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February 25. 2012 9:20PM

Kevin Gray's On Baseball: Sox still looking up at AL pack


Andrew Miller, foreground, is one pitcher the Red Sox hope breaks through into the staring rotation this season. Here he and other pitchers work Saturday at spring training at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. (Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE)

REALITY ALERT: The Rays and Yankees have the strongest pitching in their division. The Angels became the league's most dangerous team through off-season upgrades, and Texas is the two-time defending American League champion.

The Red Sox? For now, let's just say they have the best spring-training complex in Florida. (On my way to Fort Myers to investigate.) Question marks are looming over this team, whose lack of desire and talent led to an epic collapse last fall.

Fans really shouldn't be worried about Boston's starting rotation, but it's going to be a work in progress until Josh Bard feels comfortable as a reliever-turned-starter and Daisuke Matsuzaka finishes rehabbing his elbow. Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz, returning from a back injury, will carry the staff until another dependable starter (Aaron Cook?) emerges from the mix.

New manager Bobby Valentine can try to figure out the rest. He'll be busy.

Remember how Carl Crawford was going to be an impact player, a game changer, and the next great Red Sox left fielder for a long time? Yikes. The four-time All-Star and 2010 Gold Glove winner (really) batted a soft .255 and was a complete mess everywhere on the diamond. The 2011 season came to an end as a timid-looking Crawford misplayed a single in left field at Baltimore. Now he's coming off wrist surgery, and the pressure is on for a $20 million-per-year player whose every move will be scrutinized.

Shortstop is up for grabs, and that's a little odd considering the Red Sox paid for the 2012 option ($6 million) on Marco Scutaro last fall. He was later traded, in a salary dump, as Boston picked up righty Clayton Mortensen from Colorado. That means the Red Sox have faith in Mike Aviles, Nick Punto and Jose Iglesias at short.

In the bullpen, Jonathan Papelbon has been replaced by Andrew Bailey, and another newcomer, Mark Melancon, projects as the setup man.

There's a lot of uncertainty at JetBlue Park, but the Red Sox appear healthy, hungry and anxious to turn the page. Chapter one, here we go.

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FISHER CATS NOTES: City leaders in Ottawa are attempting to bring Double-A baseball to their city and begin play in the Eastern League as early as 2013. There has been speculation over the Blue Jays eventually moving their Double-A affiliate to the nation's capital. Keep in mind the Fisher Cats will remain in New Hampshire whether they are aligned with the Blue Jays, Twins, Rays or another team. And Ottawa is a long way from landing a team.

“The people of Ottawa are trying to position themselves for consideration to have an Eastern League franchise,” EL president Joe McEachern said. “There's still an awful lot of work to be done for them to host a team, not the least of which is finding an owner of (an affiliated) team to move there.”

The Fisher Cats and Blue Jays have agreed to a player development contract through 2012, and they will likely re-up for another two years this spring. Fisher Cats team president Rick Brenner directed any questions about affiliations to the league office.

“The Blue Jays have a great relationship with New Hampshire. The only way the Blue Jays would ever leave New Hampshire — and nobody, absolutely nobody has talked with Toronto about this happening — would be if another team agreed to come (to New Hampshire). It would have to be a win-win situation for everyone.”

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FISHER TRACKS: Ex-Fisher Cats reliever Jesse Carlson is among the non-roster invitees at big-league camp with the Red Sox. The slender lefty had an impressive rookie season with Toronto in 2008, posting a 2.25 ERA in 60 innings. He later suffered through shoulder injuries and missed last season, the result of a rotator cuff injury.

Former Eastern League All-Star Darin Mastroianni, who reached the majors with Toronto last season, was claimed off waivers by Minnesota. He is competing for an outfield job at the Twins big-league camp in Fort Myers.

In Dunedin, ex-Fisher Cats Travis Snider and Eric Thames are competing for Toronto's starting job in left field. Jays lefty Brett Cecil burned off 30 pounds during the off-season and “basically reinvented his body,” according to reports. The 6-foot-1 lefty said he weighed 252 pounds at the end of last season.

Staff writer Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. His email address is kgray@unionleader.com.


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