It was a mostly dreadful way in which to arrive at free agency.
On June 12, 2011, Stephen Drew  looked ready to assert himself as one of the best shortstops in the game, if he hadn’t done so already. A 3-for-4 game that day with a pair of doubles pushed his statistics to a fairly gaudy level, particularly considering his position. Through roughly 40 percent of the season, he was hitting .295 with a .373 OBP, .457 slugging mark and .830 OPS. Though he had just four homers (a surprisingly low output given that he averaged 16 homers in each of the previous three years), he was on pace for more than 50 extra-base hits and nearly 100 RBI, numbers that solidified the impression of him as an under-the-radar shortstop who was nevertheless one of the top offensive performers at his position.
Two things conspired to jeopardize that standing.
First, he went into a bit of an offensive tailspin over the next five-plus weeks. He hit .171 with a .205 OBP, .279 slugging mark and .484 OPS, dragging his overall line to .252/.317/.396/.713 — still better-than-average marks at his position (where the average NL shortstop hit .261/.314/.374/.688 in 2011), but short of the elite level where he’d resided for the previous three-plus seasons.
And then, on July 20, Drew suffered a brutal fracture of his ankle while sliding into home plate, an injury that wiped out the rest of 2011 and then most of the first three months of 2012. And even upon his return to the Diamondbacks lineup last June 27, Drew now suggests, despite criticism by Arizona managing general partner Ken Kendrick last summer that he took too long to return from his injury, that he ultimately re-entered the Diamondbacks lineup before he was completely healthy.
“Going through it was kind of crazy. As a player, I never had an injury like that. It was just a major injury,” Drew said on Thursday on a conference call to discuss his addition to the Red Sox . “I came back a little too soon because they wanted me out on the field. I was doing the best I could to come back as fast as possible.”
Perhaps that helps to explain Drew’s struggles last year with the Diamondbacks. In 40 games after returning from the DL, he hit just .193/.290/.311/.601. In that relatively brief period of time on the field, his defense (as measured by John Dewan‘s Plus/Minus system) also rated as below average — indeed, Drew graded as one of the worst defensive shortstops in the game.
But after a mid-August trade to the A’s, Drew felt that he was bouncing back to — and even beyond — his prior standard as a shortstop who was roughly league average. His pinpoint throwing accuracy and strong arm remained intact, and he saw noticeable gains in his range the more he played.
‘The range of motion, at the end of the year, was coming back,” said Drew. “Getting to go to Oakland that last month, believe it or not, I know it sounds crazy, but I think my defense was probably better than it’s ever been. It’s crazy sitting here and saying that. I felt like my lateral and the timing of it just got really good.”
Once in Oakland, his performance at the plate also ticked up. Despite going to an offense suppressing environment in Oakland, he hit .250/.326/.382/.707 in 39 games with the A’s, including .263/.331/.421/.752 with five homers in September. The five homers were the third most he’d ever hit in a month in his career, and suggested to Drew’s agent, Scott Boras , a player who had continued to grow into the strength of his prime years even while missing a considerable amount of time due to a traumatic injury.
“His power as a player has really arrived and he’s driving the ball better,” said Boras. “His overall strength has gotten to that point where I know there’s a difference from what it was in 2010 or 2009 and it brought to light how beneficial a ballpark like Boston can be to a player. He has the ability to stay inside the baseball and take it to left field and left center.”
That conclusion was drawn as Drew was still in the end stages of the rehab process. Now, both the player and agent suggest, the limitations presented by his 2011 injury are no more.
“As far as the ankle injury, I think that’s something that’s behind us,” said Boras. “We have a very healthy player coming to Boston to play every day.”
“I’ve been very pleased with it and put a lot of hard work into it,” added Drew. “Not knowing where I’d be at this past season and coming back strong at the end of the season really gave me confidence. The ankle is doing tremendous.”
That being the case, Drew and Boras suggested optimism that the shortstop is positioned to be an impact player while in Boston. If that happens, then in a year, Drew could return to free agency as a coveted player at a position where free agent options rarely have middle-of-the-order impact. Certainly, the Sox would have little grounds for complaint if such a vision comes to fruition, as a return to pre-injury (and pre-2011 slump) offensive norms would mean that Drew performed at a level that gave the team standout production at the position.
“We fully expect a very successful season,” said Boras. “I think it’s going to give the Red Sox and Red Sox fans a chance to see a player that I’m not sure everyone really understands the talent level of Stephen Drew. I think after this year, everyone is going to think a lot differently about what kind of player Stephen is and the impact he can have on a division-contending team.’