If Stephen Drew were a better player, he’d be in greater demand. I guess you could say that’s the main problem with the free agent’s current market. The better a player is, the more that player is wanted, and I can’t believe this is a sentence I’m writing on FanGraphs. It’s the same with literally everyone. If any given player were better, he’d be in more demand and/or he’d be guaranteed more money. Remember, every player has room for improvement, and baseball is such an easy game! There’s no excuse for not being perfect, really.
Drew’s good, though. Good enough to be wanted by someone. He’s in his 30s, but he’s not old, and he’s a proven, everyday shortstop. He seems to be over his grisly ankle injury, and he was worth 3.4 wins for a World Series champion during a season in which he missed a few weeks. He can hit a little, he can field,and he plays up the middle. Given no other information, you’d figure that sort of player would be pretty appealing. Yet what we observe is that Drew’s market hardly exists. We can never be sure of the inside reality — and we don’t know how this is going to turn out — but for now, it looks more like Drew’s in pursuit of a team, rather than a team is in pursuit of Drew.
It matters, of course, that Drew doesn’t project to be what he just was, in large part because his 2012 can’t be forgotten and his 2012 was lousy. For his career, he’s been a slightly below-average hitter. And while he’s solid in the field, he isn’t outstanding. Drew should be a fine shortstop for 2014. A guy who doesn’t hurt a team. That should get some real attention.
But there’s also the reality of what teams already have in place. I don’t know if this is a golden age of shortstops or something, but there aren’t many teams for which Drew would represent a meaningful improvement. There are a lot of good shortstops out there, there are a lot of young shortstops out there and teams are increasingly appreciating the values of youth and cost control. Even given a talent gap, a team would be reluctant to replace a young shortstop with an older free agent. That team would probably have to be in a certain situation.
The teams most connected to Drew right now are the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets. They’re also kind of the only teams connected to Drew at the moment. The Red Sox already had him once, and they’ve already got Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks lined up to occupy the infield’s left side. The Mets, meanwhile, say they’d be content to enter the season starting Ruben Tejada, despite his most recent down season. Tejada just turned 24 in October. But it isn’t just about the players they already have.
Right now, we have the Red Sox projected for baseball’s highest WAR total. They’re projected to win the AL East by a handful of games over a team thinking about trading David Price. The Mets are projected for a higher WAR than the Brewers but a lower WAR than the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres. They’re projected for the National League’s 11th-best record — or fifth-worst record — and though it wouldn’t be like that with Matt Harvey, they don’t get Matt Harvey. Not next year. For the Red Sox, Drew wouldn’t increase their playoff chances very much. For the Mets, Drew wouldn’t increase their playoff chances very much, either. He’d presumably be an improvement on both rosters, but what’s important is the significance.
We’ve written about the win curve, and about how extra wins are worth the most to teams on the playoff bubble. Those are the teams for which short-term overpayments are justifiable, because a win isn’t worth the same money to everyone across the board. If we have an overall average, and an area where we expect overpayments, then there must be corresponding areas where we look for underpayments. If money and demand follow need, then Drew’s in a little trouble.
Because right now a claim can’t be made that a team needs Stephen Drew. He’d help the Red Sox a little, but he’d make a very small impact on their overall chances, so there’s no need to pay much for his services. Drew would help the Mets by maybe a win or two, but that might just help them lock up third place in the NL East, trailing the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves in some order. That improvement isn’t valueless, but the Mets needn’t pay market price, since this isn’t supposed to be a championship season. And the difference between Drew and Tejada would presumably be smaller in 2015, when Harvey is expected to return.
What Drew’s market needs, for Drew, is an interested team on the bubble. The New York Yankees have already said no. The Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have the money, so they’ll run with Jordy Mercer. They also wouldn’t want to give up the draft pick. The Kansas City Royals don’t have the money, so they’ll run with Alcides Escobar. They also wouldn’t want to give up the draft pick. The Detroit Tigers appear committed to Jose Iglesias, after waving goodbye to Jhonny Peralta. And the Tigers aren’t really on the bubble anyway. Kendrys Morales and Nelson Cruz have tiny markets, but at least, for their sakes, they’ve been linked to the Baltimore Orioles and the Seattle Mariners, which are currently in sensitive places. Drew’s market so far seems to be a really good team and a really mediocre team, and both teams could live without him. In theory, neither team would see the sense in getting into a bidding war.
Which means the money probably won’t be there, in a huge sum. It’s not even really because of the draft-pick compensation attached, although that doesn’t help. The Mets would lose just the 82nd pick, and the Red Sox would lose what would be a compensation sandwich pick were Drew to go somewhere else. It’s a small market because Drew isn’t needed by any team with real money to spend.
My preferred wild card would be that Scott Boras contact the Toronto Blue Jays and sell Drew as a second baseman. Drew’s never played second base before, at least a professional, but he has done well at a more difficult and similar position. In theory, it wouldn’t take a lot for him to move to the other side of the bag. The Jays have nothing but Ryan Goins and Maicer Izturis at second base right now, and they’re on the playoff bubble, and they’ve got a pair of protected first-round draft picks. At this point, it’s a hypothetical, and it would require that Drew be open-minded. Still, there might be an opportunity to secure a bigger deal, especially if Toronto ends up frustrated by the starting-pitcher market. Drew could make the Blue Jays better by a few games and vault them into wild-card position.
Failing that, in time, Stephen Drew is going to be guaranteed some millions of dollars to work. There are worse realities on the planet, but Drew’s likely to come up short of his hopes. To some extent, a market can be manipulated, but one can’t really be created.
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