Spring training is approaching. Pitchers and catchers report for the Red Sox on Feb. 18. And you can tell it's that time of year again by the lousy weather in New England, the talk about the Oscars and the annual questions about which Red Sox players will be 100 percent by the start of the season.
Namely, is Daisuke Matsuzaka ready for the season?
There are two major factors working in the Red Sox' favor this year. First, there's no World Baseball Classic to throw off Dice-K's preseason timetable. Second, after last season, the Red Sox know exactly what they need to avoid in preparing their $100 million Japanese righty for the major league season.
No, last offseason was not a paradigm for dealing with Matsuzaka that they'll be looking to follow this time around. The then-28-year-old was a touch dinged up heading into the WBC, though you'd never know it by the way he pitched, going 3-0 in three starts with a 2.45 ERA and earning a second straight tourney MVP award in leading Japan to its second straight title.
But after joining the Red Sox late in spring training, it was clear that something was wrong. Dice-K was overweight and out of shape and proceeded to get out of the gate slowly. He made just two starts — going 0-1 with a 12.79 ERA and 14 hits allowed in just 6 1/3 innings — before going on the disabled list with a right shoulder sprain. He came back late in May to make six more starts before missing nearly another three months with a shoulder strain. During his three-month hiatus, Matsuzaka spent much of his time working on conditioning in an extended spring training stint at the Red Sox' facility in Fort Myers, Fla.
But when all was said and done in the 2009 season, Matsuzaka went 4-6 in 12 starts with the Red Sox, posting a 5.76 ERA and allowing 81 hits in 59 1/3 innings. His batting average against was a bloated .325.
After going 18-3 with a 2.93 ERA the season before, it was clear that something had changed. Until recently, not even the Red Sox knew what it was.
But in a recent article in the Japanese magazine Friday, Matsuzaka disclosed that he had suffered a leg injury — a groin strain, of sorts — in January of 2009 while training for the WBC.
The injury manifested itself in an inability to run, which in turn resulted in Matsuzaka's weight gain and lack of conditioning. But no one noticed the groin injury per se, not his coaches in Japan or, later, in Boston.
"We didn't see anything in video," Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell told Amalie Benjamin of The Boston Globe. "We didn't see anything in his delivery. There was some reference, at times when he didn't fully finish or have a follow-through that was similar. But I thought that to be more core strength, [rather] than the groin, as a possibility. That was just my own evaluation."
"Fortunately I was in charge of my own training," Matsuzaka said in the interview, which was translated by The Globe's Daigo Fujiwara, "so if it started to hurt, I could adjust to not hurt myself. But pitching while hiding the injury was very difficult. Even when I didn't feel the pain, my body was holding back because it sensed the danger."
The groin injury seemingly the trigger, Dice-K struggled for much of the season. Only after the extended spring training stay and subsequent discussions with the franchise about returning to his native Japanese training regimen did his performance improve on the mound.
In his final four starts of 2009 for the Red Sox, he went 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings.
"[That] was a very important event for me," Matsuzaka told the Japanese magazine of being allowed to revisit his Japanese methods. "I think I got through to [the team] that shoulder strength and pitching stamina are two different things. They have generously agreed that I can have long bullpen sessions as long as I can pass the measurement for shoulder strength."
The air finally cleared, Matsuzaka, who turned 29 in September, finished the season on a positive note and with a renewed enthusiasm for the game.
"He went into the offseason with peace of mind that his shoulder was sound,'' Farrell told ESPNBoston.com. "He's extremely motivated to get back to the levels of 2007 and 2008. He's a motivated pitcher, and an extremely talented pitcher."
In keeping with the wishes of the franchise, Matsuzaka agreed to spend part of the winter working out and preparing for the season at Athletes' Performance, a training facility in Arizona. While he's there, the team has been getting regular updates on his progress.
"He's in a great frame of mind," Farrell told The Globe after speaking with Matsuzaka. "The workout program at AP has gone very well. He is extremely motivated to have a year reminiscent of '07 and '08 here with us."
According to Farrell, Matsuzaka will conclude his workouts in Arizona around Feb. 1 and will then head to Florida, well before the scheduled reporting date of Feb. 18. Every indication is that Dice-K will be physically healthy and psychologically ready to compete at a high level again in 2010.
"I am very sorry for making you worry," Matsuzaka told the magazine. "I assure you that the  season will be a great season. I am going to redeem what I lost in 2009. With my health back, I am confident and determined to produce this year. I will [try my best to] become a world champion once again."
The Red Sox can't ask for anything more than that.
NESN.com will answer one Red Sox question every day through Feb. 23.
Monday, Jan. 25: Should the Red Sox re-sign Josh Beckett to a new deal before the season starts?
Wednesday, Jan. 27: How will Jacoby Ellsbury's move to left field affect his offense and base-stealing?