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Out call on Lowell the right one

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  February 25, 2010 10:13 AM

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As Mike Lowell walked off one of the spring training practice fields yesterday, he received vociferous votes of confidence.

"Mike, you're the man!" shouted one fan. Another bellowed, "Glad to have you here, Mike."

Lowell is a fan favorite and fan sentiment -- and sentimentality -- would dictate that the 2007 World Series MVP, not Adrian Beltre, would be the Sox everyday third basemen.

The vox populi is important to the image-conscious Red Sox. Sox president and chief executive office Larry Lucchino pledged the organization's "obligation is to field a team that is worthy of the fans' support year in and year out."

But giving the fans the team they want and the players they want is not always the same thing.

After listening to Lowell on Tuesday, it's obvious he feels his right hip is stronger than last season and that at age 36 he is still capable of being an everyday player -- either in Boston or elsewhere. He said he is highly motivated and healthier.

But if you're general manager Theo Epstein and you watched a limited Lowell be hampered by the hip last season, particularly in the field, how could you build your 2010 team and count on Lowell to be anything more than a part-time player?

You couldn't, and that's why Epstein tried to ship Lowell to Texas, a deal aborted by the Rangers' cold feet and Lowell's injured thumb, which the Sox botched badly.

Lowell admitted that he lost some explosion going to his left last season because of the hip, which cut down on his once considerable range. He believes he has gained some of it back, along with flexibility and range of motion in the hip. But if you're the Red Sox, you just can't afford to take the chance he's wrong.

One of the qualities that has characterized the John Henry-Tom Werner-Lucchino regime has been the organization's ability and willingness to make difficult and unpopular player personnel decisions, to be almost Patriot-like.

Trading Nomar Garciaparra looks like a Nate Robinson slam dunk now, but it wasn't at the time.

Parting ways with Pedro Martinez when the Mets agreed to give him a fourth year wasn't a popular decision, and there was howling in the Hub when Martinez went 15-8 with a 2.82 ERA in his first season in Flushing. But Petey broke down the next season and needed rotator cuff surgery, which ended his days of dominance. Now, he is a part-time pitcher.

While Epstein was taking his 85-day sabbatical from the Sox after the 2005 season, there was an outcry when Johnny Damon defected to the Bronx via a four-year, $52 million deal.

The Sox believed that Damon was nearing the end of his days in center field.

He played 131 games in center his first season with the Yankees, then just 82 combined the next three. Damon was the same dynamic offensive force during his time with the Yankees, batting .285 with 77 home runs, 296 runs batted in and 93 stolen bases, that he was during his four seasons with the Sox (.295, 56 HR, 299 RBI and 98 SBs), but where exactly would he have played if he couldn't play center for the Sox? Certainly not left field, since the Sox had this guy named Manny manning that position for most of Damon's contract. Ditto for his other Yankees position, DH, the domain of David Ortiz.

The man that Lowell supplanted at third base, Bill Mueller, was a fan favorite. However, the team cut ties with Billy Ballgame following the '05 season, when it acquired Josh Beckett and Lowell, who was then viewed about as favorably as a sub-prime loan.

Mueller inked a two-year, $9.5 million deal with the Dodgers to replace ... Beltre. He played 32 games before a bad right knee forced him to retire.

Shortstop Orlando Cabrera and pitcher Derek Lowe both enjoyed life after Fenway, but the team's decisions not to bring them back had more to do with behavioral concerns than bloodless baseball evaluations.

The Sox already bowed to public pressure once with Lowell, signing him to a three-year, $37.5 million deal following the '07 season. Then the hip happened.

Let's face it, Lowell is easy to root for. He's personable, accountable, intelligent and still productive at the plate (.290, 17 home runs and 75 RBI last season). He took such a high road Tuesday in an eminently awkward situation that he probably got a nose bleed.

His profound professionalism makes it possible the Sox could start the season with Lowell on the bench as a backup at third, first and DH, which Epstein said is a distinct possibility.

Lowell is aware that the fans are in his (hot) corner and that he has become a sympathetic figure in Red Sox Nation. His wife has checked out the online comments from supportive Sox fans and told him, "Do you know how many people are really on your side in all this?"

"That's a very flattering thing, very flattering when the fans feel like there is an injustice being put on you," Lowell said. "That's a good feeling when you have the fans on your side, absolutely."

But he also understands the fickle nature of the Nation.

"I love the fans. ...But I think they'll be more emotional if Adrian Beltre starts off slow, and they'll be much less emotional if he starts off hot," Lowell said. "That's kind of the way it goes. Like I said, I can't believe in '06 that too many people were excited for me to be playing third. Then as the season wore on it worked out great. 'We got Beckett and we got this guy who can play third every day.' "

Lowell remains worthy of your support, but so does the decision to move on from him.
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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