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Mike Lowell To Retire: The Tale of Two Contracts

Mike Lowell (Photo from straighttothedome.wordpress.com)

Coming off a World Series win with the Marlins in 2003 and a strong season in 2004, Mike Lowell headed into 2005 with high hopes for another big year in south Florida. Instead, he flopped like a fish out of water, bashing just eight home runs in 150 games that season, which turned out to be his last in Miami.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, were coming off a World Series win of their own in 2004 and a 95-win season in 2005 when they hit a crossroads of sorts in 2006. Already gone were Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez. Bill Mueller, who manned the hot corner for the previous three seasons, was on his way to Los Angeles. Johnny Damon left on bad terms to join the Yankees. 1B Kevin Millar was also gone, and the Red Sox had a hole and first base and third base to fill, with Kevin Youkilis the only major-league-ready corner infielder in the organization.

The Red Sox and Marlins were perfect matches. The Sox needed major help at third base and in the starting rotation, as Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield were aging and Bronson Arroyo was inconsistent. The Marlins, meanwhile, needed to get rid of the two years and $18 million left on Mike Lowell’s contract as they began yet another youth movement.

The Trade

Then, the chips fell in place for one of the most significant trades in Red Sox history on Nov. 24, 2005.

Marlins Get: Red Sox Get:
  • SS Hanley Ramirez
  • P Anibal Sanchez
  • P Jesus Delgado
  • P Harvey Garcia
  • SP Josh Beckett
  • 3B Mike Lowell
  • RP Guillermo Mota

The Red Sox traded future NL Batting Champion Hanley Ramirez and others to grab the prized possession: a young, hard-throwing, right-handed starting pitcher with a great postseason record and a history of beating the Yankees. Beckett was everything the Red Sox needed and craved.

Mike Lowell, meanwhile, was just a salary dump for Florida, but a chance for the Red Sox to cash in on a former All-Star. There was optimism in Boston that Lowell could rediscover his swing using the Green Monster, but any fan expecting too much offensively from Lowell was likely to be disappointed.

The Marlins Contract

Lowell had a career revival during his first year in Boston as a 32-year-old in 2006. He clubbed 47 doubles with 20 home runs and 80 RBI. His batting average improved by nearly 50 points, and his OPS was up more than 150 points.

Year Team G AB R H 2B HR RBI AVG OBP SLG OPS
2005 FLA 150 500 56 118 36 8 58 .236 .298 .360 .658
2006 BOS 153 573 79 163 47 20 80 .284 .339 .475 .814

Suffice to say, Lowell enjoyed hitting at Fenway Park. Despite his personal success, the team floundered in the second half of the season, including another Manny Being Manny episode, and fell out of contention by September.

The year 2007 was a pivotal season for Lowell, as he was entering the final year of a contract for the first time in his career. He already proved to himself and the rest of baseball that he could still hit. It was just a matter of whether he could hit consistently and for power after the ’07 season.

With full opportunity to shine, Lowell had arguably his finest season in the big leagues, finishing with 21 home runs, 120 RBI, a .324 batting average, a .501 slugging percentage, and a fifth place finish in the MVP voting behind eventual winner Alex Rodriguez.

On a bigger stage in the postseason, Lowell stepped up again, helping the Red Sox earn their second World Series win in three years, and earning World Series MVP honors entering his first offseason as a free agent. It’s safe to say the Red Sox made a fine investment in getting Lowell for two years and $18 million.

The “Oops” Contract

The Red Sox, though, faced a difficult dilemma. They knew exactly the baseball player they wanted, but he was one full season away from free agency (Mark Teixeira), and a trade of top prospects Clay Buchholz or Daniel Bard was not worth it.

With no one else immediately available, and a potential repeat of the Johnny Damon fiasco after the 2005 season, the Red Sox offered Lowell a take-it-or-leave-it three-year offer for $37.5 million. Numerous reports said the Phillies offered Lowell four years with similar money, but the veteran third baseman took the “hometown discount” to return to the Red Sox.

Some talking heads in Boston have suggested that Theo Epstein and Red Sox brass were surprised that Lowell accepted the Red Sox offer, arguing that the Sox only made the offer because they felt like they at least shouldn’t let Lowell walk without giving an effort to re-sign him. Much to the Red Sox chagrin, Lowell returned to play out what would be the rest of his career in a Red Sox uniform.

Hip Issues

Had Mike Lowell played out full seasons in 2008 and 2009, his career and the Red Sox fortunes may have been completely different. Despite dealing with the Manny Ramirez mess and Lowell’s hip issues, the Red Sox held a lead in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS, and were mere outs away from returning to the World Series for the second straight season. With a healthy Mike Lowell, the Red Sox could have potentially made some even more noise in those playoffs.

In 2009, Lowell faced similar hip issues, which significantly decreased his range at third base and his ability to move out of the batter’s box after taking a swing. Lowell’s doubles became singles, and his long infield hits became routine groundouts.

Year Team G AB R H 2B HR RBI AVG OBP SLG OPS
2008 BOS 113 419 58 115 27 17 73 .274 .338 .461 .798
2009 BOS 119 445 54 129 29 17 75 .290 .337 .474 .811

With no other option, the Red Sox signed free agent Adrian Beltre before the 2010 season and did whatever they could to trade Lowell and eat most of the remaining $12.5 million owed to him. The Red Sox and Rangers agreed to a trade in principle for catcher Max Ramirez, but Texas pulled back when Lowell failed the physical and underwent thumb surgery.

The Bittersweet End

As a result, Lowell faced the awkward situation of playing the last year of his contract, and career, with a team that didn’t want him and didn’t have room for him on the diamond. For the most part, he took it like a champ, save for some annoying locker room quotes that probably irked Terry Franconca and upper management. During the season, the team tried and tried to trade him, as they fielded minimal offers from the Twins, Rangers (who discussed sending him to the Yankees) and Angels, among other squads.

Before the All-Star Break, Lowell only played in 31 games, hitting .212 with 2 HR and 12 RBI. He was placed on the disabled list with hip troubles, and he remained there while the team tried to trade him. Unsuccessful on the trade front, the Red Sox pondered their next move with Lowell. Fortunately, they didn’t have to make a tough decision.

Regular first baseman Kevin Youkilis went down for the season with a rare hand injury, clearing the way for Lowell to return from the disabled list and fill in at first while the Red Sox made one last push for October. On the first pitch back, Lowell homered into the Monster Seats, sending Fenway into a roar.

Lowell played through August as the everyday first baseman, but has since split those duties with Lars Anderson and others as Epstein and Francona get a look at the young guys.

Retirement

Barring a Brett Favre move, this will likely be the last time we see Mike Lowell on the baseball field.

“I’m retiring,” he said. “I just don’t want to make it a song and dance because I don’t think that’s necessary, but if someone needs something official, yeah, I’m going to retire. This is going to be my last year.”

It has been a pleasure watching Lowell the last five seasons, even though the last three in particular have been pretty painful to see.

While it seems fitting that Lowell retires in a Red Sox uniform, the fact of the matter is that the Red Sox never should have re-signed him in the first place, especially considering they maybe were surprised to see he accepted the deal. If you don’t want a guy, don’t feel obligated to re-sign him.

The Red Sox enter that same situation with David Ortiz this offseason. Should they re-sign Big Papi?

About KC Downey - @kc_downey

KC is the "head coach" of the Sports of Boston, LLC blog network. Follow him on Twitter: @kc_downey

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