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Looking at ways to cover third

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 30, 2009 09:32 AM

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Editor's note: This was published a few hours before Mike Lowell was placed on the 15-day disabled list by the Red Sox.

On Sunday night, while the rest of the Red Sox were traveling from Atlanta to Baltimore, Mike Lowell began the trip back to Boston. Lowell journeyed with director of baseball operations Brian O'Halloran from Turner Field to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where the flights to Logan Airport were almost universally delayed.

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Today, maybe it is only fitting that the Red Sox are currently in a holding pattern with regard to their dignified third baseman.

While the Red Sox were preparing for last night's series opener with the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards -- a game the Sox later won, 4-0 -- Lowell yesterday had a procedure that the Red Sox are hoping will be a cure-all for Lowell's ongoing hip issues. Manager Terry Francona revealed late yesterday that Lowell had fluid drained from his hip in addition to getting an injection of Synvisc, a gelatinous lubricant that has become to human joints what WD-40 is to the squeaky wheel.

"Worst-case scenario, he goes on the DL -- just to buy us a couple weeks where he can kind of get a second wind for the second part of the season," Francona informed reporters yesterday afternoon. "We can also wait a few days and then just let him play. That's OK, too. We're just kind of in a waiting mode. We'll see. I think we have the ability to wait a couple days."

As such, inquiring minds want to know:

Will a trip to the disabled list solve most of Lowell's problems? Are there bigger concerns here? And if Lowell reaches a point, like last season, where his hip significantly affects his productivity, what would the Red Sox do?

A look at possible solutions and outcomes, beginning with:

  • Lowell himself. For a man initially regarded as a sidecar in the Josh Beckett deal, Lowell has proven quite productive during his time in Boston. During Lowell's first three years here, the Red Sox ranked seventh in baseball in OPS from their third basemen. The teams ahead of them included the Yankees, Mets, Cubs, and Braves, which translates into a list of players that includes Alex Rodriguez, David Wright, Aramis Ramirez, and Chipper Jones.

    Of that group, only Rodriguez plays in the American League.

    What this means, in short, is that the Red Sox have an advantage over virtually every team in the league at third base. That remained true through the first half of last year, when Lowell batted .301 with 57 RBIs in his first 78 games. Then came the hip issues that ultimately helped trigger the arrival of Mark Kotsay, the pursuit of Mark Teixeira, and the necessity to utilize Kevin Youkilis more frequently at third base.

    Thus far, the Red Sox have given every indication that Lowell's current hip issues can be managed, that he has no additional structural issues that would prevent him from being a productive player. And yet, since the start of June, Lowell is batting .206 with a mere three extra-base hits and a .595 OPS in his last 19 games, the kind of dropoff that cannot help but evoke comparisons to the second half of last year.

    Of course, every player has slumps during a season. As Francona said, the only way to determine the severity of this issue is to wait, particularly with a man who turned 35 in February.

  • Kotsay and Youkilis. At the moment, the easy fix for the Red Sox is to do precisely what they did last night, when Youkilis started at third base and Kotsay started at first. This is the real benefit of having a player like Kotsay, a steady, sound and proven everyday player before arriving in Boston last year. Youkilis likes to play third base, anyway, and while Kotsay does not possess Lowell's power or run-producing capability, he has every bit of the grinder's mentality and work ethic.

    The Sox could do a heck of a lot worse.

    With regard to Kotsay, the biggest question concerns the impact on the Boston lineup, particularly against lefthanded pitching. Though Kotsay's career numbers against righties and lefties are reasonably balanced for a lefthanded hitter, there was a pronounced shift last season, when he had a .777 OPS against righthanders, a .629 OPS against lefties. So far this year, he has had just eight plate appearances against lefthanded pitching, suggesting that Francona is far more comfortable employing him against righties.

    Obviously, there are far more righthanded pitchers than lefthanded ones. But if Lowell is lost for any significant length of time, the Red Sox simultaneously become more vulnerable against lefthanded pitching while losing the benefit of a deep bench. Situationally, against righties or lefties, that could hurt them in the late innings of games, which brings us to ...

  • Nick Green and Jed Lowrie. Given the performance of the former, the Red Sox may have very palatable options when the latter comes off the disabled list. So far this season, among the 14 American League shortstops with at least 150 plate appearances, Green ranks fifth in OPS behind only Jason Bartlett, Derek Jeter, Marco Scutaro, and Brendan Harris. (Interestingly, all but Harris are in the AL East.) As for his defense, which was erratic early in the season, Green has made just one error since May 23 while posting the seventh-best fielding percentage in baseball among shortstops to have started at least 20 games during that span.

    If Green can maintain a reasonably similar pace offensively and defensively, Lowrie could provide the Sox with another key option at third base, particularly against lefthanded pitching. In his (very) brief major league career, the switch-hitting Lowrie has a .914 OPS against lefthanded pitching, making him a very nice complement to Kotsay. (He has been a much better hitter from the right side, with more power, during his minor-league career as well.) He is also a sure-handed fielder.

    Though the Red Sox obviously would prefer to have a set lineup including Lowell every day, Green's impressive play and Lowrie's history against lefthanded pitching could allow Francona to employ a rotation of Kotsay, Green, and Lowrie for two positions -- Youkilis remains in the lineup regardless of whether he is at first or third -- while maximizing the strengths of each player. But if there is a breakdown in that system, the Red Sox could be forced to explore other options, including potentially risky ones like a ...

  • Big trade. With regard to this sort of thing, Sox general manager Theo Epstein generally has been cautious, at least with regard to the players he has acquired. In 2004, of course, he dealt away Nomar Garciaparra. Last year, a deal that simultaneously brought Jason Bay to Boston, he cast off Manny Ramirez. A deal like the latter would qualify as a big move now, though the Sox would be trading away prospects rather than a centerpiece of their lineup.

    So, who are the kinds of players Epstein could look into? Colorado Rockies third baseman Garret Atkins, 29, has been rumored to be available for some time, and he recently has started to hit (17 for 41 in his last 14 games, albeit without much power) in what otherwise has been a dreadful season. Washington Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson is available, and the fact that he hits lefthanded might be appealing given the early-season struggles of David Ortiz. (This would make Youkilis a full-time third baseman.)

    If the Sox want to make a major deal, they might not have the luxury of being too picky about whether to pursue a lefthanded hitter or righthanded hitter. (Ideally, it would be best to replace Lowell with another righty.) The problem is that virtually every relatively major trade comes with increased risk, be it in the form of an underachieving player (like Atkins) or a potential free agent (like Johnson). The other alternative is take on a player with a sizable contract, something the Red Sox generally have avoided at all costs (Todd Helton, Michael Young, etc.).

    Of course, between now and July 31, the trade market could change significantly. Because the Rockies currently are in contention in the socialistic National League, a player like Atkins currently might be less available than he was, say, a month ago. The good news is that the Red Sox have the best record in the American League and ample resources, which will allow Epstein the luxury of waiting -- there's that word again -- until the final days of July. By then, the Red Sox should have a much better read on their needs, be it at third base or anywhere else. And by then, too, the trade market could include people like Adrian Beltre or Joe Crede, though it is debatable whether either would tickle the Red Sox' fancy.

    In the end, big trades always are harder to make. That means the Sox may have to explore a ...

  • Lesser deal. Ultimately, the magnitude of a trade is subjective. Who qualifies as a major acquisition? Who qualifies as a minor one? The advantage of being the Red Sox in this day and age is the Sox can make most any deal they want because they have the money to take on contracts and the prospects to acquire elite talent. Internally, the only real issue at the moment is that the Sox don't necessarily have a big-time hitter ready to make the jump to the major leagues, which is why someone like Lars Anderson really isn't an option to replace Lowell at this point.

    As a result, Epstein ultimately may settle on making an acquisition similar to the one that delivered Kotsay last season. A perfect fit for the club might have been Mark DeRosa, recently traded from the Indians to the Cardinals. According to a baseball source with direct knowledge of the Indians' discussions concerning DeRosa, the Sox were never really a suitor for the player, surprising given DeRosa's ability to hit lefthanded pitching (a 1.020 OPS this season) as well as his ability to play multiple positions, including third base.

    Again, the market could change between now and July 31, and Epstein's patience has been one of his greatest assets. If Toronto fades, Marco Scutaro or Scott Rolen could become available. Maybe someone like Geoff Blum could help fill the Boston bench. And while many of those options may not particularly appeal to fans who want a bigger, more well-known solution, they could help the Red Sox address the potential loss of a third baseman who has been a consistent contributor when healthy.

    But then, that is why a healthy Lowell remains their best alternative.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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