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Lowe: High uncertainty

Pitcher feeling he may not return

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Imagine the possibility: Derek Lowe pitching somewhere other than Boston next year. Lowe apparently has.

A potential free agent after the season, Lowe was uncertain about his future in Boston even before general manager Theo Epstein said Thursday that the Red Sox do not plan to retain all their prospective free agents. But Epstein's remarks reinforced his notion that the Sox may be poised to move on without him.

"With Theo's comments that not all of us are going to come back, they know who they want to come back and who they don't," Lowe said. "As players, we don't know that. We just go out there and play."

And try not to worry. In Lowe's case, he has decided to believe the Sox will not re-sign him, allowing him to test free agency for the first time. He is entering the final season of a five-year, $14 million contract, after winning more games over the last two years (38) than anyone in baseball but Toronto's Roy Halladay (41).

"I've gone all offseason with a mind-set that nothing is going to get done," he said. "I don't mean that in a negative way. If you think like that and nothing gets done, then you've already prepared yourself not to have something done. And if something gets done, then you'd be pleasantly surprised. It's better to think like that than think you're going to get it done because if you don't, it will devastate you."

Still, he views the coming season partly as a last hurrah for himself and the other core players who are approaching free agency: Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Jason Varitek. Three other players -- David Ortiz, Scott Williamson, and Pokey Reese -- also could become free agents after the season.

"You've got to realize this is going to be this team's last run," Lowe said. "There's something to be said about that. There's a lot of guys that have been here a long time."

Epstein downplayed such a notion.

"That's overly dramatic," he said. "Baseball teams change every year. The 2003 Red Sox didn't look like the 2002 Red Sox, and the 2004 Red Sox don't look exactly like the 2003 Red Sox. On the 2005 Red Sox, there's going to be a little bit of change, but you're going to recognize the team. It's not like we're going to bring in all new players."

Lowe, who served last night as grand marshal in the annual Edison Festival of Light parade in Fort Myers, said he is far ahead of his pace of last year, when he was recovering from surgery for skin cancer.

"I feel like this year could easily be my best," he said. "I mean that from a mental and physical standpoint. I didn't realize how much I missed last year by having the skin cancer. It reflected in my first 10 starts. I really wasn't too good. So I'm looking forward to spring training and Opening Day."

Mendoza hurting

Things were supposed to be better this year for Ramiro Mendoza. Much better. But Mendoza, who last season pitched himself off the active roster with his worst ERA (6.75) since his rookie year in 1996, suffered an abdominal strain Thursday while he was throwing. He was the only pitcher or catcher in camp who was unable to participate in the first formal workout.

Manager Terry Francona said an MRI helped to confirm the diagnosis. Mendoza, who is 31 and entering the final season of a two-year, $6.5 million contract, is expected to be sidelined for at least a week.

"It's a setback, but we don't want it to be a major setback," Francona said. "The last thing we want to do is try to get him back a day too early because, from the medical people's experience, if you come back too soon then you miss way more time."

If Mendoza regains his touch from his seven years with the Yankees, he could emerge as a valued setup man and a top contender for comeback player of the year. If not, he will scramble to land a spot as a long man in the bullpen or face another long season of limited activity.

Garcia is late

While Pedro Martinez remained in Boston to deal with a medical problem involving a family member, only one other player who was due to report yesterday was tardy: Reynaldo Garcia, a righthander the Sox acquired last month off waivers from the Rangers. Garcia remained in the Dominican Republic. "I don't think it's a visa situation," Epstein said. "We'll hear more soon." Martinez is due to participate in his first workout Tuesday . . . Add Kevin Millar, Gabe Kapler, and Kevin Youkilis to the list of position players who reported early . . . Tony Cloninger, who started last season as the pitching coach, returned as a senior adviser to pitching coach Dave Wallace. The Sox kept a commitment to Cloninger to keep him in the organization after he left the team last year with bladder cancer . . . David McCarty threw in the bullpen for the first time in his attempt to make the team as a pitcher and hitter. Francona said it was too early to make an evaluation . . . Another sign of the burgeoning interest in the Sox-Yankees rivalry: New York's Newsday has assigned writer Chuck Culpepper to produce a periodic diary from Sox camp titled, "The Misery Index."

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