All AL eyes fixed on Dice-K

BOB ELLIOTT, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:20 AM ET

Let's put the cleat on the other continent for a moment.

Pick the most popular player in North America. Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Howard? We'll take Derek Jeter.

Say Jeter signed to play in Japan. A newspaper editor would send a writer to Tokyo for a week to do a feature. Maybe.

When right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka joined the Boston Red Sox, two Hampton Inns in Fort Myers, Fla., filled with writers, photographers and TV types to chronicle his every move.

No fewer than 150 members of the Japanese and New England media will be in Kansas City for Matsuzaka's debut. Most will be with him for the whole season.

Matsuzaka and his gyroball have landed with a bigger splash than Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki or Hideki Matsui.

Boston won bidding rights to Matsuzaka offering the Seibu Lions $51 million US, outbidding the New York Mets at $39 million.

Then, the Sox signed him to a six-year, $52-million contract. So for a total outlay of $103 million -- or 12 billion yen -- what can the Sox expect? There wasn't a 20-game winner in the majors in 2006, but should Boston expect 30 wins?

Matsuzaka is one of the themes to the American League season, along with:

- Boston's top rivals, the New York Yankees, will open the new season with Carl Pavano on the mound. He is rested, having not thrown a pitch in the majors since June 27, 2005. How did this evolve for the best team money can buy?

Prodigal son Andy Pettitte hurt his back and will miss his first turn. Chien-Ming Wang will miss most of April with a sore hamstring.

So it was either Kei Igawa or Pavano. The Yanks will work things out as they always do -- until they get to October.

- We were set to watch Kenny Rogers on opening day against the Blue Jays, to see if the Detroit starter had a muddy/resin-soaked hand as he did in the World Series.

But Rogers is on the disabled list with a blood clod in his left arm. Chad Durbin takes his place.

- The Chicago White Sox have Paul Konerko, Jim Thome and Darin Erstad to play first, but there was Toby Hall, their backup catcher (signed to a two-year, $3.65-million deal) playing first base this spring. There was a grounder, a Hall dive and now Hall may be out for the year with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

- Erik Bedard, of Navan, Ont., starts the opener for the Baltimore Orioles,, who signed Chad Bradford, Danys Baez, Jamie Walker and Scott Williamson to long-term deals. The O's have a deeper bullpen than the Jays.

Bedard is one of five Canadians starters along with O's teammate Adam Loewen, of Surrey, B.C., Oakland's Rich Harden, of Victoria; Shawn Hill of Georgetown, Ont., the No. 2 man for the Washington Nationals, and Colorado's Jeff Francis, of North Delta, B.C., in what should be a banner year for Canucks, after 23 appeared in the majors in 2006, the most since 1884.

BULLPEN QUESTIONS

- The Jays will score, but how much will Justin Speier be missed, and when will Brandon League return in a setup role?

- The Devil Rays' $5.1-million rotation is set. After lefty Scott Kazmir, it's kind of murky with Jae Seo, Jamie Shields, Casey Fossum and Edwin Jackson.

- Mark Teahen, whose father is from St. Marys, Ont., will hit third and play right field for Kansas City.

- How much hitting do the Indians have? Ryan Garko had 36 RBIs from Aug. 20 through the end of the season. Only one AL player had more RBIs in that span -- Frank Thomas, with 42 -- but Garko was not assured of a roster spot until Wednesday.

- Proving once again the importance of spring training, the Minnesota Twins demoted Matt Garza to triple-A Rochester, giving Carlos Silva a spot in their rotation alongside Johan Santana, Boof Bonser, Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson. Garza had a 1.50 ERA, while Silva entered his final outing with an 11.02 mark.


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