Exactly five weeks from today, Red Sox pitchers and catchers will report to Fort Myers, Fla.: The first official act of spring training 2010. Two days later, on Feb. 20, the early arrivals will begin their first full day of workouts, participating in drills known as pitchers’ fielding practice.

 

It’s an annual rite of spring, with manager Terry Francona whacking rapid-fire grounders at his hurlers. But the drill takes on special significance this season, with the pitching staff on the front line of Boston’s new battle plan.

 

After a sloppy 2009 in the field, GM Theo Epstein has remade his team with run prevention just as critical as run-production. Outfielder Mike Cameron, shortstop Marco Scutaro and third baseman Adrian Beltre replace defensive liabilities Jason Bay, Julio Lugo and Mike Lowell — a dramatic upgrade up the middle and on one corner.

 

The acquisition of right-hander John Lackey gives the Sox the best rotation in the AL East (if not the league) and a defense worthy of backing it up. In all, it should reduce the need to secure extra outs and make extra pitches that burdened the starters last season.

 

“We’ve always taken the approach that a run prevented is as valuable as a run scored,” Epstein said last week. “I think looking forward to our club next year, I hope we have a better all-around club than we had [in 2009], where our defense was really our Achilles’ heel. If everything goes according to plan we can put out one of the best defensive units in baseball next year.”