BOSTON (AP) – Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona doesn’t let himself get dreamy-eyed over the potential of his starting pitchers to rack up wins if they all start clicking at once.

“If guys just do what they’re supposed to do, we’re going to be good,” he said this week after the team agreed to terms with Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka. “They don’t need to be better than that; they just need to do what they’re supposed to do.”

The Red Sox gave Matsuzaka a $52 million, six-year contract and will pay his Japanese team, the Seibu Lions, another $51.11 million by Thursday for his rights. A two-time Olympian and the MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Matsuzaka could anchor the front of the Boston rotation through 2012.

But he’s never thrown a pitch in the major leagues. And that makes him a bundle of potential – good and bad – just like the rest of the Red Sox rotation.

“That’s fair,” Francona said. “But I’m not sure how many rotations you can go through and not say that.”

Matsuzaka joins Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield, Jonathan Papelbon and Jon Lester as potential starters for Boston. All give the Red Sox reason to hope for an excellent season; each also gives reason for pause.

“We try to stay away from making too many predictions or putting too much stock in how things look on paper, because baseball can humble you quickly when you do that,” general manager Theo Epstein said. “We’re excited about our rotation and our future with so many good young pitchers in our organization. We know there’s a lot of hard work ahead. “

Lester, 23 on opening day, and Papelbon, 26, will be a year older, and that’s a good thing. Wakefield and Schilling, both 40, will be a year older, and that’s a bad thing.

Papelbon had 35 saves with an 0.92 ERA as a rookie closer. But he ended his season on Sept. 1 because of a sore shoulder and the team thinks he’d be better suited as a starter in ’07.

Lester won his first five starts in the majors, but he was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes and ended his season in August. He underwent chemotherapy in the fall and is cancer-free; despite his progress, the team is not counting on him for the 2007 rotation – at least early on – because of the nature of his recovery.

“I can guarantee we’ll put his health first and foremost,” Francona said. “We’re really excited, because this kid’s a good pitcher. We’re not counting him out. We want to do right by him, but I don’t even know what it is.”

Beckett can be brilliant – he pitched a complete game to beat the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series for Florida. He posted career highs 16 wins and with 204 2-3 innings this year, but also had a 5.01 ERA that was more than a full run higher than his career mark.

Wakefield’s knuckleball is as unpredictable as ever. He went 7-11 with a 4.63 ERA last year and spent six weeks on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his ribcage. He had posted four straight winning years; before that, he was below .500 for three seasons in a row.

Schilling is a year removed from an ankle injury he exacerbated when he stitched up a flopping tendon in the 2004 playoffs. The ’05 season was a writeoff, but he rebounded with a 15-7 record and a 3.97 ERA in ’06 and has said he wants to retire after 2007.

“He’s got some age on him, some mileage, some injuries,” Francona said. “We talked about it at the end of the season: what it’s going to take for him to go out on top. He’s going to have to work harder now to be good.

“But I’ve been around him a lot, and I’ve seen his resolve to be as good as he is.”

AP-ES-12-15-06 1803EST


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