The most lucrative/costly time of the year in baseball - free agency - got under way early this morning for 153 players, one of whom was World Series MVP Mike Lowell.
Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein met last night with Lowell's representatives, the Levinson brothers, but the talks wrapped up around 10:45 with no agreement reached. The Sox' exclusive negotiating window ended at midnight, but none of this means Lowell necessarily is leaving Boston.
Both sides left the door open, and both sides feel there is plenty of room to keep talking and working toward an agreement.
It does mean that any interested teams, if they so chose, could have contacted the Levinsons as soon as 12:01 a.m. to make an offer and try to snap up the classy third baseman in a hurry.
While Lowell should be able to get a four-year guaranteed deal in the open market, deep down he has wanted to remain in Boston, where his swing is perfectly suited for Fenway Park.
Lowell, like many players, follows the advice of agents, whose job it is to maximize the return on their clients. This likely will be Lowell's final big payday, so it would be difficult for an agent to justify advising him to take less.
Lowell, of course, has the final say, but he wasn't about to break in at the 11th hour and shout to the hilltops, "I'm staying! I'm staying!" as Curt Schilling did last week when he personally negotiated his one-year pay cut to remain in Boston. In fairness to Lowell, he's in a far different place in his career than Schilling, who wants to play only one more season.
There were reports over the past week that the Sox had offered a "very strong" three-year deal to Lowell, which he obviously felt lacked a little muscle. The Red Sox assign a value to each player, and the value they placed on Lowell apparently is three years and no more than three years.
Evidently, the total money is slightly less than the value they placed on right fielder J.D. Drew, who earns $14 million per season. Lowell would be playing at ages 34, 35, and 36 under a three-year deal. While an athlete such as Alex Rodriguez easily projects to be a top player at those ages, Lowell, in the eyes of the Red Sox, might have reached his peak.
The Sox might now start to kick the tires - if they haven't already - on the alternatives. One would be A-Rod, which is certainly a formidable Plan B. Rodriguez didn't get a lot of love from the Red Sox at last week's general managers meeting in Florida, but that may have been a strategic stance as they followed through on Lowell so as not to show him any disrespect.
But Plan B may not be A-Rod; there is always the possibility of moving Gold Glove first baseman Kevin Youkilis to his natural position, third base, and acquiring a first baseman. Plans B, C, and D also could involve trading for 24-year-old superstar Miguel Cabrera of the Florida Marlins, and either keeping him at third or moving him to first.
There's also Miguel Tejada, whom the Orioles are trying to trade and likely would have to switch to third base if he joined another team.
Epstein has never been afraid to sever ties with a popular player; the proof of that is Nomar Garciaparra, Orlando Cabrera, Johnny Damon, Pedro Martínez, Derek Lowe, and Trot Nixon. Most of Epstein's decisions on such matters have worked out for the best.
At their meetings, the GMs expressed the hope that more trades could be made this offseason. In their eyes, it's a relatively weak free agent class - though you don't have to trade young talent in your system for free agents. Any team trading for Cabrera, Twins lefthander Johan Santana, or Oakland righthander Dan Haren will have to surrender quality prospects.
Free agency also will have an unwelcome twist to it this year in the looming George Mitchell steroids report. The union last week told agents - officially, that is - that no more than 11 free agents were asked to speak to Mitchell. As a prominent agent told us late last week, "If they want to talk to you, they have the goods on you. You'll be in the report. Some of the spin coming out that 'we don't know who will be in the report' is just that. Use your brain. Mitchell doesn't want to talk to these players about their golf swing."
The agents who represent these players know who they are. Teams may have to guess. Signing a player who could subsequently be suspended is a tough sell to your fans. It will be interesting to see which free agents stay on the market a little longer than usual, or at least until the Mitchell report comes out late this year.
But there are no such worries for Lowell.
He used the home ballpark to his advantage last season, hitting .373 with 14 homers and 73 RBIs at Fenway, as opposed to .276 with 7 homers and 47 RBIs away. But that was a 180 from 2006, when he hit .260 with 9 homers and 42 RBIs at Fenway and .310 with 11 homers and 38 RBIs on the road.
He hit 33 balls off or over the Green Monster (9 singles, 10 doubles, 14 homers), and 16 of his 21 homers came against AL East teams. He hit .382 (21 for 55) with the tying or go-ahead run in scoring position, testimony to his clutch status. There is a lot of value in that, not to mention his World Series MVP honors for hitting .400 (6 for 15, 1 HR, 4 RBIs) in the sweep of the Rockies.
The fact that Lowell wasn't signed by midnight reduces the chances of his returning, but it's not over yet.
It always has made sense to Lowell that he should stay in Boston, where he likes the players and management and where he's adored by the fans. At some point, that might just override business.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com