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What the acquisition of Stephen Drew means

12.17.12 at 10:00 am ET
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All offseason, the Red Sox have targeted free agents who a) were available on short-term contracts; b) didn’t cost the team a draft pick; c) are capable of solid if unspectacular returns; and d) can upgrade the team’s production at each position in the short term while permitting the organization’s inventory of prospects to continue developing. Perhaps no player more obviously fit into that blueprint than Stephen Drew. Thus, it came as little surprise when the team agreed (according to multiple industry sources) with Drew on a straight one-year deal for 2013.

According to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, who first reported the agreement, the deal is for $9.5 million. (Such a contract would, in turn, boost the Red Sox’ payroll for 2013 within approximately $10 million of the luxury tax threshold. More on the financial implications of Drew for the shape of the team’s payroll is here.)

Drew, who turns 30 in March, has been limited over the last two years by a broken ankle that cost him much of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and that hindered him on the field when he returned in 2012. In the last two years, while playing for the Diamondbacks and (after a mid-year trade in 2012) the A’s, he’s played just 165 games, hitting .238/.313/.373/.687 with 12 homers in that time. Those numbers, in turn, left Drew open to a short-term deal in a favorable hitter’s park where he might be able to re-establish his value before going back on the market, much as was the case in 2010 with a fellow Scott Boras client, Adrian Beltre, who signed a one-year deal with the Sox after an injury-riddled career-worst campaign in 2009.

Though Drew struggled in 2011 and 2012, in the previous three years, he’d been one of the better offensive shortstops in the game, hitting .277 with a .335 OBP, .465 slugging mark, .800 OPS and 48 homers while averaging 146 games per season and delivering roughly average shortstop defense (as measured by John Dewan’s Plus/Minus and Runs Saved metrics). His OPS during that three-year span ranked third in the majors among big league shortstops with at least 1,000 plate appearances, behind only Hanley Ramirez (.917) and Troy Tulowitzki (.883), and ahead of Jose Reyes (.791) and Derek Jeter (.783).

Such a performance, in turn, underscores the notion that he has fairly considerable offensive upside, particularly when measured against peers at his position. And, given that he’s still in the middle of his theoretical prime years, the idea of a rebound from his struggles of the last two years isn’t far-fetched.

Drew’s upside and willingness to sign a short-term deal both fit into the Red Sox’ offseason scheme. By getting the 2004 first-rounder (No. 15 overall) on a one-year deal, it insulates the Sox from risk if he does not bounce back offensively or if he doesn’t show the range to remain at short. (Some talent evaluators noticed a decline in his range in 2012 while he returned from his ankle injury; Dewan’s system had Drew being seven runs worse than league average in 2012, as opposed to an average of roughly two runs better than league average from 2006-11.)

Yet even if his production doesn’t bounce back, his patient approach at the plate still should contribute to the lineup reconstruction in which the Sox are currently engaged, with an emphasis on hitters who can work deep in the count, drive out a starter and then pillage opponents’ middle relievers.

While he’s not cut from quite the same cloth in terms of plate discipline as his brother, former Red Sox outfielder J.D. Drew, there’s at least a fraternal resemblance. Drew has seen an average of 3.88 pitches per plate appearance in his career (slightly above the league average of 3.80), and in the last two years, that number has bumped up to 4.20 pitches per plate appearance.

Meanwhile, as a left-hander with stronger numbers against right-handed pitchers (.274/.339/.445/.784 career, .234/.329/.368/.697 in 2012) than southpaws (.242/.299/.400/.699 career, .198/.260/.302/.563 in 2012), he should help to provide some balance to a Sox lineup that was skewing right-handed with the agreements with Mike Napoli (pending the outcome of talks to resolve an apparent issue with his physical), Shane Victorino (a switch-hitter with decidedly better numbers against lefties than righties), Jonny Gomes and David Ross.

With Drew in the fold (assuming he passes his physical), the Sox can afford to take a more deliberate approach to the development of shortstop prospects Jose Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts. Bogaerts, who has fewer than 100 plate appearances in Double-A, was likely ticketed for a return to Portland regardless of whether the team signed Drew. But if the team hadn’t added Drew — the best available shortstop in a fairly terrible class of options at that position — then there was a good chance that Iglesias would have entered spring training as the frontrunner for the starting job.

Given Iglesias’ spectacular defensive potential, that wasn’t the end of the world. Even if he proved woeful at the plate, his incredible glove still could have made the 22-year-old (who turns 23 in January) an asset to the big league team.

Still, given that he hit just .118/.200/.191/.391 in 77 plate appearances in the big leagues in 2012, the appeal of sending him back to Triple-A to build upon the progress that he showed at that level in 2012 (hitting .266/.318/.306/.624 in 88 games, with August and May representing the best two months of his career) was not inconsiderable. With Drew as the Sox’ primary shortstop in 2013, Iglesias can gain everyday at-bats in Triple-A, regardless of his production at that level. He will also serve as roster protection should Drew get injured, an option with whom the Sox would be comfortable for at least a couple weeks at a time and perhaps longer.

If Iglesias makes further progress this year in Triple-A, then he’ll either force his way onto the Red Sox roster (perhaps supplanting Drew, who could become either a utility player or a trade candidate) or gain value as a potential trade chip himself, at a time when Bogaerts is closing the gap with Iglesias in terms of his big league ETA.

So, Drew fits on a number of levels. At the least, he’s a credible place holder with a good plate approach. If he bounces back, he’ll give the Red Sox above-average offensive production at shortstop on a low-risk deal, something that could give the Sox greater flexibility to make a trade (whether it involved Iglesias or Drew himself) in the middle of 2013 or, if Drew stays for a full year and plays at a high level, could help the team to secure an extra draft pick if he leaves in a better free agent position than he arrives.

Read More: jose iglesias, Stephen Drew, xander bogaerts,
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