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Lowell is simply a keeper

CLEVELAND - When Mike Lowell woke up in a Cleveland hotel yesterday morning, his team down, 3-1, in the American League Championship Series to the Indians, he wasn't contemplating his Red Sox mortality.

And when he got to the park and pulled on his No. 25 jersey, he prevented his mind from wandering into territory that doesn't make sense when your team is fighting for its life.

In other words, he purposely avoided considering the fact that last night could have been his final game with Boston.

"I haven't really thought about it," he said moments before he took batting practice. "And the reason I haven't thought about it is because I really think we're going to win.

"I have this belief that if you even think about a negative, it can happen. And we don't need any negative thoughts."

It has been a reality for months that whenever the season ended, Lowell's future would instantly become murky. He will be a free agent and he would like to stay in Boston, but negotiations regarding an extension stalled and were not revisited. Lowell knows this will likely be his last significant contract, and he needs to lock up as much financial security as possible. In a perfect world, he will find a suitor that will give him a four-year pact in the $10 million-$12 million annual range.

That suitor does not play its home games at Fenway Park.

Although the Sox have not publicly revealed their intentions, club sources said Boston would balk at offering Lowell anything more than a two-year deal. You can be sure general manager Theo Epstein's office is cluttered with data that demonstrate the downward hitting spiral of 36-year-old third basemen, the age Lowell will be in three seasons.

Boston's track record on forecasting the demise of older players as they headed into the twilight of their careers (that phrase still makes you cringe, doesn't it?) has been commendable. The Sox passed on giving Pedro Martínez and Johnny Damon multiyear deals, and they were right on both counts. Martínez had major shoulder surgery and missed most of this season, and Damon suffered an array of injuries that relegated him to DH duties for the Yankees during chunks of 2007.

Lowell is coming off a dream season in which he batted .324, hit 21 homers, and knocked in 120 runs. He was arguably the team MVP in a year when Manny Ramírez missed 24 games with an oblique strain and David Ortiz struggled with knee woes.

He has cooled off some in the postseason, hitting .296 with one homer and nine RBIs through eight games, but you wonder if those numbers will have any bearing on his status. When Derek Lowe became a central figure in Boston's march to the 2004 World Series championship, it did little to bolster his case to remain with the team. In fact, management went out of its way to insist it could not let the emotions of the first title since 1918 color its thinking.

Lowe's shortcomings went well beyond what transpired on the field. His lifestyle was irksome to the Sox and played a role in their declining to offer him a new deal. Lowe departed for Los Angeles, immediately became embroiled in some embarrassing personal issues, and has been barely a .500 pitcher for the Dodgers.

So how much does character matter to the Red Sox? If that is truly a criterion they weigh heavily, then how can they afford not to bring Mike Lowell back? He is a tireless worker, a positive influence, a professional who exhibits dignity and grace in both victory and defeat. He is popular in the clubhouse, both with the veterans and the young players, and has proven a valuable confidant to the Dominican players because he speaks fluent Spanish. He is reliable, consistent, and respectful. His manager, Terry Francona, is crazy about him.

"The perfect teammate," Ortiz declared recently.

Obviously, you don't pay a free agent just because he's a good guy. Lowell raised eyebrows in 2005 when he slumped badly in his final year with the Florida Marlins, batting .236 with just eight home runs and 58 RBIs. Lowell retreated to his Florida home, spent the early part of the winter retooling his swing with the help of former Yankees hitting coach Gary Denbo (who was hired by the Toronto Blue Jays last week), and came back and posted healthy numbers in his first season with the Sox in 2006.

He followed that with a year that resonated throughout the league. There will be interest in Lowell, particularly because this free agent class is thin with corner infielders, and because savvy veterans are valued in clubhouses everywhere.

It's not as if Boston has a hot young third baseman in its farm system who is ready to supplant him. If Lowell gets away, then what? The Sox' past flirtations with Alex Rodriguez should make every Boston fan queasy. If this is an organization that likes to go by the numbers, what makes it think A-Rod's woeful postseason stats will miraculously evaporate? There's no question a 3-4-5 punch of Ortiz-Ramírez-Rodriguez is a glitzy scenario, but it says here the headaches and the heartburn would outweigh the numbers the Yankees third baseman would add to the equation.

There has been talk Boston could move Kevin Youkilis back over to third if needed, but Youk just submitted an error-free regular season at first base. Seems to me it makes sense to keep him there.

Obviously, there's risk involved whenever you sign a free agent. And quite often, you have to overpay for those free agents.

Boston did not hesitate to overpay for either Daisuke Matsuzaka or J.D. Drew. Mike Lowell deserves a new contract from the Red Sox.

At least if you overpay for him, you'll do so knowing he's already made a contribution worth noting.

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