There are plenty of big stories surrounding the Red Sox as pitchers and catchers get ready to report to Fort Myers next week. There are returning players, like Daisuke Matsuzaka, trying to prove that they can return to form after a disappointing season. There are newcomers, like Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron, trying to show Red Sox Nation they can produce offensive numbers that will rival their defensive work.
And there is Mike Lowell, coming back for his fifth season with the Red Sox, and once again trying to show team management that he's worthy of playing time. Last year, Lowell reported to Fort Myers talking about the feelings of "betrayal" as he spent the winter watching his team court Mark Teixeira. The classy third baseman said he couldn’t help but wonder if the team thought he was passed the point of being able to help the ballclub.
Lowell doesn’t have to wonder now. At this point in time, he doesn't have a starting spot on the team. Beltre was brought in to be the everyday third baseman. Kevin Youkilis is back at first. The only way Lowell becomes a starter on this team is if David Ortiz gets off to another bad start and Terry Francona makes an uncharacteristically quick move to the right-handed hitter as an alternative.
By then Lowell will be long gone. The Red Sox are so anxious to move him they were reportedly ready to eat $9 million of his salary to ship him to Texas this winter. It's a bitter pill to swallow for a man who was the 2007 World Series MVP and has a .295 career batting average with the Red Sox.
Yet through it all, Lowell has remained one of the classiest players in the game. Going through a situation that would have many modern athletes posting Tweets about their circumstance, Lowell has kept a stiff upper lip. Lowell is so respected, Beltre even considered not coming to Boston because of what it would do to the incumbent third baseman.
"I was talking to my wife about this because I felt bad," Beltre said at his news conference last month. "I knew this was the best thing to do, but I really thought about it hard. When Theo [Epstein] told me that even though Mike didn't get traded, he wasn't going to play third base, that Youkilis was going to play first, that made my decision easier. But I thought about it hard because I have great respect for Mike."
The Red Sox have a lot of respect for Lowell, too, but baseball is a tough business. Epstein's job is to make the team better, and the defensive upgrade from Lowell to Beltre is huge. While Beltre is coming off a three-year slide that has seen his batting average and OPS fall each season, most expect Fenway Park to help his swing.
It certainly helped Lowell upon his arrival in 2006. He was the "throw-in" the Red Sox took to get Josh Beckett, and was coming off a woeful year with Florida – hitting just .236 with a .658 OPS. A year later, he had more than doubled his home run production with the Red Sox, and added more than 150 points to his OPS.
There seems to be virtually no chance that Lowell will be with this team once his surgically repaired thumb has healed and he is back on the field. Cleveland seems like a possible landing spot, especially if the Red Sox take the bulk of his contract.
"It's an unfortunate situation," Epstein said earlier this winter. "It's a second straight offseason in which he's been rehabbing from surgery. His goal, and our goal, is for him to come to spring training and get back on the field and demonstrate his health and start playing and playing well.
"I think this is a situation that will take care of itself, because if Mike gets out on the field and shows that he is 100 percent healthy as we expect him to be a couple weeks into spring training and starts playing well, there will be an opportunity for him. If it's here, if other players don't show up in good health, or elsewhere, he's going to be a sought-after player and we'll probably be able to put Mike in a situation here or elsewhere where he can really make an impact on a team.”
The Red Sox know, and appreciate, what Lowell has done for the team over the past four years. It's clear from Epstein’s words that they won’t leave him hanging in the wind. If he can’t return to full health and production, there will certainly be a place for him on the Red Sox bench.
If he can, there clearly won’t be room for him on the field. Not here. But someone will be willing to take a chance on a player who hit 17 homers in each of the past two seasons despite a long list of injuries.
Lowell is certainly unhappy about how this has all played out, but you'll never hear it from him. He's the ultimate professional, and will be a key late-spring addition to someone else's team.
NESN.com will answer one Red Sox question every day through Feb. 23.
Wednesday, Feb. 3: Would a swingman role be easier on Tim Wakefield’s body?
Thursday, Feb. 5: What does the future hold for Jed Lowrie?
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