"Sign Mike Lowell!" the crowd chanted at owner John Henry and general manager Theo Epstein, as they all celebrated the 2007 World Series championship.
And why not? Lowell had just been named Series MVP, on top of an MVP-worthy regular season.
Henry and Epstein got the message, signing Lowell to a three-year, $37.5 million extension. But as Lowell enters the final year of that deal in 2010, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone celebrating it with the same level of enthusiasm.
From the moment Lowell?s hip went wonky in the middle of the 2008 season, the decline in the soon-to-be 36-year-old has been as sharp as the knife that repaired the injury last offseason, leaving the Red Sox at a crossroads: Should Lowell be the everyday starter in 2010, or is it time to cut the cord with one of the more productive and popular players of the past five years?
"He?ll grind it out every day, but at what point does it become a hindrance to his performance?" manager Terry Francona asked rhetorically last month. "I think we all feel, including Mike, the medical people, and us, that he will be better situated next year. Now, stating the obvious, as guys get older, where do you balance the surgery, guys becoming a certain age, and another year of a lot of wear and tear? Some of it?s hard to answer."
Lowell still managed to put together a decent offensive season in 2009, hitting .290 with 17 homers and 75 RBIs. But defensively, the former Gold Glover was a shell of his former self, his range and speed severely curtailed as a result of the hip surgery. Overall, Lowell played in just 119 games.
Francona admitted more than once during the season that he probably erred in playing Lowell as much as did early in the season, not giving the hip a complete chance to heal. Lowell?s most productive periods of last season came after a combination of rest and injections. The hope, if Lowell remains the starter next season, is that the extra year removed from the surgery will increase Lowell?s strength, durability and range of motion.
"From talking to the medical staff, I think they?re confident that he will be better than he was this year," Francona said. "I think we said all along that this was going to be a difficult year. I think we were pretty honest from day one, there was a time in the middle of the year when I think I sat right here and said I probably was too aggressive with him, didn?t help him."
If Lowell remains the starter, he will likely have to take a somewhat reduced role in what could be an intricate platoon system, with Lowell as the designated hitter against left-handed pitchers, while Kevin Youkilis plays third, Victor Martinez plays first, Jason Varitek catches and David Ortiz sits. Such a system would play to everyone?s strengths, as Ortiz struggles against lefties, while Varitek hits 30 points higher.
But can the Red Sox afford to roll the dice? One way or the other, they may have to. Lowell will earn $12 million this season, making him difficult to trade, given his age and injury status.
But that hasn?t stopped the trade speculation from starting. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez remains high on the Red Sox' wish list, which would necessitate moving Lowell and shifting Youkilis to third.
Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com suggested the Red Sox and Tigers make a deal, with Boston sending Lowell and Jonathan Papelbon to Detroit in exchange for first baseman Miguel Cabrera and his remaining $126 million over six years.
The Red Sox were prepared to deal Lowell last winter, with the prospect of bringing Mark Teixeira aboard a possibility. But, if like last year, no deal is made, the Red Sox must keep their fingers crossed that Lowell, who proved his doubters wrong when he arrived in Boston in 2006, can do it one more time before he leaves.
NESN.com will be answering one Red Sox question every day in November.
Tuesday, Nov. 17: How much will Junichi Tazawa contribute in 2010?
Thursday, Nov. 19: Should Casey Kelly focus on being a shortstop or a pitcher?