The Red Sox have been one of the baseball’s most active teams on the free agent market this winter, inking David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara, and maybe Mike Napoli (depending on a recent hold-up with his physical) as they look to pick up the pieces following a last place finish in 2012. Their August blockbuster with the Dodgers freed up hundred of millions of dollars in payroll space, and so far that money has been put back into the team in the form of sensible, short-ish term contracts. The pitching staff still needs work, but up until the today the only position they had not addressed was shortstop.
The internal options were not all that appealing. Ivan DeJesus Jr. hasn’t played much shortstop in recent years and Pedro Ciriaco managed an 85 wRC+ (2.9 BB%) in 272 big league plate appearances this year. Prospect Jose Iglesias is a wizard with the glove, but he owns a .251/.302/.287 career batting line. In Triple-A. In almost 800 plate appearances. There’s a minimum acceptable level of offense at the big league level, and it’s not very likely the 22-year-old Iglesias can provide it right now. Defensive skill only goes so far.
Rather than enter the season sorting through those scraps, the Red Sox agreed to sign Stephen Drew to a one-year contract worth $9.5 million today with some more available via incentives. Give Jon Heyman credit for the scoop. The agreement is pending a physical, which is something less than a slam dunk for Drew following his gruesome ankle injury in late-2011. He did manage 327 plate appearances split between the Diamondbacks (59 wRC in 155 PA) and Athletics (97 wRC+ in 172 PA) after returning this summer, but there is always a lingering concern following an injury like that.
Despite the down year, the 29-year-old Drew was (by far) the best shortstop available on the free agent market. He was replacement level this season thanks in part to a defensive hit, which could be attributed to decreased mobility stemming from the injury. The range component of UZR suggest this might be the case — it checked in at -5.4 in 2012 after ranging from 0.3-2.6 from 2009-2011 — or it could just be the general ups-and-downs and baseball. Defense is like everything else, a player can have an uncharacteristically poor (or great) year for no reason. Or at least nothing we can analyze as easily as we do offense.
Defense aside, the real gain for the Red Sox will be Drew’s offensive production compared to the Iglesiases and Ciriacos and DeJesus Juniors of the world. He came into the season as a league average hitter (.266/.322/.433, 98 wRC+) from 2009-2011, which is what Boston hopes they’ll get next year as he gets further away from the ankle injury. Drew is a pull-happy left-handed hitter as you can see (via Texas Leaguers) …
… so he doesn’t stand to gain much from the Green Monster. Ross, Gomes, and Napoli are dead pull right-handers who will feast on the big wall, but Drew will instead add some balance to the order and while wrapping a few homers around the Pesky Pole. It’s worth noting that his career-high 27.6% line drive rate* resulted in his lowest BABIP (.275) in six years in 2012, something that should correct going forward. Add in the career-best 11.3% walk rate, and you’ve got a solid recipe for an expected offensive rebound.
* Standard batted ball data disclaimer: BIS data is subject to scorer bias and should be taken with a grain of salt, especially fly balls and line drives. We’re still talking about a big (~7%) spike in line drive rate from Drew’s career norms, which is large enough to think something other than scorer bias is in play here.
The $9.5 million guarantee is market value for a league average shortstop, maybe even a slight bargain given the dearth of quality players at the position. Drew gets a chance to rebuild his value in a hitter-friendly ballpark before hitting free agency again next winter while the Red Sox are looking at a considerable upgrade over their internal replacement level (or worse) solutions. A return to form from Jon Lester and a full season of second half Clay Buchholz could have Boston on the cusp of wildcard contention, so the Drew signing is not insignificant. They’re right on the marginal win bubble, where every win added impacts their shot at the postseason far more than it did even four weeks ago.