The Case For Keeping Mike Lowell
This past winter, Mike Lowell was set to be dealt from Boston to the Texas Rangers along with $9 million (which would cover 75% of Lowell’s contract) in exchange for highly regarded catching prospect Max Ramirez. The Red Sox, in turn, planned on signing Adrian Beltre to replace their third baseman.
The latter part of the plan came to fruition. A previously unknown injury to Lowell’s thumb, though, prevented the 2007 World Series MVP from finding a new home in the Lone Star State.
Since the trade’s fall-through, it has been widely expected that the Sox will again look to deal Lowell in Spring Training — for real this time. While it would be foolish for the team not to consider all options to do with the hobbled fan favorite, there is certainly a case to be made for keeping him in Boston for the final year of his contract, even at a hefty 12 million dollars.
In 2009, the Red Sox depth ran rather thin.
The bench by season’s end consisted of Rocco Baldelli, Jason Varitek, Jed Lowrie, and Casey Kotchman. While each of the foursome contributed something in part-time roles, Baldelli was the only one who could do much offensively, and even he was limited in that regard. In 2010, Lowell could be quite a weapon as a bat off the bench. That he is offensively capable is news to nobody. However, Lowell is the type of hitter that can succeed as a role player. History has been kinder to high-contact, low-strikeout types of hitters when faced with sporadic playing time. According to baseball-reference.com, in 12 Major League seasons, Lowell has struck out in just 12.5% of his plate appearances, compared to the MLB average of 18.0% in the same period. High-contact hitters generally require less of a groove and thus fare better coming off the bench than do the types of hitters that strike out and walk a lot (recall the Jeremy Giambi experiment); Lowell fits the former bill well and as such could be very successful in a limited role.
Further, the depth at the corners without Lowell is limited. Beltre and first baseman Kevin Youkilis are both expected to be every day players, but of writing, it is unclear who other than Lowell would play when they didn’t. Youkilis, of course, can be shifted across the diamond to cover for Beltre on his days off, but this still requires a backup firstbaseman. The only other player on the roster (excluding designated hitter David Ortiz) is Victor Martinez, and his playing first would require that Varitek catch. This may be acceptable on scheduled off-days for Beltre and Youkilis, but should either require time on the disabled list — and neither player is averse to injury — giving Varitek regular playing time at this stage of his career is not a particularly appealing option. Other players that may be able to fill first base in the case of an injury to either Youkilis or Beltre include Aaron Bates, Lars Anderson, and, perhaps, the versatile Bill Hall. Lowell would likely outproduce all of these players and is, in addition, seeming to take quite well to first base despite having only played four minor league games at the position in his professional career.
Lowell, though, does not feel entirely comfortable entering the season in the capacity of a bench player. He said last month, “If I’m definitely healthier at this point than last year, I don’t know why I should have less at-bats.” He expects to play full-time elsewhere. It is unclear, though, just where he would get that playing time. The failed trade to Texas would have sent Lowell into a situation wherein he would split at-bats between first base, third base, and DH; the very same situation exists for him in Boston.
Should Beltre, Youkilis, and Ortiz each get fifteen days off this season (a conservative estimate), that’s 45 starts for Lowell right off the bat. If any miss playing time with an injury, Lowell would get the opportunity to play every day in their stead. And if Ortiz struggles again this season, it would make good sense to let Lowell accumulate the position’s at-bats against left-handed pitching. He would also be the top pinch hitter on the roster and could accumulate close to 300 at-bats.
In the same press conference last month, Lowell told the media that he had not been approached about filling a reserve role for the Red Sox. I expect that the team will continue to look to trade him and doubt that he’ll be at Fenway Park on the evening of April 4 to kick off the season. I do, however, think that there is plenty of argument for his inclusion on the roster and would be thrilled to have such a potent bat coming off the Red Sox’ bench in 2010.
-Adam Vaccaro can be followed on Twitter.