- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The competitor in Mike Lowell wishes that he'd been given the chance to fight for the Red Sox third-base job this spring. Even if, in the next breath, he acknowledges he is a prime candidate one day for hip replacement surgery.
"That's my biggest hang-up,'' he said Saturday morning, a wrap around a bruised left knee still stiff and sore after being struck by a foul ball off his bat the day before.
"That's the human-nature aspect of it. I don't care who they bring in camp, a former role guy or a former superstar. I'm confident, if I go up against that person and am given the opportunity to win it or lose it, I'd be pretty confident taking on that challenge.''
Having had just 10 at-bats this spring, Lowell said, "I probably would have lost, no matter who I was up against. But I'm just saying from the standpoint of ability and what I can do, I just don't think that opportunity was there.''
A week before the start of the regular season, Lowell's status remains as unclear as it did at the beginning of training camp. Adrian Beltre, of course, is the starting third baseman. Teams that may have been interested in trading for Lowell have not seen enough to make an evaluation, and now with this latest setback costing him some much-needed at-bats, there's little chance of a last-minute deal.
The Texas Rangers, who had dealt for him in December only to void the deal, subsequently signed Vlad Guerrero as DH, which would have meant far fewer at-bats for Lowell even if they had revived trade talks. His former team, the Florida Marlins, took a look at him, but for a National League team that doesn't use a DH, signing Lowell would have been a far riskier proposition.
The Red Sox have indicated privately that a market didn't form for Lowell this spring, and no wonder. It might have been different, he said, if he'd had surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb much earlier than he did. Lowell hurt the thumb at the end of the regular season, but did not undergo an MRI until early December. He had the surgery on Dec. 30.
"The timing of the thumb surgery didn't do me any favors,'' he said. "Teams are filling out their rosters by then. If I had had the thumb thing done by Thanksgiving, I would have had 35, 40 at-bats already.
"Now they have to make their judgments based on 10 at-bats? Scouts aren't going to do that, because then it's on them. If I'm them, maybe I wait two months. I'm pretty realistic about my situation. It's not the greatest.''
It's ludicrous, he said, to suggest he might have been hiding the injury. He said he was open with the ballclub throughout the offseason, informing the team's medical staff that when he resumed lifting weights after taking a two-week break, the thumb was still bothering him, and continued to do so until trainer Mike Reinold went to Miami to see him, recommended a splint, and finally an MRI.
"It wouldn't have been in anyone's interest to hide the surgery,'' Lowell said. "I wouldn't have wanted to be traded, then embarrass myself.''
Because he had the surgery as late as he did, Lowell didn't pick up a bat until he arrived in camp, and was a couple of weeks behind the other Sox position players. He really was more than a month behind, he said, because usually he starts hitting in January, which was out of the question this year.
Lowell was given time this spring at a new position, first base, and was playing his second game at his old position, third, when he was injured in the first inning Friday.
"The timing of the thumb thing,'' he said, "has been more frustrating than the hip.''
It is the condition of Lowell's hip that led the Sox to try to trade him in December, then subsequently sign Beltre. Lowell acknowledges the debilitating effect the surgery -- on Oct. 20, 2008, Dr. Bryan Kelly repaired a torn labrum in Lowell's right hip -- had on his performance last season. Watching him run was painful, and it also robbed him of his first step when fielding ground balls at third base. Lowell still hit, but his defense suffered.
The hip has not progressed as much as he had hoped, he said. But he asserts that it is still much better than it was last season.
"No comparison to last year,'' he said. "No comparison. I still stand by that [a team] is getting something better than last year. If you could tolerate last year, this is going to be much better. If you can't, then hey, that's your problem.''
Still, he admits that there has been significant deterioration in his hip. He said that he called Kelly last season to ask why Phillies All-Star second baseman Chase Utley, who had a similar operation a month later than Lowell, had recovered much more rapidly than Lowell had.
"I don't think anyone, pre-surgery, knew the extent of the cartilage [damage],'' Lowell said. "I called [Kelly] during the season and asked, 'Why is Chase Utley running around as well as he is? It bothers me, it really does. Didn't he have the exact same operation?'
"He said, 'Well, he didn't have the exact operation.' And I said, 'If you did exactly the same thing to Chase that you did to me, would he be running the same way?'
"He said, 'Yes, because his cartilage was spectacular, yours is not.'''
Earlier this spring, Lowell went to a seminar that Kelly was attending and was told he was a candidate for a hip replacement.
"He said there're two things, hip resurfacing and hip replacement,'' Lowell said. "Hip resurfacing, he said, is like capping a tooth. Cap the femur, cap the hip [socket], no pain. The only problem with a hip resurfacing is that the labrum eats away the plastic [cap]. 'You don't have a labrum, so you'd be a super prime candidate.'
"I asked, 'What would I be able to do?' He said, 'Our rehab guy in New York has had people run marathons. You can be as aggressive as you want to be.'
"I said, 'When can I do it?' He said, 'I can do it tomorrow. But I guarantee you in the future that there will be people who can have it and play baseball, but there won't be a team alive that will take that risk now.'''
So for now, Lowell said, he will pass on the procedure, but anticipates that it is a likely option after he retires.
As for this season? He was supposed to have played in back-to-back games for the first time this spring until he was hurt Friday. He underwent treatment Saturday, and hopes that he may be able to hit on Sunday, but isn't sure.
There is a possibility, given how little he has played this spring, that he could start the season on the disabled list. "I guess that will depend on the at-bats I get,'' he said, "but I've stopped worrying about their decisions.''
Barring a last-minute development, he is headed for Boston, where the at-bats are likely to be very limited, unless there is an injury to Beltre, first baseman Kevin Youkilis or DH David Ortiz. That's not something he wishes for, he said.
"Maybe I can be a great role guy,'' said the man who has been an everyday player his entire career.
"I don't think I'm ticked off. But I just want to be ready, for whatever role, wherever I may be, whatever role I'm in.''
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.