Is Lowell Reliable Enough to Justify Red Sox Standing Pat?


Jul 20, 2009

Is Lowell Reliable Enough to Justify Red Sox Standing Pat? Mike Lowell is back, and with his return, we should also see the return of the Red Sox' confidence heading into baseball's trading deadline. The Sox' lineup is fully intact and ready to produce — no need to make a deal, right?


With Lowell and Jed Lowrie in the lineup, the Sox have their entire starting nine healthy for the first time since the opening week of the season. We've wondered all year long what a fully loaded Sox lineup can do, and now we're about to find out.

But that doesn't mean the rumors will stop completely.

The Sox have been linked to big bats on the trading block all summer, and while the buzz on catchers like Victor Martinez has begun to die down, there's still a chance the Sox will go after a corner infielder with some pop. The Sox were linked to Garrett Atkins and Nick Johnson three weeks ago, and although Lowell's return should temper that buzz, it's not likely to die down completely.

How reliable is Lowell? On a certain emotional level, that's a difficult question for any Red Sox fan to ask, especially when the man in question was a World Series MVP two years ago. But Lowell is now 35, and he's not the reliable middle-of-the-order guy he once was — even when healthy.

Lowell's on-base percentage this season is .324 — that's a 54-point drop from where it was two seasons ago. His decline is only sharpening as his health deteriorates, meaning that even if he's healthy now, it's hard to trust the Sox' third baseman for the duration of 2009. Not to mention beyond.

Terry Francona maintained after Lowell's surgery last month that, "There’s nothing structurally that went wrong or crept up," implying that he trusts Lowell to stay healthy this season, barring another unforeseen health problem. Lowell went 3-for-7 with a double in his first series back from injury; he seems to be good to go.

But even if Lowell is healthy, do you really want Lowell (and his .309 OBP against righties) being the Sox' go-to guy against John Lackey or Justin Verlander in October?

This is the position the Red Sox are in. They're burdened with a healthy third baseman who is a class act in Boston and beloved by the fans, but who might not be the right guy for the job down the stretch. Baseball is a business, and guys like Atkins and Johnson are attractive options for a team that's in the business of winning championships.

But it's not that simple. Over the course of the next few months, how much better is Nick Johnson (.948 OPS this season) than Mike Lowell? (.797)? Maybe, if the Sox are lucky, they get Johnson and he wins them a couple of ballgames. That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's also nothing to overpay for.

Adding another bat would help the Red Sox — it would boost them offensively and make them better prepared for October. But how much is that small boost worth?

If the Nationals come calling about Clay Buchholz, the Sox need to hang up the phone. Michael Bowden? Lars Anderson? Forget it. Probably even Manny Delcarmen should be off limits.

For every trade-deadline success story, there are a dozen cautionary tales about overpaying with good prospects. Theo Epstein knows better than to involve the Sox in one of the latter.

The Sox are in the business of winning now, but they're also staying prepared for the future. Their starting rotation isn't exactly set up for the next decade — Tim Wakefield is 42, Brad Penny is only signed for this season, and no one has a clue what's going on with Daisuke Matsuzaka. Today's pitching prospect is tomorrow's regular starter.

With that in mind, the Sox should be hesitant to part with the talent they've spent so many years stockpiling. Even if it means holding on to Lowell for a little bit too long, it's probably worth it.

Mike Lowell won't be manning the hot corner for the Red Sox forever. But for now, his job should probably stay safe. That seems better than the alternative.

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