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02/10/11 4:16 PM EST

Epstein has healthy outlook for 2011

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After a 2010 season filled with medical maladies, general manager Theo Epstein is focused on health more than anything else as Spring Training nears its official beginning.

"Health has to be the biggest question," Epstein said following Thursday's informal workout. "It usually is. But in our case, we have so many players coming off of surgery or coming off of injury that we're going to keep a close eye on them and really look forward to having a full squad of healthy players playing out there together."

The player all eyes will be on this spring is Dustin Pedroia, the fiery second baseman who fractured the navicular bone in his left foot on June 25 and underwent surgery in September.

"With Pedey, obviously we're also going to take a conservative path with him this spring," Epstein said. "The goal is to get him ready for Opening Day, not the college exhibition games."

Two other lineup cornerstones are also coming off surgery -- new first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis, the old first baseman who is now a third baseman.

"[Gonzalez has] been on or ahead of schedule the whole winter as measured by range of motion and strength," Epstein said. "He had been projected to start swinging March 1 and play in games the third week [of March]. If he's doing as well as it seems, there might be some flexibility to move that timetable up. We all feel like he'll be ready for Opening Day. We're excited that he's feeling so good."

As for Youkilis, health will be a complete non-factor in his Spring Training. The slugger underwent surgery to repair a torn adductor muscle in his right thumb last August.

"Youk is different from the others, because he actually made it back to a point where he was hitting without limitation in the fall, then took a break and started his normal offseason," Epstein said. "He's addressed some of the mental aspects of returning, because he got back to full BP last fall."

While leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury didn't go under the knife, his left rib fracture limited his 2010 season to 18 games. The Sox hope that the speedy center fielder will have a full recovery.

"He's been unrestricted for a while now," Epstein said. "He should be without limitations this spring. When you miss basically a whole year, it's important to get in a good rhythm and get your swing back, and that's what we're looking for."

One player you might have forgotten about is Japanese righty Junichi Tazawa, who missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Tazawa worked out on Thursday, but the club won't rush him.

"He's going to be in Major League camp with us, but he's not going to be unrestricted," said Epstein. "He's at that phase where he can throw off a mound, but [the] last two, three months of Tommy John rehab are pretty important, and we don't want to rush it by getting him in competitive situations too quickly, so we're going to take a longer-term view and not look at April 1 as a finish line for him, and [we will] look at the season as a whole and pace him accordingly."

Four starters check in early to Red Sox's camp

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The official reporting date for pitchers and catchers is Sunday, but that date was clearly a suggestion for the 2011 edition of the Red Sox.

The rotation was 80 percent spoken for during Thursday's workout, as Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka were all on the field breaking a sweat.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, this year's starting catcher, has been at the club's Player Development Complex for several days. Relievers Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard are also well into their workouts. The starting corner infield is also on site, as Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis got their reps in.

"We're looking forward to the start of Spring Training," general manager Theo Epstein said. "It hasn't even started yet. We're excited. It's great to be down here. It was a brutal winter up north and all around the country. We see a lot of early arrivals. I know we say this every year, but everyone I've seen looks to be in great shape and we're all excited to get going."

What does it say about players who arrive well ahead of schedule?

"I think it indicates they're highly motivated and feel good about the winters they just had," Epstein said. "Usually the guys who are 15 or 20 pounds overweight and haven't picked up a ball yet aren't the early [arrivals]. They're kind of embarrassed. The guys who have had really good winters and want to show off the shape that they're in and the progress they've made, they show up early."

In particular, Epstein seemed enthused about the offseason work done by Beckett, Lackey and Matsuzaka -- three keys to the success of the 2011 squad.

The starting rotation -- aside from Lester and Clay Buchholz -- performed below expectations last year.

"Josh certainly can do better than he did last year, and he knows that," said Epstein. "It looks like he went out and had a really strong winter and got in great shape. The big thing is he didn't hide from the year he had. He took accountability for it. He knows there's more in there. I wouldn't bet against him at all."

For Lackey, the key might simply be the fact that he is no longer entering his first season with the Red Sox.

"John had a better second half than first half," Epstein said. "That's a sign that he adjusted to his new surroundings in the American League East, and I look forward to a typical John Lackey season."

As for Matsuzaka, health and consistency have been two common obstacles in his Major League career, which is now entering its fifth season. Perhaps this is the year it all comes together for the Japanese righty.

"The results look good," Epstein said. "His body looks improved compared to this time last year. He's leaner and little bit stronger."

Versatile Aceves provides rotation depth

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When the Red Sox signed Alfredo Aceves to a Major League contract earlier this week, it seemed as if they were adding yet another arm to the derby for one of the final spots in the bullpen.

But general manager Theo Epstein sees something in Aceves that might separate him from some of his competitors.

"He's a versatile guy who can compete for a job in the bullpen but also provide valuable starting depth for us," Epstein said. "That's one area where we don't have tremendous depth with the composition of our roster and where we're at with the upper levels of our farm system. We really needed that -- someone who can start Major League games and compete in the American League East. His versatility and strike throwing and the fact that he's pitched well in this division stood out for us and made him a target."

Beyond the projected starting five, Tim Wakefield and Felix Doubront are two players who offer additional rotation depth. Aceves is now on that list as well.

Aceves pitched in just 10 games with the Yankees last year, but the Red Sox think he's regained his health.

"He threw two good [bullpen sessions] for us," Epstein said. "Obviously he had the back and hip issues last year then he broke his collar bone riding a bike this year. But he looked to be in really good shape. We'll assess him more thoroughly."

Another name added to the bullpen mix earlier this week was lefty Dennys Reyes, who signed a Minor League deal that includes an invite to Spring Training.

Hideki Okajima, Doubront, Rich Hill and Andrew Miller are among the other lefties fighting for a spot.

"[Reyes] has a track record -- he's done it," Epstein. "He's a pretty effective left-hander. We were looking at him with a number of other lefties throughout the winter. It looked like he had signed, but that fell through and then he became available on a Minor league deal, and we jumped on it. He has an interesting combination -- the ability to sink the ball and make lefties uncomfortable. We'll see how he's throwing when he gets here."

Epstein intrigued with softball player's skills

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Red Sox have once again provided tangible proof that they are willing to go well beyond the beaten path to look for players who might help them in the future.

Earlier this week, the club signed Te Wara "Beau" Bishop, a 17-year-old softball player from New Zealand to a professional contract.

Bishop is expected to arrive in Fort Myers during the first week of March.

"Jon Deeble, our Pacific Rim coordinator, lives out in New Zealand," said general manager Theo Epstein. "He sees New Zealand a lot, too, and he's kind of familiar with the softball community out there. There's not a lot of baseball played in New Zealand, but there's a lot of softball played by men of all ages.

"My understanding -- I've just seen some video -- is that he's the most exciting softball prospect to come around in the last 20 years out of New Zealand. He had a lot of people talking, and Deeble saw him play and saw his size, athleticism, swing, arm strength -- he's a pretty interesting prospect."

All those members of Red Sox Nation who play in softball leagues shouldn't get any ideas, however. This was a unique case.

"It's a little different. The New Zealand national team is a little different than the beer leagues," quipped Epstein. "It's fast pitch."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.