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Boston fades from view as Lowe looks ahead

In Derek Lowe's dream scenario, a number of teams will vie for his services when he enters free agency this offseason. His only regret is that the Red Sox almost certainly will not be among them.

This season was the last hurrah for the Free Agent Four (Nomar Garciaparra departed in a July 31 trade), though the Sox plan to make a strong push to re-sign Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, and some lower-salaried role players.

"Hopefully, I'll have some options," Lowe said, "but you don't know until you get there."

Martinez, the game's highest-paid pitcher at $17.5 million as he completes a seven-year, $90 million relationship with the Sox, has indicated he would accept a salary reduction as long as he were compensated on a par with other pitchers of his caliber. That means Martinez might stay if the Sox offered him $13 million or more over at least three years, a big "if" that could hinge on the team's final evaluation of his health and potential. Martinez turns 33 next Monday.

The Sox were unable to reach agreements with Lowe, Martinez, and Varitek in spring training. And all three players, unhappy about the direction the talks took, ultimately broke off negotiations until after the World Series.

"It's tough," Lowe said of Martinez. "A lot of people have been waiting for him to get hurt for three years and he keeps proving them wrong. I know people keep saying he's not the same guy, but he keeps going out and proving everybody wrong."

Though the Sox have 15 days after the World Series to negotiate exclusively with their free agents, Martinez, Varitek, and Lowe are highly unlikely to forgo their first chance to fully test the open market despite their stated desire to remain in Boston. Martinez and Varitek will rank among the most desirable players on the market, while Lowe is sure to attact interest at least because of his durability and potential.

The possibility also exists that the Sox decide to replace all three players.

"You can say a lot depends on this series," Lowe said before last night's game. "If we unfortunately don't pull this back, are they going to want to bring back the same group of guys that have lost back-to-back years? I don't know. I don't want to speak for them, but it's in their best interest to try to keep the same guys around because the bottom line is we have won and we have got to the ALCS two years in a row. I believe in camaraderie, and we definitely have it with this group of guys."

Still, Lowe has seen the writing on the wall since spring training. And he considered getting yanked from the starting rotation for the playoffs the final sign that the Sox plan to cut their ties with him.

"You have to be somewhat realistic," he said. "They obviously didn't have enough confidence in you to put you out there as a starter in the first place. I mean, I'm not whining or complaining. It's a fact. I tried to prepare myself the whole time I was out there to just help the team out whenever you could, but the decision was made."

Lowe's stock was so high last winter that his camp seemed hopeful he could command a deal similar to that of Bartolo Colon, who signed with the Angels for $51 million over four years. But Lowe, who went 21-8 with a 2.27 ERA in 2002 and 17-7 with a 4.47 ERA in '03, further declined this season, finishing at 14-12 with a 5.42 ERA, sixth-highest among the league's starters.

He acknowledged he hurt his cause by going 0-1 with a 13.94 ERA in his last four starts of the season. But he said the pressure of potential free agency had no effect on his performance.

"I just pitched poorly," he said. "I could never really get back on track. The second half, I felt like I got it going in the right direction. It's just the last three games didn't turn out that well. I wasn't in the plans at all in the playoffs."

But he made what could be his last start in Boston a memorable one by putting the team on the path to victory when they faced elimination Sunday in Game 4.

"You always try to prove people right or wrong," Lowe said. "Personally, you kind of use this whole situation as a motivational tool for next year. You've got to pitch strong all year so when the situation comes up again, the talk of me either starting or not starting won't come up."

Lowe, 31, may be easier to replace than Varitek, especially since the crop of potential free agent catchers is thin. Varitek, 32, who is finishing a three-year, $14.9 million deal, could earn twice as much in his next contract.

The other Sox players who will be eligible for free agency include Orlando Cabrera, Pokey Reese, Gabe Kapler, Doug Mirabelli, and Mike Myers.

But none are linked as closely as Lowe and Varitek, who came up together in the Seattle organization before the Mariners traded them to the Sox in 1997 for Heathcliff Slocumb. The two have formed part of the team's core for the last six years, and Lowe will miss both his friend and the city.

"I've always said I wanted to come back here," he said. "I love playing here. This is really the only city that I've played in. There's nothing bad about playing here."

Martinez and Varitek have said the same.

"Not one of us have ever said we don't want to play here," Lowe said.

But it remains to be seen whether any of them play here again. 

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