FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It turns out Derek Lowe wasn't joking about this season becoming his last hurrah in the Hub.
Lowe said yesterday "it's a hundred percent clear" the Red Sox will not sign him before Opening Day. Citing what he described as an unacceptable contract offer he received two weeks ago, the righthander also indicated that it's unlikely the Sox will sign him before the end of the season. In that case, he almost certainly would enter free agency.
Lowe would not disclose details of the team's offer, other than to say it fell short of a proposal the club presented him before last season.
"From a positive side, they've made it easy," Lowe said. "They offered me less than what they did last year, so it wasn't a hard decision to make."
He described last year's offer as "a low number and the wrong way." A source close to Lowe, who also declined to discusss dollar amounts, said the value of last year's offer could be interpreted as marginally higher or lower than this year's proposal because of a substantial buyout provision. Yet Lowe viewed the value as lower.
"It's frustrating, but then again I'm over it because they made it so easy," he said. "It wasn't like it was a decision where you had to sit down and think about it for more than a second. Now you just go out and play the game because I think if somebody wants you, they're going to put out an effort, an honest effort."
A team source strongly disputed Lowe's characterization of the offers but declined to publicly discuss the issue.
Lowe, 30, has gone 39-15 with a 3.40 ERA since he moved from the bullpen Sept. 22, 2001, into the starting rotation. He has won more games (38) over the last two years than anyone else in baseball but Toronto's Roy Halladay (41). After a spectacular season in 2002, when he went 21-8 with a 2.58 ERA, pitched the first no-hitter at Fenway Park in 35 years, and finished third in the Cy Young balloting, Lowe last year went 17-7 with 4.47 ERA. He attributed the relative dropoff partly to offseason surgery for skin cancer, and he has shown signs in spring training this year of regaining his 2002 form. He has gone 2-1 with a 1.78 ERA while holding opponents to a .189 batting average.
Lowe said he hoped the Sox would retain him, but he suspected after the team acquired Curt Schilling that either he or Pedro Martinez would not return because of cost considerations. Schilling, who is scheduled to make $12 million this year, signed a two-year, $25 million contract for 2005 and '06, with a $13 million option for '07. Martinez will be the highest-paid pitcher in baseball this year at $17.5 million, and the Sox also are trying to sign him to a multiyear deal.
The Sox are five days shy of entering the season without agreements beyond this year with four key players who are approaching free agency: Lowe, Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Jason Varitek. They previously signed Trot Nixon to a three-year, $19.5 million deal. A number of other players also could be free agents after the season, including David Ortiz, Scott Williamson, and Doug Mirabelli.
Lowe seemed resigned to moving on.
"You kind of know where you stand, so now you go out and play the game," he said. "You don't necessarily play it for the front office. You play it for your teammates, the city, and your family. I think that's the most important thing. I've already put it behind me and I'm looking forward to starting the year."
Lowe essentially earned a reliever's salary the last two years while serving as the team's No. 2 starter. He signed a five-year, $14 million deal in 2000 as he entered his first full season as the team's closer. The contract included incentives for milestones as a reliever but none for placing among the Cy Young finalists.
It's reasonable to believe Lowe is seeking a deal within the range of some of the more notable contracts signed by free agent starters over the winter. Those include Bartolo Colon (four years, $51 million), Andy Pettitte (three years, $31.5 million), and Greg Maddux (three years, $24 million). The Sox also pushed their payroll above the luxury tax threshold of $120.5 million (it currently exceeds $125 million) by signing Keith Foulke for three years at $25.5 million.
Though Lowe was not speaking for the other prospective free agents, he seemed to anticipate having company in playing this season without a contract for next year. And he sent a strong signal that he does not expect to negotiate during the season.
"We're not the only people to play [out] their free agency year," he said. "Thousands of people have done it. In spring training, [contract status] is talked about a lot, but once the season starts, you don't have contract talks because they can distract from your main goal. This game's hard enough to play than to go out there and worry about off-the-field stuff, too."
Lowe said players who want to remain with their teams rather than test free agency may sometimes lose a bargaining edge. But he said he has not been embittered by the process and would not allow it to affect his performance.
"I've expressed a desire to play here and stay here, but unfortunately in some instances they hold it against you, so all you can do is keep playing," he said. "I don't hold grudges. I don't get mad at any situation.
"You're eventually going to go where you're wanted, and I think that's the biggest thing. You have a contract through the year with this ball club and you're going to do everything you can do to pitch well. But you're going to go where people want you."
He indicated he felt no anxiety over rejecting the team's latest offer.
"It's a piece of cake," he said. "If anything, it would have been harder last year because of turning down more than this year. They made it so easy."
The way he seemed to view it, the Sox could have one final chance to sign him during their exclusive negotiating period after the season. He said he and his agent, Scott Boras, have not negotiated with the Sox since their last offer.
"All indications are that we may not talk until the end of the year," he said. "That's the feeling I get."