Lowell's future still cloudy

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Back from the exile of a voided trade, Mike Lowell played three innings at first base, had two at-bats and one hit, a flared single to right moments after receiving a standing ovation from a City of Palms Park crowd happy that he's still here.

Now the intrigue begins. Does Lowell, who played in his first game of spring Monday (an 8-4 loss to Baltimore), get shipped out again once he demonstrates he is healthy? Or do the Red Sox elect to keep him as a reserve, a role that Lowell, who feels he can still play regularly, will almost certainly resist?

"Ask me in a couple of weeks," one major league scout here said Monday, a reminder that other clubs want to see more than a handful of at-bats and a few ground balls fielded before they make a decision on Lowell.

It also goes beyond that, the scout said. Teams who might not have interest in Lowell now may have cause to have some later in the event of an injury or a need that becomes more apparent as Opening Day draws closer.

"Depends on the price," another scout said. "What the Red Sox were willing to eat back in December may not be what they're willing to eat now, with rosters being close to being set and all."

Back in December, the Red Sox were willing to pick up all but $3 million of Lowell's $12 million salary in an agreed-upon swap with the Texas Rangers, who were going to send catcher Max Ramirez to Boston as part of the deal. But a medical exam by the Rangers showed that Lowell needed surgery to repair a torn radial collateral ligament in his right thumb, and the deal was called off.

Lowell had the surgery Dec. 30, and the two-month recovery period put him behind the other Sox regulars in spring training. There also was the matter of learning a new position; Lowell had played just four games at first base, and that was 12 years ago, when he was still in Yankees camp, playing at Triple-A Columbus.

Lowell has been taking grounders at third base, where he's won a Gold Glove, as well as first, doing a considerable amount of side work with infield coach Tim Bogar.

On Monday, no ground balls were hit his way, and he was on the receiving end of two throws, one from pitcher Tim Wakefield, the other from shortstop Bill Hall. Batting in the No. 2 spot in the order, Lowell singled and flied out to right.

Lowell was lifted after the third and was gone by the time reporters entered the clubhouse. He has maintained a no-comment policy for the time being, at least, he said, until after he has played a few games.

"Nice to get him in there," manager Terry Francona said. "Obviously, he's not going to hit second. But it was good to get him a couple of at-bats, run the bases, play a little first base.

"He hasn't been in a game for a while. [Tuesday] night, as long as he wakes up and feels OK, we'll do the same thing, give him a couple more at-bats."

Lowell has been a respected and popular presence in the Sox clubhouse since his trade from Florida after the 2005 season, and his stature has not diminished, even if his performance has, largely because of a hip injury that crippled him last season.

"Personally, I'm glad he didn't get traded to Texas," said Tim Wakefield, who pitched Monday afternoon. "By far he's the most professional guy I've ever played with and he's been a tremendous leader and teammate in the clubhouse. That's something that would have been sorely missed had he gotten traded to Texas."

Wakefield said he empathized with Lowell's predicament of having been replaced at third when the Sox signed free agent Adrian Beltre.

"It's not fun to be in that situation," he said. "On the other hand you look at it as a business deal. It [stinks] sometimes, it really does. We don't make the decisions around the club and you have to live by what decisions are made and make the best of it."

It is unlikely that there will be an outpouring of public sympathy for a 36-year-old at Lowell's salary level, but from a business perspective, it would appear that if he is not going to play regularly here, Lowell would be much better served getting traded to a place where he will play, so that he can maintain value on the free-agent market next winter.

But first he has to show he can still play, on a hip that will never cease to trouble him.

"Great to see my man out there," David Ortiz said. "Just looked like old days."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.