- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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The supposition that the Red Sox will trade third baseman Mike Lowell, even if it means picking up a large chunk of the $12 million due him in 2010, ignores one fundamental aspect of the free-agent market this winter:
For teams looking to make an upgrade at third, there are plenty of other options available, minus the uncertainty surrounding Lowell's health, at a cost that in most cases would favorably compare to what it would take to land Lowell, and one that would not require giving up anything in return.
Chone Figgins had a career year (.789 OPS) for the Angels last season, and while the Halos will make a strong bid to re-sign him, Figgins probably ranks as the third baseman most likely to be in demand, especially given his versatility.
Adrian Beltre, after a disappointing five-year run in Seattle, could come at a reasonable price for a team willing to chance that Beltre may yet have the thunder in his bat that he displayed with the Dodgers, for whom he hit 48 home runs in 2004.
Pedro Feliz, a starter for back-to-back pennant winners in Philadelphia, has something to prove after the Phillies elected not to exercise his 2010 option, a relatively modest $5 million.
Miguel Tejada turns 36 next May and is a defensive liability at short, but he hit a National League-leading 46 doubles for Houston, batted .313 and slugged .455, more than acceptable numbers if he agrees, as expected, to move to third.
Joe Crede hasn't played as many as 100 games in the last three seasons and his injured back remains an ongoing concern, but he hit 15 home runs in just 333 at-bats last season for the Twins and is still relatively young (32 next April).
Mark DeRosa, whom the Cubs still regret giving up last winter, offers the versatility of a player who also can play first, second, and the outfield.
Troy Glaus missed most of last season after undergoing shoulder surgery, which raises almost as many red flags as Lowell's health problems, but he averaged over 30 home runs over the previous four seasons and could prove to be a bargain big bopper.
Juan Uribe, who was at short for the White Sox when they won the World Series in 2005, hit 16 home runs and slugged .495 last season, highest among the free-agent third basemen.
Much less attractive but also available is Melvin Mora, who turns 38 on Feb. 2 and had a career-worst OBP (.679) last season.
Despite his hip surgery, Lowell remained a productive hitter for the Red Sox last season (.290/.337/.474), with 17 home runs in 445 at-bats. But his defense suffered, his decreased mobility curtailing his range drastically.
The defensive metrics, still the subject of debate for their reliability, provide a vivid measure of the difference between a hobbling Lowell and a healthy one. According to Fangraphs.com., among the 24 players who played 800 or more innings at third base this year, Lowell ranked last in UZR/150 -- Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games played. UZR/150 employs a formula that calculates the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games. In 2008, Lowell had the third-best UZR/150.
Among free-agent third basemen, Beltre ranked first in the Fangraphs UZR/150. Figgins was fourth, Feliz 11th, and Mora 12th.
Lowell also fared poorly in the plus-minus defensive ratings calculated by John Dewan and Baseball Solutions, dropping from 11th in 2008 to 35th in '09 among third basemen.
The decline in Lowell's defensive performance, as well as the fact that he will turn 36 on Feb. 24, is the motivation behind the Red Sox exploring a possible trade. Throughout last season, Lowell maintained that doctors told him it would take a full season to recover, so there is the possibility that his mobility will be much improved by spring training. But there is no guarantee of that, which also looms as a deterrent to a potential trading partner.
The Red Sox may also entertain the possibility of flipping Lowell and Kevin Youkilis across the diamond, although, again, it's no given that Lowell would make the transition as fluidly as Youkilis did when he made the switch.
The other option is for the Red Sox to go after a first baseman instead and move Youkilis to third, which also would make Lowell expendable. The dream scenario for the Red Sox is that the Padres would part with slugger Adrian Gonzalez, but that remains a long shot at best.
Keeping a healthy Lowell on the roster would be a preferable option for the Red Sox to dealing him and signing another free-agent third baseman. How feasible would a trade be? A team getting Lowell wouldn't have to make a commitment beyond a year, which has its appeal. But health, price, and other options make it far from a certainty.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
12hBy Jackie MacMullan