Over the winter the Rangers sought a right-handed bat who could play first base. During the Winter Meetings in December they came close to acquiring Mike Lowell from Boston to fill that role. But after they learned that Lowell would require surgery to repair his thumb they backed away. The deal wouldn’t have been bad from Texas’s end. They would have sent catcher Max Ramirez to Boston and would have received about 75 percent of Lowell’s 2010 salary.
This spring we’ve again heard about the two parties reigniting talks. While scouts have basically labeled Lowell as an old man who needs a walker to play the field, he still appears able to hit and possibly play first base. Because of this, and because of the thumb surgery from which Lowell is recovering, word was that Boston would kick in even more salary. Yet while we heard rumblings, we didn’t hear anything indicating a deal was close.
Today Texas found a way to fill their need for a right-handed hitting first baseman and keep Ramirez in the system. Earlier this week the Mariners, somewhat famously, waived Ryan Garko. Texas put in a claim and officially acquired him today. Garko isn’t quite the hitter Lowell is, even if Lowell’s production suffers from his age and recent injuries. But for a cost-effective option, but in salary and prospect transfer, the Rangers made out decently in this deal. There could be opportunities in the future, as well, to trade for Lowell, should the Red Sox find him superfluous.
For their part, the Red Sox certainly benefit from having Lowell on the roster. He’s a bit costly for a bench player, but that doesn’t appear to bother the Sox. They were, after all, willing to send considerable salary relief to Texas in the previous deal, so money is not the object here. Perhaps they’d like to avoid a situation where they have to keep a loyal player — one who was reportedly in talks with the Phillies for a four-year contract before signing for three with Boston. As long as his presence doesn’t cause clubhouse damage, it will be an advantage for the Sox.
Lowell’s hip became a problem in August 2008. He tried to play through it at the beginning of the month, but by mid-month it was clear he was headed for the DL. He had a .358 wOBA from March through July 2008, higher than his career to that point, though a bit below his career year in 2007. He played in just 22 games and accumulated just 86 PA in August and September that year and, predictably, his production suffered, though his wOBA still sat at .344 in that short sample. By the time the playoffs rolled around, though, it was clear that he couldn’t hold up. After a hitless nine PA in the ALDS Lowell did not appear in the ALCS.
Following off-season surgery to repair the torn labrum in his hip Lowell returned for the start of the 2009 season and hit very well, though his September production, a .297 wOBA, made his season stats look a bit worse. During the season’s first five months, during which he missed 19 days to the DL and three additional days with hip tightness, Lowell posted a .366 wOBA. His defense understandably fell off, as he posted his first negative UZR since the the stat’s inaugural 2002 season. In terms of wRC+, Lowell posted his second best season as member of the Red Sox. His defense, however, made it his worst in terms of WAR.
This season the Red Sox need not worry much about Lowell’s defense. They have glovework wizard Adrian Beltre manning third base, and Kevin Youkilis can also capably man the position. If Beltre doesn’t work out as the Sox hope they could always move Youk across the diamond and insert Lowell at first. Then again, that might be the plan for getting Victor Martinez, who hasn’t caught more than 100 games since 2007, out from behind the plate. Lowell can also replace David Ortiz against tough lefties. The latter has seen his wOBA against lefties decline over the past four seasons, and while he can still do some damage against them — he did post a .206 ISO against them in 2009 — perhaps Lowell can use his lefty mashing skills here.
Having a player of Lowell’s caliber on the bench can also help protect against injuries. Last year the Yankees had both Nick Swisher and Xavier Nady for the right field gig, and much of the preseason banter centered on the team’s ability to find at-bats for Swisher. Barely a week into the season, however, Nady re-injured his elbow and needed corrective surgery. Swisher stepped in and produced at a level far above Nady’s career averages. Had the Yankees dealt Swisher during the spring, and such a move had been rumored, they would have been in a much tougher position in mid-April.
It’s understandable why the Red Sox would try to trade Lowell. He won’t be a starter, but can hit like one. Another team will find value in that, and perhaps send the Red Sox something useful in return. Additionally, there is probably, at least on a small level, a feeling of obligation towards Lowell for signing a shorter term contract with the Red Sox after the 2007 season. But unless the Red Sox receive an over the top offer, they can benefit greatly from having Lowell on the roster. Players slump and players get hurt. Lowell can help fill in those gaps and make the 2010 Red Sox a stronger team.
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