FORT MYERS, Fla. — In his session with the media on Tuesday, Mike Lowell said that the Red Sox front office had not approached him about the possibility of remaining in Boston and contributing in a reserve role. But just because that conversation hasn't happened, it doesn't necessarily mean that Lowell will be elsewhere come Opening Day.
The Sox certainly have made it clear that they are willing to listen to offers on Lowell. They agreed to deal him to the Rangers for catcher Max Ramirez during the Winter Meetings in December, only to have the trade blow up when it became clear that the third baseman (whom Texas planned to employ at third, first and catcher) required surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament. Since then, Lowell has remained on the market but there has been scant interest.
According to a major league source, one team that had considered a pursuit of the 2007 World Series MVP earlier this offseason quickly abandoned any notions of trading for him. The team had concerns about Lowell's defense and injuries and could not make a deal for him until those concerns had been answered on the field.
Yet, since those questions cannot be answered until later in spring training, when Lowell starts playing in games, the team had to move on and use its resources to acquire other players with fewer question marks. That club no longer has either an available position or the necessary money to seek a trade for the 2007 World Series MVP.
That refrain is not uncommon. Now, with most teams having settled their offseason roster questions, it will become ever more challenging for the Sox to deal Lowell elsewhere. For that reason, according to major league sources, the Sox view it as increasingly likely that the 36-year-old will be back in 2010 as a backup first and third baseman who could also take at-bats from DH David Ortiz when left-handed starters are on the mound. (Ortiz hit .212/.298/.418/.716 against lefties last year; Lowell hit .301/.363/.503/.867 against southpaws.)
That could be no more than posturing on the team's part, but it is the case that there are obstacles to overcome for a deal to happen. That, in turn, opens up the possibility that Lowell could remain with the Sox when the curtain lifts on Opening Day.
Though Lowell acknowledged that his playing situation is out of his control and admitted that he had "no idea" whether he would be with the Sox at the start of the regular season, he also expressed reservations about a reserve role.
"If I’m definitely healthier at this point than I was last year I don’t see why I should have less at-bats," said Lowell, who played in 119 games and had 484 plate appearances in 2009. "I’m getting ready for a season. I think I’m pretty intelligent in the sense that there’s no real playing time for me here barring a major injury and I’m not really in the business of hoping somebody gets hurt just so I can get at-bats. For me, I’m feeling like I’m more prepared and ready for a full season more than I was last year, so why shouldn’t I play more than I did last year whether it’s here or somewhere else? I really can’t control that."
The Rangers were the only team willing to pick up a meaningful percentage of Lowell's salary in 2010. Texas has since moved on with the signing of Vladimir Guerrero for one year at $5 million. Assuming that the Sox do not simply want to dump Lowell — and there has been no indication to this point that Boston would swallow all (or nearly all) of his contract just to move him — there might not be any team with the available resources to work out a deal for him.
A quick glimpse of American League teams (which are likely better suited to acquire Lowell, given that he could take at-bats as a DH as well as a corner infielder) suggests that, barring injury, Lowell may be left standing in a game of musical chairs:
— Baltimore acquired both Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada to man the corners.
— The White Sox traded for Mark Teahan at the start of the offseason to handle third, across from Paul Konerko.
— Cleveland's search for a corner infielder will be resolved if Russell Branyan passes his physical to finalize his one-year, $2 million deal. (Also noteworthy: the fact that Branyan — after hitting 31 homers last year — was available at such a salary offers a reminder that even paying $3 million of Lowell's $12 million salary for this coming season represents a significant investment of resources.)
— Detroit appears set with Brandon Inge and Miguel Cabrera on the corners.
— Kansas City likely will remain committed to Billy Butler and Alex Gordon at first and third.
— The Angels will give Brandon Wood the chance to win the job at third, and Kendry Morales is anchored at first.
— Minnesota has Justin Morneau at first. Though the third base job has not been settled, the Twins might not be inclined to spend on the position, given the need to marshal resources for Joe Mauer. The team already added Jim Thome as a DH. Right now, Minnesota appears inclined to feature a competition between Nick Punto and Brendan Harris at third.
— The Yankees have $52 million worth of corner infielders in Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees would not appear likely to enact their first trade with the Sox since sending Tony Armas Jr. and Jim Mecir to Boston for Mike Stanley in 1997.
— Oakland picked up Kevin Kouzmanoff to play third base late this offseason, and with Daric Barton at first, Eric Chavez positioned to serve a Lowell-like 1B/3B/DH role and top prospect Chris Carter likely waiting in the wings in the minors, the A's (who spent their offseason trying to acquire elite defenders) would appear set.
— Seattle now has Chone Figgins to play third; the trade with the Red Sox to acquire Casey Kotchman left the Mariners set at first base.
— Tampa Bay explored adding Branyan, but he made sense because he could serve as a left-handed complement to incumbent DH Pat Burrell. The right-handed Lowell would not appear to fit.
— Texas now has Guerrero as the DH, thus diminishing the need and available money to make another run at Lowell.
— Toronto made its move for a corner infielder last season, when the Blue Jays acquired Edwin Encarnacion from the Reds to play third, opposite first baseman Lyle Overbay.
Clearly, the potential fits are few, particularly given the Sox' desire that another team pay for a meaningful portion of Lowell's contract. Most teams addressed their positional needs during the winter. And for now, the team has shown little inclination to simply dump Lowell, since unlike Julio Lugo (who was unceremoniously designated for assignment last summer), he still has potential value to the Sox.
That said, the landscape could change during spring training.
An injury to a corner infielder on another team could prompt a renewed interest in Lowell, coming off a productive offensive season in which he hit .290/.337/.474/.811, if he can prove this spring that he is healthy. An injury to Adrian Beltre, Kevin Youkilis or David Ortiz would make Lowell a valuable asset as a regular for the Sox. Or, if everyone remains healthy, the Sox could become even more motivated to deal the infielder in order to avoid entering the regular season with a roster situation that manager Terry Francona already called "not ideal" on Tuesday.
Clearly, there are many uncertainties about Lowell's situation. As things currently stand, the Sox are in a position where it would be premature to make any definitive claims that the veteran will be traded before the season starts.
"You can’t walk in today and tell him something. Adrian Beltre’s here. That’s the fact," Francona said. "We do have enough respect for Mikey where I think he will handle it and we will do our best to handle it correctly and with respect. And again, you just don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ve all been around this game enough where if you spend too much time worrying about things you can’t control, then all of a sudden somebody pulls a hammy. That’s why it’s just better to get ready for the season and then we’ll make decisions."
Until that time, it would appear too early to say with any conviction that Lowell will be with another club by the start of the 2010 season. Though a trade might ultimately be best for all parties, it remains to be seen whether there is a sensible deal to be made.