Earlier this week, we heard reports out of Boston indicating that the Red Sox would “wait out” the market on shortstop Stephen Drew, with the intention of jumping back in if the terms were right. That’s probably an improvement over what they figured would happen at the beginning of the offseason, since a solid player represented by Scott Boras in a very weak field for left-side infield help would have been thought to be an appealing item.
But more than a month into the winter, Drew’s market has been relatively soft. The St. Louis Cardinals, the team most desperately in need of a shortstop, instead signed Jhonny Peralta. Other potential fits like the New York Mets have spent their money elsewhere first, and rumored trade targets like Elvis Andrus and Asdrubal Cabrera further complicate the market.
Considering his rocky health history and the qualifying offer/draft-pick compensation that hangs over his head, Drew might not be finding a home as easily as we may have thought he would.
For the Red Sox, this presents the perfect scenario, one that they can use to their advantage: they need to bring Drew back.
Depth is a good thing
Considering how many teams have holes on the left sides of their infields, it may seem like the Red Sox are in good shape without Drew, because 21-year-old shortstop/third baseman Xander Bogaerts and 25-year-old third baseman Will Middlebrooks represent an enviable young duo. Yet the Boston infield pair is still high on risk, as Bogaerts has all of 50 major league plate appearances to his name and Middlebrooks was so inconsistent that he found himself back in Triple-A for a stretch in 2013 before being buried on the bench in the World Series.
Teams that are relatively far from contention can handle the risk of going with two uncertain young players — three if you count the possibility of Jackie Bradley Jr. starting in center — but teams hoping to win a World Series (or in Boston’s case, another World Series) need to have a little more certainty. Even if adding a solid veteran to a part of the roster that already has talent (plus young third baseman Garin Cecchini maybe a year or two away) seems like an embarrassment of riches, well, the Red Sox are one of the teams that can easily handle the financial cost — particularly if Drew’s market forces him to accept a deal below what he’d envisioned.
Drew isn’t a star, but he’d do more than a little to mitigate that risk, having proven himself to be a solid shortstop over his eight seasons in the big leagues. After an excellent 2010 (.355 wOBA), he suffered a badly broken ankle in July 2011 that cost him nearly a full year of play, ruining most of his 2012 as well.
He rebounded in 2013 to contribute more than 3 WAR to the Red Sox in 2013, putting up a .337 wOBA with valuable defense, and giving him a case to be made as a top-10 shortstop in MLBvthis year. Though his strikeout rate has increased, he’s also pushed his walk rate over 10 percent in each of the last two years.
No one should expect Drew to suddenly become a superstar at age 31, but he doesn’t need to be in order to be a valuable player. Most projection systems expect he’ll contribute between 2-to-3 WAR, with double-digit homers and plus defense. Barring another serious injury, it’s difficult to imagine him collapsing completely in the next two or three years.
Increasing trade options
That’s not to say that Bogaerts or Middlebooks won’t work out in 2014, either, just that it’s a lot to expect both of them to be productive everyday players, simultaneously, at this point in their careers. (We saw what happened when Bradley broke camp last April.) Bringing Drew back would not only provide much-needed depth and stability, it would open up a world of possibilities — such as making Middlebrooks available via trade in a market mostly devoid of third baseman.
Middlebrooks has been a particularly difficult player to value, because in 169 career games and 660 plate appearances — essentially one full season — he’s hit 32 homers, which is very good. But he’s also done so with a .294 OBP, 5.0 percent walk rate, and a 25.5 percent strikeout rate, numbers which hurt his value deeply. Big power is nice, but it can’t be the only tool accompanied by contact issues and few walks; if that was okay, Toronto wouldn’t have non-tendered J.P. Arencibia.
Then again, it’s so difficult to find power from third base these days that it’s not hard at all to think that teams would be willing to take a risk on a cost-controlled young player who can’t be a free agent until after 2018. That’s especially so if teams think there’s more growth there as he gains experience and gets further away from a 2012 broken right wrist, and having Drew and Bogaerts at the big-league level with Cecchini on the way would give Boston an intriguing trade chip.
The market there would be fascinating, because his youth and low cost would attract teams without large budgets or contention hopes — the White Sox, Marlins, and Indians all badly need third base help — while his power at a position of need would bring in win-now clubs. (Which is why the “Andre Ethier-for-Middlebrooks” rumors never seem to die.)
The main argument against bringing back Drew is that the Red Sox wouldn’t collect a draft pick that they might have otherwise added had he left. Even that’s not much of a negative, however, because the Sox have already added a pick thanks to Jacoby Ellsbury‘s departure to New York, and the value Drew adds to a championship-level team right now is likely to be more than the long-term value of a pick somewhere around No. 32 overall.
With the market for reliable infielders being what it is, they might just be best off taking advantage of retaining a player they already know, one who they have the special privilege of signing without losing their own draft pick, and who would allow them to market Middlebrooks for help elsewhere. There’s a right situation to go all-in on youth with a third of your lineup, but a team looking to win right now is probably not that situation.
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