Saturday, December 19, 2009

Welcome back, Mike Lowell

So the Mike Lowell trade reportedly is not going to go through. Lowell will undergo surgery on a torn ligament in his thumb -- a surgery that requires six to eight weeks of recovery time -- and thus likely will be with the Red Sox when spring training opens in February.

(It's natural to ask if the Red Sox would have known about the thumb injury at all if they hadn't tried to trade Lowell -- and if the injury thus would have become a factor in February rather than November. There's no answer to that question yet.)

The first step for Theo Epstein and Terry Francona will be to soothe the egos involved. ("Ha ha! It was all a joke! Max Ramirez isn't even a real person!") The second step, though, will be to figure out a way to juggle playing time both to keep everyone happy and to ensure the Red Sox will be as productive as possible both at the plate and in the field. One of those priorities is more important -- and it's not the former.

Among the strategies they might use to make it work:

1. David Ortiz won't play against lefties, period.
That's an easy one. Ortiz might be the most prolific designated hitter in the history of the franchise. In his career, though, he's OPS'ed almost 150 points higher against righties (.964) than against lefties (.819), and he's OPS'ed under .800 against lefties in each of the last two seasons. Against righties, on the other hand, Ortiz OPS'ed .828 even during the worst season of his Red Sox career.

Lowell, on the other hand, hits lefties: His career OPS is 50 points higher against lefties (.850) than against righties (.798). In the last three years, he's OPS'ed .849, .961 and .867 against lefthanded pitching. He even has a .429 career on-base percentage against Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte.

There's no reason Lowell shouldn't be the designated hitter -- at minimum -- when a lefthanded pitcher is on the mound.

2. Lowell's defensive abilities have to be evaluated.
One of these UZR numbers is not like the other:
2006: plus-7.7
2007: plus-7.3
2008: plus-11.1
2009: minus-10.4

It's clear the hip surgery Lowell underwent a year ago affected his range in the field last season. It's certainly not clear that a year of recovery time will bring back an athleticism and a range that once was well above average -- especially since Lowell will turn 36 in February.

But unless the Red Sox plan on employing two full-time designated hitters -- hint: a 25-man roster doesn't allow for two full-time designated hitters -- the Red Sox have to see what they can get out of him. If he's got some range of motion, he could play third base on a limited basis with Kevin Youkilis moving back across the diamond to first base. If he has less range of motion, it might be worth throwing a first baseman's mitt at him and seeing if it sticks.

Either scenario, of course, would mean that Casey Kotchman would take a seat against lefties even though he doesn't have a severe lefty-right split. That brings us to ...

3. Someone has to make a decision on Kotchman.
If the Red Sox don't see the slick-fielding first baseman as playing a significant role next season, it makes no sense to keep him and an arbitration award around $4 million on the roster. A 12-man pitching staff leaves room for four bench players:
* A backup catcher (Jason Varitek)
* A utility infielder (Jed Lowrie)
* A lefthanded hitting outfielder (Jeremy Hermida)
* A righthanded hitting outfielder (TBD)

Unless the Red Sox want to forgo a fifth outfielder -- and thus leave themselves with Mike Cameron as their only outfielder who swings righthanded -- there's not really room for an extra infielder who only plays first base.

Kotchman will turn 27 in February. He's headed into his prime. He has to have some value to someone. The Red Sox either have to play him or move him.

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