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Weighing their anchor

Lowell makes a case to stay

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It's hard to think about the future when the Red Sox are doing all they can to maintain the status quo. We're sure the brain trust already knows what it will do about third base in 2008, but the Sox aren't tipping their hand. Certainly not to Mike Lowell, who said after last night's 6-0 win over Tampa Bay -- in which he had another stellar night -- that he hadn't heard a word from management regarding his future.

The team's best offensive player this season knocked in three runs -- with a two-run double in the first inning that gave Tim Wakefield an early lead and a fifth-inning home run off Scott Kazmir -- to give him 85 RBIs.

He continues to be one of the best mistake hitters in the American League; when Kazmir left a beefy fastball over the plate, Lowell smacked it far to left-center for his 17th homer of the season.

"As hitters, we like to take advantage of any type of mistake a pitcher makes," said Lowell. "In that case, I didn't think that was a mistake pitch. I thought he got it in enough on me, but I was able to do something with it that helped our team."

Lowell finds himself in a nice position, with third basemen scarce in the upcoming free agent market. The pressure that many players feel in their free agency season seem absent with Lowell.

He's playing free and easy, in the field and at the plate. Scouts will tell you he can be overpowered by a hard-throwing righthander, but no matter how hard you throw, if you leave a ball over the fat part of the plate, Lowell will hurt you.

Earlier in the season, there were reports that the Sox were making Lowell available in trade. The Twins, Dodgers, and others were hoping to swing a deal, but the Sox never pulled the trigger.

Does the long-term plan include Lowell or not?

Nobody is answering. There's been an unsaid, unwritten, nudge-nudge notion that Kevin Youkilis will wind up at third base and the Sox will bring in a first baseman. Who will that be? It could still be Mark Teixeira if he doesn't re-sign with Atlanta, but beyond him, there won't be much out there in free agency.

There also is the question of how much they want Youkilis at third. He has become a very good defensive first baseman, but he's had a second-half fade for the second consecutive year. Does he wear himself down by playing so hard? And if he's playing third base, will that cause even more wear and tear?

These are things the Sox must consider as they move forward.

Lowell has decided to let the future remain in the future. If ever there was a player who wanted to stay in Boston for the remainder of his career, it's Lowell. Time and time again, he has contended that there's no place he'd rather be, and while he understands how much value he will have in free agency, it would be a disappointment to him, in some way, to go to another team.

Would he take less money to stay in Boston? It wouldn't be smart of him to say. It seems he only wants what's fair, so you have to decide what that might be.

Lowell knows the Sox go year-to-year with their older players. For Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield, that is the way to go, but we're talking about a 33-year-old third baseman who is on his way to having either the best season or second-best season of his career.

A good comparison is Jermaine Dye, who is a month older than Lowell. Dye, who was strongly pursued by the Red Sox before the trading deadline, recently signed a two-year extension for $22 million. Is that a fair comparison to what Lowell might be worth?

The difference is, Lowell is having an excellent season while Dye had a miserable first half, though he has come on since. It's also easier to find outfielders than third basemen, so couldn't Lowell land a three-year deal?

"I'll enjoy having the discussion with my agent at the end of the year as to who I compare with," Lowell said. "Jermaine Dye being an outfielder, I'm not sure he's the comparison."

The Sox have shown some consistency in that they elected not to deal for Todd Helton in the offseason and pick up the five years on his deal, even with the Rockies willing to kick in some of the money. Helton just turned 34 and was hitting .305 with 12 homers, 68 RBIs, and a .420 on-base percentage entering last night. The Sox felt Helton, who has declined somewhat from the .332 career hitter he was, was too old to commit to for five years.

The Sox like younger veteran players. They see J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo, Coco Crisp, and Youkilis that way. They had no choice but to re-sign Jason Varitek to a four-year, $40 million deal when he was 33. He's a catcher, bound to fade a lot sooner than a third baseman, but that's one place where the Sox were willing to gamble.

Like Varitek, Lowell has off-the-charts intangibles.

He is held in high esteem throughout baseball. His story of overcoming cancer is heroic and inspirational. The spirit and desire he brings to the field every day are contagious.

Though he is a Gold Glove third baseman, Lowell did have fielding blips earlier this season. Lately, he's made the highlight-reel plays he's known for. Some believe he's another guy that fades in the second half, but that has not been the case this season. He's hitting .345 since the All-Star break.

"My body feels very good right now," Lowell said. "I got on a conditioning program in the offseason with [strength and conditioning coach David Page] and it's really paid off for me.

"I want to make sure this continues for the next seven weeks."

If it doesn't, he knows his age will be used against him in negotiations. Right now, though, in August -- which he acknowledges can be the toughest month for a player -- he's getting it done with flying colors.

The right now is precisely what Lowell is thinking about. But he has a lot of fans who want the Red Sox to make a commitment to him, because in a season of inconsistent offense, Lowell has been the rock.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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