Saturday, December 5, 2009

Nothing predictable about Lowell's health

Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell told he's not losing any sleep over the trade rumors swirling around him for the second straight winter.

But Lowell's health -- and thus his ability to play the defense he's played his entire career -- remains a huge question mark for the Red Sox. A team with an analytic process for just about everything can't do much more than guess at the range he'll have at third base next season.

"You just try monitor it as best you can and balance all the factors," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said on Friday. "There's no perfect way to predict how his defense will be. ... We'll see. It's something we'll continue to evaluate up to spring training and in spring training."

Team trainers paid Lowell a visit last week to monitor him during a regular workout, something they do routinely with players to keep lines of communication open. Most players take October and November off but begin their offseason workout programs in December, and a trainer or strength coach often will run a player through his workout program just to make sure it includes everything the team wants it to include.

Lowell now is more than a year removed from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip, an injury that seemed to impair severely his ability play his typical high level of defense. Consider his Ultimate Zone Rating numbers since his trade to Boston:

2006: 7.7
2007: 8.0
2008: 15.6
2009: minus-14.4

His Fielding Bible plus-minus numbers tell the same story:

2006: 6
2007: 7
2008: 7
2009: minus-23

Were Lowell five or 10 years younger, a return to form wouldn't even be a question. But the third baseman turns 36 years old in February and might have seen a decline in his skills -- albeit not one this precipitous -- even without his surgery.

Doctors predicted that Lowell would need an entire year to recovery fully from the operation, though, and that would seem to be a good omen for next season.

There's just no way to know for sure.

"That was what they said when they originally did the surgery: All the benefits wouldn't be seen until 2010," Epstein said. "We're certainly hoping that's the case."

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