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Lowell's seat can't be very comfortable

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 8, 2010

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Mike Lowell is smart enough to know this was coming.

He knew that if he were still around, and if David Ortiz struggled, there would be calls for him to take some of Ortiz’s at-bats. Lowell is an innocent bystander, forced into a situation he can do very little about.

When the lineups were posted last night, Lowell was not among the nine Red Sox starters listed to bat against Yankees lefthander Andy Pettitte. Predictably, manager Terry Francona stuck with Ortiz after eight plate appearances in the season’s first two games yielded no hits and one walk. It was probably the right thing to do, since Pettitte is actually tougher against righthanders than lefthanders with his cut fastball, and Ortiz had a career .364 average against him.

Lowell wants to play, but he isn’t going to get into anything this early in the season. When we spoke yesterday, he said he is usually told a day ahead of time that he’s going to play. When approached late Tuesday night by WBZ’s Jonny Miller about when he would play, Lowell pointed to the manager’s office and said that was the guy who could answer the question.

A series against the Royals is coming up tomorrow, but the Sox won’t be facing any lefthanded starting pitchers. After that comes a trip to Minnesota, where Lowell might have a shot to play.

Francona is a player’s manager, one who knows how to get at-bats for his scrubs, and right now Lowell is a $12 million scrub. He can hit lefthanded pitching. He can hit any pitching, for that matter, and if Ortiz goes south, there will be more calls for Lowell to get the at-bats.

This is not the way the Sox scripted it.

Lowell was supposed to be gone by now. He was headed to Texas for Max Ramirez and $9 million to pay his salary. That deal fell apart when Lowell was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his right thumb by Rangers physicians. The Rangers had newfound interest after watching Lowell closely in spring training, but rather than take the chance on his thumb and hip, they signed Ryan Garko.

Lowell is well aware of the stories in the newspapers and the talk-show buzz concerning Ortiz. He expected it would take a little longer than this, but in Boston, things tend to take on a life of their own. Does Lowell want to play? Of course. But at the expense of Ortiz? Of course not.

Ortiz has been his teammate. He has won a World Series with him. He’s a friend. Nobody wants to supplant a friend. If Ortiz does manage to get his offense in order, Lowell will be a spot starter getting minimal at-bats.

That will not only diminish his trade value, but likely make him more frustrated. If Lowell is healthy and not playing, it’s simply not going to sit with him.

It’s very early in this season, and he’s already sensing the possibility that he’s going to be left out.

At some point, the Sox will realize they have a $12 million player who still has value as a righthanded power hitter — especially at Fenway Park — who can hit lefthanders (.301), and who probably should be utilized.

Will they have to consider a platoon where Ortiz sits against lefthanders and Lowell is the DH? It probably makes sense. On a team built for run prevention, you need the DH to be one of your top offensive spots.

Certainly, Francona must say publicly that it’s too early to be thinking that way. Ortiz will get every opportunity to make Lowell irrelevant on this team, but as long as Lowell is around, why not make sure you can use his righthanded bat intelligently?

What the Sox will decide in the next few weeks is whether Ortiz can be the Ortiz of old, or whether even in decline he is still worthy of at-bats against lefthanded pitching.

When the Sox signed Ortiz as a free agent, he came from Minnesota, where he was a platoon player. What he did for six solid years in Boston vaulted him into a different category; really, he became the most feared hitter in the American League.

It seems far-fetched, too, that, if Ortiz has lost it, the Sox can instantly go out and bring in Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego. Don’t forget, the Sox’ prospect list has been diminished by the halt to Ryan Westmoreland’s progress because of his brain surgery; he was widely considered Boston’s best prospect.

On a team based on pitching and defense, how can you now include Clay Buchholz in any deal? And why would Padres general manager Jed Hoyer trade Gonzalez to the Red Sox knowing he can’t get the package he’s looking for? And there’s always the possibility that Hoyer simply won’t trade Gonzalez this season.

So if Ortiz doesn’t reach his former degree of excellence, the Sox may have to make a pretty tough decision to sit him on the bench, where Lowell anxiously awaits what’s next.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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