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Red Sox staff gets fresh start

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester stood at his locker in the clubhouse of JetBlue Park at Fenway South when teammate David Ortiz walked over to give him a Big Papi hug.

"You look great, bro," Ortiz told Lester. "You're not [messing around]."

On the first official day of workouts for pitchers and catchers, Ortiz made the rounds and hugged it out with almost every pitcher on the Sox's staff. The best teams in baseball always have the best, and healthiest, pitching staffs and the Red Sox know that all too well. After all, Boston's been on both sides of the spectrum in that regard in recent years.

The pitchers should arrive at camp in great shape, and the Red Sox's staff appears to have done all the proper offseason work in order to be prepared for spring training and the 2013 season. So it's no surprise that the Red Sox feel that, at least on paper, they have another potentially solid pitching staff.

"When you look at the abilities here, and the talent that's here, and certainly the track record many have had in recent years, this has the ability to be a well-above-average pitching staff," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "Now, we also know there are individual needs along the way here that we've got to get guys back to what they've done well in the past, and the consistency to which they execute. This is a staff that's very talented.

"To start to put numbers on it, we're not in position to do that, but at the same time, this is a staff that has a lot of veterans on it that have very successful careers to date."

Starting with the historic September collapse of 2011 through all of the 2012 season, Boston's starting pitching has not been as good as it should have been. But another new season brings hope. Hope that these hurlers can return to form and help the Red Sox return to the postseason for the first time since 2009.

With the likes of Lester, Clay Buchholz, a healthy John Lackey, the developing Felix Doubront and the addition of veteran Ryan Dempster, Boston's starting rotation has a solid foundation; it's only a matter of producing.

"We can sit there and talk about it every year," Lester said. "It's a matter of going out and doing it. In 2011, we were supposed to be the best staff in all of baseball, but injuries and September, things kind of went wayward after that.

"As far as potential, as far as that possibility, it's all there. It's just a matter of going out and actually executing and doing what we're supposed to do."

When Farrell was first hired as Red Sox manager last October, he made it clear that the contributions of Lackey, who missed all of the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, would be key to the club's success in 2013. The veteran right-hander arrived at camp in the best shape he has been in since joining Boston in 2010.

Lackey's offseason dedication is a good sign, but he still needs to deliver once the regular season begins.

"Obviously he's lost a bunch of weight and he looks great, looks ready to go," Lester said. "Any other year he showed up, I didn't expect anything less from him. Just because he lost weight doesn't mean I'm more excited about it. I know he does what he's supposed to do every offseason. This year, for whatever reason, he wanted to do it and felt like he needed to do it, and I'm excited for him.

"He looks great, but I'm not looking at it as, well now he's taking it serious. I've never worried about Lack and what he does in-season or offseason. The one thing I know about that guy, he's going to take the ball every five days, and as a teammate, that's the only thing you can want from a guy, is that he's going to go out and compete and tries to win every game he takes the ball in."

Lackey has the attitude that he wants to prove everyone wrong, almost in an angry sort of way, as if someone kicked his dog or hit him in the gut with a sledgehammer. That chip that could work to his advantage.

In fact, every Red Sox pitcher should have that mentality this season.

"You'd get the same answer from anybody who didn't live up to their capabilities the year before," Buchholz said. "Obviously, I want to start off on a little better foot this year. Lack, I don't think he has anything to prove. If anything, he can just go out there and relax and be the John Lackey who's pitched the last 10 years in the big leagues.

"If anyone has a chip on their shoulder, it's Jon Lester, knowing that he didn't do what he wanted to do for himself. He's a big competitor in that aspect of the game and he's come into camp in really good shape."

Lester was, and should be, the ace of the staff. The southpaw has the ability to dominate in this league and he has shown it for the majority of his career. Before his brutal 9-14 record and 4.82 ERA in 33 starts in 2012, he had won at least 15 games each season since becoming a full-time starter for the Red Sox in 2008.

There are a few factors that favor Lester's resurgence this season. Whether he wants to believe it or not, the absence of fellow pitcher Josh Beckett, who was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers last August, will help Lester. And, for all the talk about Farrell being back with the Red Sox after the former pitching coach managed the Toronto Blue Jays for two seasons, Lester says a turnaround has more to do with the pitchers than the manager.

Still, there is a comfort level with Farrell and his current pitching staff. Each side knows what to expect from the other and there's no need to develop a new relationship.

"I think it's been blown out of proportion a lot," Lester said. "Obviously he's going to help. Obviously having [new pitching coach] Juan [Nieves] is going to help as well. But I think with John, it's getting back to, now I don't have to tell anybody what my keys are. He already knows my routine, so there's that familiarity to it and it's just comfort.

"He's not going to give me any new wisdom that I haven't already learned in two years since he's been gone. That's not going to be the case. It's more of the fact that, when things are going a little crazy, or I'm getting into some bad habits, he and Juan can sit down and tell me what I need to fix."

Since Lester and Buchholz arrived on the scene in Boston, they've had a total of five pitching coaches -- Farrell, Curt Young, Bob McClure, Randy Niemann and now Nieves. Farrell's knowledge, however, will have an impact.

"There are a lot of positives, but he's not going to magically show up, wave the wand and have the cure for everything," Lester said. "Things are going to be easier because of that comfort level with him. It was like he went on a two-year vacation, he came back and now we're ready to go again."

Lester already has thrown a pair of bullpen sessions this spring and he has reached the 60-pitch mark, which is a good sign.

Buchholz's spring didn't get off to as good a start.

Less than an hour into the first day of workouts, the right-hander suffered a right hamstring strain while fielding a ball and running toward first base. He was escorted to the clubhouse by a trainer and is listed as day to day.

Ironically, he said one of his main goals for 2013 is to remain healthy and productive. He was limited to 14 starts in 2011 and posted a 6-3 record. In 2012, he went 11-8 in 29 starts. When asked what his personal expectations are for 2013, Buchholz said he wants to keep it simple.

"I've started to learn not to put any expectations out there because if you don't meet them, then you're down," Buchholz said. "If you think you should be doing better than just what you set your goals at, that can make you push a little bit harder too.

"I'm just going to try to do the little things right. The one expectation I'd like to do is pitch deeper into games every time I go out, and stay healthy."

During Farrell's tenure as pitching coach, he would routinely talk about Doubront's potential. After Farrell was gone to Toronto, Doubront continued to develop and became a full-time starter in Boston's rotation in 2012.

The 25-year-old southpaw posted an 11-10 record with a 4.86 ERA in 29 starts and reached a career high in innings pitched with 161. Unlike a season ago, when he was fighting for a spot in the rotation, this spring's a bit different for him.

"I'm more calm," Doubront said. "There's not a lot of pressure like last year, and that's going to help me. Last year, it was a lot of experience learning from that. I learned something every day and hopefully my second year, this year, is going to be a lot different."

Dempster, a newcomer to the staff, has watched his new teammates in the past from the other side of the field. With everything the Red Sox have in place, if all can become consistent again, it could mean some special things in Boston, and Dempster wants a front-row seat.

"Hopefully we can push each other to get the best out of each other, and that's what I've found in the past with teams I've been on," he said. "The more we push each other to be better, it's surprising how that works and you end up doing really well and hopefully that's something we can do here.

"It's exciting. I'm really excited to be here and be a part of this team. I just want to do my part, work as hard as I can, push myself to be the best I can and go out there every fifth day and leave it out on the field and give everything I've got."

During the offseason, Farrell and Nieves traveled the country and met with the pitching staff. The manager and pitching coach have gone over video of each pitcher. They've already had conversations with catchers Jarrod Saltalamacchia and David Ross about the staff and the open line of communication that needs to be fluid this season.

"Big potential," Saltalamacchia said of the pitching staff.

The way the entire staff, not just the rotation, is set up could be the difference in 2013. The bullpen also has the potential to be a strong point for the Red Sox with a solid core of relievers, including Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan, Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara and Andrew Miller.

"The bullpen is one of the stronger bullpens that I've ever seen regardless of the team," Buchholz said. "We basically have three closers in our bullpen right now and that's always a good feeling.

"As a starting staff, everybody's been around a little bit now and everybody knows what they need to do to be ready. I'm looking forward to getting into the game situations to get the competitive blood flowing and go from there."

So, who is the ace of the staff in 2013?

Ask any of the five potential starters and they all say the same thing. It's not just one guy; all of them need to pitch consistently in order for the Red Sox to win.

"It's fun to be around guys like that because you know you're going to get pushed a little more, and you push yourself," Buchholz said. "When you see somebody else doing good, you either want to top them or do just as good. In a fun, competitive way, that's how everybody looks at it and that's how it should be."

"On paper" means nothing. These guys need to deliver on the mound in 2013. If not, Ortiz won't be handing out any hugs next fall.