The Red Sox were so desperate to get rid of veteran third baseman Mike Lowell that they agreed to trade him to the Texas Rangers for a relatively unknown minor-leaguer and agreed to pay $9 million of his $12 million salary for 2010. But now that the deal has been killed due to Lowell's need for thumb surgery, which will be easier to repair: Lowell's torn radial collateral ligament or his relationship with the Red Sox?
It's a tough call.
With the thumb injury and a hip ailment that limited Lowell to 119 games this past season, the Red Sox brass had serious reservations about the 35-year-old's ability to play anything resembling a mobile third base in 2010. Dead set on improving the team defense all over the diamond, the Boston management "aggressively shopped the former World Series MVP at the winter meetings," according to the Boston Herald's John Tomase.
Of course, baseball is a business. But still, this feels like an unjust ending for a guy who has been nothing but a solid professional in his four years in Boston. Yes, he missed time after undergoing surgery last offseason for a torn labrum, but he still managed to hit .290 with 17 home runs and 75 RBIs last season. His fielding percentage in 107 games at third was .966, better than the .963 of NL Gold Glove winner Ryan Zimmerman.
Yet with the injury concerns and the likelihood of his defense being limited even further, the Red Sox decided that it made more sense to ship him somewhere else. But now that an agreed-upon deal has been squelched and given the team's difficulties in finding a trading partner to begin with, what lies ahead for the two sides?
Lowell is scheduled to undergo surgery sometime after Christmas and will reportedly need six to eight weeks to recover. If all goes well, he should be good to go at or near the start of spring training.
Beyond that, a trade remains a possibility. Despite the recent injury history and the lack of certainty surrounding his health for 2010, a semi-healthy Lowell could still be an attractive prospect to a team looking for veteran leadership and some pop from the right side of the plate — especially if the Red Sox are still willing to pay three-quarters of his salary to get him out of town.
But what if he stays in Boston?
First off, Lowell remaining in the fray would likely mean the Red Sox don't immediately have to go out and sign or trade for another corner infielder, a la Adrian Beltre or, more preferably to most Red Sox fans, Adrian Gonzalez. If Lowell stays on as a backup, it could also mean that Casey Kotchman gets a legitimate shot to win a starting job at first base in spring training, with the likelihood that Kevin Youkilis would then be moved over, mostly, to third. Lowell could fill in at third and designated hitter two or three days a week. He even said a few weeks back that he'd be open to playing first base if it would keep him on the field regularly, an idea that manager Terry Francona dismissed out of hand.
From the Red Sox' perspective, keeping him around seems like a far more sensible option. If you've already rationalized eating $9 million of his salary for him to go play elsewhere, it shouldn't be too difficult to stomach another $3 million to keep him in the mix — especially as a solid, veteran bat off the bench who can always be, worst case, an emergency fill-in at third.
Perhaps Theo Epstein and Co. feel like there's nothing left of the relationship with Lowell worth salvaging. Perhaps they would feel more comfortable shipping him elsewhere and vacating a roster spot for a youngster who could turn into a serious contributor somewhere down the line.
Far be it from me to criticize the team's desire to send Lowell packing. In some ways, it makes plenty of sense. And to be fair, Lowell is unlikely to live up to his big-money salary next season.
But as long as he's healthy, Lowell is sure to show up and do his best. For just $3 million extra, why not keep him around and see what the old guy can do?