Changing Sox

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Idiots no longer, Boston has undergone a major makeover heading into the 2006 season.

FORT MYERS, Fla.- Popular characters left, new players arrived and the clubhouse changed from colorful to calm.

What stayed the same, though, is probably more important for the Boston Red Sox.

Sluggers Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are still around to erase deficits with one powerful swing, manager Terry Francona got a two-year contract extension through 2008, and general manager Theo Epstein continues to make moves to try to make a good team better, even if he did part with fun-loving extroverts Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar and Bronson Arroyo.

“I don’t really care if this year’s decibel level matches last year’s,” Francona said. “That was that team. This will be this team. What we want to do is win games and have a huge amount of loyalty and care about each other. I don’t doubt for one minute that’s going to happen.”

Boston’s defense is better, its rotation deeper with newcomer Josh Beckett joining Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Matt Clement and David Wells, and its bullpen more seasoned. The Red Sox should contend in the AL East with the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, who added key players.

Still, key questions remain on a team that led the majors in runs each of the past three years.

•Opening-day starter Schilling and closer Keith Foulke made it through spring training healthy, but can they come back from poor, injury-plagued seasons?

“It’s been two years since I’ve been the guy I was” healthwise, Schilling said. “Until I do what I did before, there’s a lot of questions.”

•Can the four new starting infielders hit more than the 17 homers they combined for last year?

•Will knuckleballer Wakefield, whose personal catcher Doug Mirabelli was traded to San Diego, feel as comfortable with Josh Bard?

The Red Sox haven’t won the division since 1995, and have finished second to the Yankees for eight straight years.

Only 10 players remain from the 2004 team that gave the Red Sox their first World Series championship since 1918. Last season, they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in the first round of the playoffs after finishing with the same record as the Yankees, who won the AL East in a head-to-head tiebreaker with Boston.

Then turmoil engulfed Boston’s front office and a shakeup hit the roster. Epstein stepped down Oct. 31 when his contract expired in a power struggle with team president Larry Lucchino, then returned 2 months later in the same position but with greater autonomy over baseball decisions. The Red Sox added 2003 World Series MVP Beckett to their rotation and veterans Rudy Seanez, Julian Tavarez and David Riske to their bullpen. Coco Crisp came over in a trade with Cleveland to fill Damon’s spots at the top of the order and in center field.

Boston has an entirely new starting infield. Trades brought second baseman Mark Loretta from San Diego and third baseman Mike Lowell from Florida.

Slick-fielding shortstop Alex Gonzalez signed as a free agent from the Marlins and Kevin Youkilis, a part-time player with Boston last season, is the new first baseman.

“It wasn’t strange. I think it’s our responsibility to make sure it’s not,” Francona said. “You come in that (locker) room and you’re “us.’ It doesn’t take very long. It’s like I’ve known Mike Lowell for years. We’re good at that. Barriers come down and make people feel comfortable.”

Millar did that by joking and smiling but left for Baltimore as a free agent. Damon did that with his long hair and friendly manner but went to the Yankees as a free agent. Arroyo nearly made it through spring training with Boston but took his curveball, flowing blonde locks and guitar playing to Cincinnati in a trade for outfielder Wily Mo Pena on March 20.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes over my 12 years here,” said Wakefield, who has been with Boston longer than anyone on the current roster. “Some have been great. Some have been bad. I think the change this year is great.”

There could have been more.

Ramirez and Wells wanted to be traded, but the Red Sox said they couldn’t find satisfactory deals.

Wells, coming off knee surgery, wasn’t happy to have his first start scheduled for Boston’s eighth game on April 12. But Boston has two days off in the first eight.

Ramirez “just wants to finish his career here,” said utility infielder Enrique Wilson, his friend who is slated to start the season at Triple-A Pawtucket. “He wants to stay here with Big Papi.”

Ortiz bats third and hit 47 homers last year. Ramirez bats fourth and hit 45. They combined for 292 RBIs, a number that could increase with Crisp and Loretta, who have had outstanding spring trainings, hitting in the first two spots.

Loretta “is positioned to have a really solid year. Coco, I think, has maybe a little bit more explosive speed than maybe we thought,” Francona said. And “you’ve got the two monsters hitting behind him.”

Crisp is easygoing and chatty, two of Damon’s traits. Loretta, Gonzalez and Lowell are pleasant and professional. Beckett and Tavarez are aggressive pitchers. Bard worked hard on catching Wakefield.

“We lost good people. We got good people,” Francona said. “We just have to play good.”

AP-ES-03-31-06 1524EST

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