- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- General manager Theo Epstein had predicted just hours before that the Red Sox would not make a "blockbuster" deal before baseball's winter meetings adjourned after Thursday morning's Rule 5 draft.
By the definition of most Red Sox fans, however, a trade of the 2007 World Series MVP and one of the team's most popular players both inside and outside the clubhouse qualifies as a major attention grabber.
When Mike Lowell sits down to breakfast in his Miami home Thursday morning, he likely will do so as a member of the Red Sox.
By the end of the day, however, and certainly by the end of the week, there is a strong possibility that Lowell will no longer be in the team's employ -- and Epstein will be deep in his pursuit of a new corner infielder.
Fox Sports reported late Wednesday night that the Red Sox had reached a preliminary agreement to send Lowell to the Texas Rangers for a 25-year-old minor-league catcher, Max Ramirez, who is coveted more for his bat than his skill behind the plate.
The deal is contingent, the report said, on whether the players pass their physicals, and whether Red Sox ownership agrees to pay a considerable portion of Lowell's $12 million salary in 2010. Because the trade will require a transfer of more than $1 million, commissioner Bud Selig will also have to approve the transaction.
It's unlikely Epstein would have advanced this far in his talks with the Rangers without having at least the implied consent of owner John W. Henry to absorb the percentage of Lowell's salary demanded by the Rangers as a condition of the deal.
And there is no reason to think that Selig will block the trade.
But Lowell's passing a medical exam may not be the formality it is in many cases. Lowell, who turns 36 on Feb. 24, underwent surgery after the 2008 season for a torn labrum in his right hip, which limited him to two appearances in the '08 postseason and drastically affected his mobility in the field last season. Lowell played in 119 games in '09, but missed a dozen games when he went on the DL because of a strained hip.
Lowell also missed nearly a month at the start of the 2008 season with what was called a sprained left thumb.
The chance that the deal could still come apart undoubtedly led to the curtain of silence that fell upon both teams after the Fox report, with multiple officials on both teams refusing to respond to questions seeking confirmation.
But the Red Sox, motivated to trade Lowell because of their own concerns about whether he will be fully recovered from the hip problem in 2010, clearly appear prepared to move on without their third baseman of the last four years.
Lowell, who came to the Sox as a salary dump in 2006 when they were required to take him in order to acquire pitcher Josh Beckett from the Florida Marlins, is leaving in essentially the same fashion. The Sox are willing to pick up much of his salary in order to consider other alternatives at the position.
The obvious candidate to replace Lowell at third is free agent Adrian Beltre, whose agent, Scott Boras, met with the Red Sox on Wednesday. In a session with reporters, Boras noted that certain teams are willing to trade their incumbent third basemen to make room for his client. Boras boasted that Beltre was the most complete third baseman on the market.
But Beltre was a huge disappointment for his previous employer, the Seattle Mariners, who thought they had imported a big bopper; Beltre hit 48 home runs in his last season with the Dodgers before Seattle signed him to a five-year deal. Instead, Beltre turned out to be a slick-fielding third baseman who never hit more than 26 home runs in a season and last season posted an OPS of .683 and an OPS+ (adjusted to his home park) of 82, both career lows. He also walked just 19 times, hardly the model of on-base discipline that the Sox espouse.
Beltre, who was paid $12 million in his last year in Seattle, was offered arbitration by the Mariners but declined, which suggests that he expects an average annual salary that will be at least in the $13 million to $15 million range.
If the Sox elect to sign Beltre, it raises questions about whether they would make a similar outlay for left fielder Jason Bay.
There are cheaper alternatives both in the infield and outfield. The Sox could consider signing the oft-injured Nick Johnson, a player they've always liked, to play first base and move Kevin Youkilis to third. They could sign someone like Mark DeRosa or perhaps even Miguel Tejada to play third. They could redouble efforts to pull a blockbuster deal for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, an admitted long shot.
If the Sox sign Beltre, they could add a right-handed hitting outfielder to platoon with Jeremy Hermida.
Or they could sign both Beltre and Bay.
The market for Bay on Wednesday took a sudden dip when Angels manager Mike Scioscia all but announced that his club was no longer interested.
When asked during a group interview session whether he'd reached out personally to Bay, he said no, then added that while Bay had been discussed by the Angels, "We have more pressing needs right now than the talents Jason can bring.''
Despite what Scioscia called Bay's "extraordinary talents," he added: "They might not make Jason a great fit for our club.''
That would seem to leave Seattle as Boston's chief rival, although the Cardinals could join in if they don't re-sign Holliday, and the Mets are hovering in the wings.
The Angels' No. 1 priority is to re-sign free-agent pitcher John Lackey, or even better, swing a trade for Toronto Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay. While the Yankees' interest in Halladay has surged, according to numerous reports, and the Angels are exploring what kind of package it would take to acquire him, Boston's interest, such as it is, did not register publicly, not even as a tweet. For the Red Sox, it may boil down to refusing to give up 10 years of contractual control over two good young pitchers, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard, whom the Jays certainly would seek in return; plus, Boston would have to sign Halladay to an extension that would be in the $20-million-a-year range.
Now, if the Red Sox could make a play for Halladay without surrendering their top prospects -- or as many -- perhaps they will become as zealous in their pursuit as they were last July. But for now, it appears to be back-burner stuff, while the Sox attempt to resolve other issues. Even if looming ahead is the apocalyptic vision of the Yankees having a rotation of Sabathia, Halladay, Burnett, Pettitte and Chamberlain.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
13hMichael C. Wright