of that time and really prepare for the winter and work hard and try to execute a game plan.

"As far as our players go, they're motivated every single year to compete. Otherwise, they wouldn't be at this level. Certainly, no one was happy with the way the last two months of last season transpired, and if that provides added motivation, all the better."

So when the calendar turned to February, Friday was certainly a day that Epstein had marked on his calendar. With names like Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo, J.C. Romero and Brendan Donnelly added, there is the potential for greatness, at least on paper.

"[I'm] very excited," Epstein said. "I think all of us are. I think when you look at our club, you have to recognize there's tremendous upside there. I think we do. I think we feel if we can put the right work in and answer questions the right way, this has a chance to be a pretty special club.

"At the same time, we have to take an honest look at it, recognize there are some question marks and there are some issues we need to work through, so it's an exciting time. [I'm] looking forward to the process of getting off paper as you look at a team and starting to see them come together in the clubhouse and on the field and having Tito and the coaching staff start to work with them. This is always an exciting time of year."

The health of Papelbon and Jon Lester will require a lot of monitoring, as will communication with Matsuzaka and fellow Japanese newcomer Hideki Okajima.

"Every year, we tweak Spring Training a little bit," Francona said. "There's not been a lot of tweaking this year. We work very hard at the program we have, and we're pretty happy with it. We did allow Jon [Lester] to make changes if he needed to, and I don't think he felt like he really needed to."

Francona said that he's also adding something else this spring -- sit-downs with each player.

"One of them is the one-on-ones we'll have [Saturday]," the skipper said. "We've never done that here because, frankly, I don't have an office. But we're going to make some room."

Both Francona and Epstein acknowledged the biggest question heading into this season.

"I think we just had three or four days of meetings, and I think the bullpen is the biggest issue facing us -- identifying the closer and setting up roles in the 'pen, and sorting through that," Epstein said.

"[We'll be] getting our team ready to play and answering some questions in the bullpen, and once we do that, getting our team ready to play for when we hit Kansas City," Francona added.

In other words, there's no looking back -- only forward to April 2.

Mike Petraglia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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