May 21, 2014
Stephen Drew and the Red Sox End the Suspense
Signed SS-L Stephen Drew to a one-year deal for the pro-rated $14.1 million qualifying offer amount (roughly $10.2 million remaining). [5/20]
Why did the long-rumored Stephen Drew–Red Sox reunion happen now, in mid-to-late May, rather than earlier in the year or not at all?
For a few reasons, really. First, the Sox had a pressing need for his services. At the start of the season, it wasn’t clear that this was the case: both members of the team’s young, homegrown left side of the infield, Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks, projected to hit better than Drew for much less money, and there was no obvious way to play all three without slowing Bogaerts’ development or turning Drew into a utility type.
Those circumstances have changed since Opening Day. Bogaerts has nearly nailed his weighted-mean PECOTA projection at the plate, but he’s looked a little shaky at shortstop. (Most observers agree that he’s improved there since the start of the season, although he did commit two errors on Tuesday.) Worse, Middlebrooks began the year in a terrible slump, missed three weeks with a calf strain, and then, earlier this week, fractured a finger on an Ian Kinsler smash that sent him to the disabled list for the second time this season. Maybe the prognosis for Middlebrooks’ finger is worse than it was for his calf; maybe the 20-24 Sox, who started the season with a PECOTA-projected playoff probability of over 50 percent, felt squeamish about trusting third base to Brock Holt with that figure down to 32.7 and their odds of winning the division barely topping 20. The Sox have hit just .242/.323/.365 against right-handed pitching, and the presence of Drew, who owns a career .275/.343/.451 line against righties, should help address that deficiency. In addition, the new infield alignment should tighten up Boston’s defense, which ranks second worst in the majors in Defensive Efficiency and PADE.
The pro-Drew pressure built up from outside the team, too. With every passing day, it became less likely that another club would add Drew before the amateur draft, which would have given a draft pick to Boston. And the longer the Red Sox waited, the more likely they were to miss what amounted to an exclusive signing window. As Drew’s former team, and the source of the qualifying offer that the shortstop rejected last November, the Sox were the only club that could sign him without incurring a draft-pick penalty. As the draft drew near, and the end of the compensation period along with it, the likelihood of a bidding war increased. Had the Sox delayed any longer, they might have found themselves competing for Drew with deep-pocketed teams like the Yankees, the Tigers, and the Blue Jays, all of whom could have upgraded significantly by signing him. (In fact, since Drew had already waited seven weeks, it’s fair to wonder whether it would have been worth it for him financially to hold out for two more, sacrificing short-term salary in favor of the payoff that could have come from expanding the pool of potential landing spots).
With the deal done, the former and future Red Sock—who should be ready to make his debut in two weeks at the outside—is expected to see the bulk of the playing time at shortstop, with Bogaerts sliding back to third (at least against right-handed starters) and Middlebrooks’ future uncertain. (Part-time player? Pawtucket player? Trade chip?) This move makes Boston better, and because it doesn’t include a long-term contract, it does nothing to destroy the happy vision of an infield future built around Bogaerts, Deven Marrero, and Garin Cecchini. They key for the Red Sox will be managing the many important personalities involved. Will Drew resent the Red Sox’ reluctance to bring him back sooner? Will Bogaerts be miffed about being moved off of shortstop, where he wants to play and won’t improve without regular reps? Will Middlebrooks mope about missing his chance? This is a glove triangle that will put John Farrell’s reputedly strong communication skills to the test.
So, now that we know how Drew’s second trip to free agency ended, can we say that Scott Boras screwed up, as many insisted once the season started with the starting shortstop from last year’s World Series winner still on the sidelines? Sort of. Yes, Boras failed to land the large deal that he and his client were seeking at the start of the winter, though we can’t say for sure whether that’s because his demands scared off potential suitors or because there were fewer potential suitors than expected to start with, thanks to teams going cuckoo for compensation picks.
On the other hand, although Drew spent spring training and several weeks of the regular season staring at his phone and clearing out his Netflix queue, he still made more than Nelson Cruz got from the Orioles in February after rejecting his own qualifying offer from Texas. Boras gets to say that Drew didn’t get less on a per-game basis than he would have had he accepted the offer, and he can claim to have secured a raise over his 2013 salary, despite Drew’s sitting out so far.
Best of all for Boras, because Drew won’t have been with the Red Sox for the full schedule, he won’t have another qualifying offer coming to him at the end of the season. Unlike last year, he’ll hit the market with no strings attached. Even if Boras was telling the truth about having (and passing on) a three-year, $39 million offer for Drew in late March, it’s quite possible that he could still exceed that total over the same three-season span. With over $10 million in the bank, courtesy of Boston, Drew would needs to land a contract of at least two years and $29 million to make the equation balance out—essentially, a qualifying offer times two. If he stays healthy and produces like the qualifying-offer recipient he was last season, he should have little trouble, especially if the Dodgers succeed in extending Hanley Ramirez, which would limit Drew’s serious free-agent competition at shortstop to Asdrubal Cabrera, J.J. Hardy, and Jed Lowrie.
Drew’s confinement to Boras Corp’s practice facilities while inferior shortstops roamed free was a painful, high-profile reminder that the current free-agent compensation system needs to go back to the bargaining board. The end of his exile applies concealer to one of baseball’s black eyes, plugs Boston’s hole at third base, and postpones Drew’s next day of binge-watching Buffy until October, at least. There are no losers or unhappy endings here. For those, there’s always Kendrys Morales. —Ben Lindbergh
Drew is now the shiny new fantasy baseball toy, but he’s really only deep mixed league and AL-only relevant. He will be slightly above average in runs and RBI but provides very little in terms of stolen bases, with only average home run production. Drew does very well against righties, as evidenced by his .284/.377/.498 triple-slash line against right-handed pitching in 2013, and he will likely sit some against lefties, which should help his batting average. Consequently, Drew is a more valuable fantasy asset in leagues that reward on-base percentage and slugging percentage than he is in your standard 5x5 rotisserie league. He becomes even more valuable in leagues that allow for daily lineup setting, which will allow his owners to platoon Drew against lefties just as the Red Sox do.
Drew's value is certainly higher now than it was two days ago, but it is important to note that even when he returns to big-league action in a week or so, he will probably not be in mid-season form. Drew should be a solid play once he does regain his timing, but I would be wary of expecting immediate production. Ultimately, Drew can help depending on your current middle infield situation, but he probably won’t save any fantasy seasons. —Jeff Quinton
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @benlindbergh