FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A year ago at this time, Derek Lowe, his nose freshly scarred from surgery for skin cancer, was "scared to death" of being in the sun.
"I was afraid to open my sunroof," he said yesterday, "and I kept my windows rolled up. I was almost obsessed with the sun."
Unlike last winter, when he missed a month of conditioning just before spring training, Lowe has been able to work out regularly. The bullpen session he threw off the mound here yesterday under the watch of Red Sox physical therapist Chris Correnti was already his sixth of the winter, and before that he had long-tossed two months. Last season, he never got on a mound before the start of spring training, and long-tossed just two weeks.
"Missing that whole month last year just killed me," he said. "I'm not using it as an excuse, but mentally I knew I wasn't ready, and I tried to catch up way too fast. I had an awful spring training. My mechanics, everything was a disaster."
But even with an added 15 pounds on his frame -- Lowe said he weighs 240, as opposed to 225 at this time last season -- he said he still feels like his future with the Sox is cast more in shadows than in light, and it has nothing to do with the cancer, for which he has been checked every six weeks and pronounced tumor-free.
It has to do with the club's efforts to retain him beyond this season, when he is eligible to become a free agent.
"I haven't talked to them," he said. "I think they know I still exist, but I haven't heard a word from them all offseason.
"They talked to Nomar [Garciaparra]. They talked to Pedro [Martinez]. They got Trot [Nixon] signed. They've never said a word to me. Not one conversation. I think they know I work out, that's about it.
"But you're in a situation, I'm not going to beg. You're not going to have the people who represent you [he switched agents in November, hiring Scott Boras] call and say, `What about Derek? They either want me or they don't. Unfortunately, it's that simple. I understand there are decisions to be made. Maybe they've made 'em, maybe they haven't. As for where I stand, I have no idea."
For the 30-year-old righthander, last November's trade for Curt Schilling, and his contract extension, carried a message, both for Lowe and Martinez.
"This is just my opinion," he said. "The signing of Schilling, Pedro or I, one of us isn't coming back. I took that as, `We're replacing one of you guys with Schilling.' "
The Sox came into this winter with six key players entering their free agent year: Martinez, Garciaparra, Nixon, Lowe, catcher Jason Varitek, and David Ortiz. So far, only Nixon (three years, $19.5 million) has signed a contract that will take him past this season. Ortiz, who was arbitration-eligible, signed a one-year deal. The Sox last spring exercised Martinez's $17.5 million extension for 2004. Garciaparra, Lowe, and Varitek are all in the last year of multiyear deals.
"I look at it as common sense," Lowe said. "You can't have all seven guys, and when I say seven, I mean Manny [Ramirez] and the six free agents. Impossible. You're looking at way too much money. You're looking at three-quarters of the payroll in seven guys. It ain't going to happen, but I don't lose sleep or worry about it."
And yet, clearly, Lowe, whose history has shown a tender pysche, already has given it a good deal of thought. The Sox' silence could merely be a matter of how general manager Theo Epstein approaches his calendar. First, you make trades and sign other free agents. Then you deal with your potential arbitration cases, try to sneak a little time off (as Epstein is doing this week), then come to Florida prepared to sign your one-year, non-arbitration players and your own free agents-to-be.
Lowe insists the uncertainty regarding his future here has not affected his preparation for this season, one in which he hopes to make amends for a season in which his 17-7 record obscured a host of ills: He gave up more walks (72 to 48), hits (216 to 166), and home runs (17 to 12) than he did the year before, and his earned run average jumped to 4.47 from 2.58 in 2002.
In five of his first eight starts last season, Lowe gave up five or more earned runs, bottoming out in Texas April 24, when he allowed seven runs and left without retiring a batter in the third inning. "I was awful," he said. "Not only performance-wise, but I'm throwing 84 miles an hour. You're thinking, `Am I ever going to turn this thing around?' "
It would have been worse, but Lowe benefited from the best run support in the American League.
By the end of the season, Lowe was still a mixed bag: He pitched well against the A's in the Division Series, putting up an 0.93 ERA while allowing just one earned run in one start and two relief appearances, saving the decisive Game 5. But he lost both of his starts against the Yankees in the ALCS. There was also the matter of the vulgar gesture he made toward the A's at the end of Game 5, when he made a chopping motion near his crotch. A's shortstop Miguel Tejada, crying in rage and disappointment after the game, vowed that "Derek Lowe is going to be paid back for that sign."
Tejada signed this winter with the Orioles as a free agent. "I already checked the schedule," Lowe said. "My first two starts are scheduled against Baltimore."
Lowe said the A's had yelled stuff at him during the series, on plays where he was backing up third base and home. He said he got "caught up in the emotion" of the moment and that the gesture wasn't directed at any individual.
"You got to understand," he said. "They were up, 2-0, in that series and they lost three in a row. So there's the frustration of that. There's the fact they got close at the end of that game, and then my thing on top of it. Those are three pretty big things to swallow. I imagine if the roles were reversed, I'd have been ticked, too."
When Lowe watched the Super Bowl, he said the Patriots reminded him of the Yankees that reeled off four World Series titles in five years (1996-2000). "You knew they were going to win," he said. "Like when the Yankees were winning those World Series, no matter what happened, those SOBs were going to win."
That is not how it feels around the Sox, he agreed.
"I think you create your own luck, but the Red Sox have such a bad history in the playoffs, I think people almost get talked into it, talked into something bad is going to happen . . . There's definitely something about the Red Sox as far as the playoffs go. They find a way to lose. "There's only one way to change that. I think the front office did real well this offseason. You can look at it one of two ways. Either they're going for broke this year, or it's going to blow up next year."