Stephen Drew has been on the precipice of stardom so many times, it is easy to lose count.
There was the time the Arizona Diamondbacks picked him 15th overall in the 2004 draft. He signed in 2005; by 2006, he was in the major leagues, and managed an O.P.S.+ of 117 in a half-season at shortstop.
Then, following a massive step back in production in 2007, Drew recovered by posting a .291/.367/.502 line in 2008, seeming to solidify his spot as one of the better young shortstops in the game. Here's what Baseball Prospectus had to say heading into the 2009 season: "If you can think of any reason to be pessimistic about Drew's future, we'd love to hear it. Until then, we'll keep projecting stardom, and that's on the modest side. If he's a legitimate MVP candidate at some point over the next three years, you shouldn't be shocked in the least."
But his 2009 was in line with his 2007 production, and not just superficially. He hit many more line drives in his two good seasons than his two poor ones.
2010 was it, though. Drew not only posted a 113 O.P.S.+ in 151 games, his defense improved from a clear drag on his game, per Ultimate Zone Rating, to a significant positive. Again, here's Baseball Prospectus: "Given how two-way shortstops have become an endangered species, it would be in the team's best interest to pursue a long-term deal. He's not going to blossom into the MVP contender we saw coming a couple years ago, but he's plenty good as it is."
This is not to pick on BP, by the way: this was the general consensus of the baseball world. But Drew suffered an ankle injury, with rehab compounded by a sports hernia, that ended his 2011 in July and delayed his 2012 until the end of June. But he didn't play all that well when he came back in 2012, and truth be told, he wasn't very good before he got hurt in 2011. The Diamondbacks finally gave up last August, dealing Drew to the Oakland Athletics for a non-prospect.
Now, after signing a one-year, $9.5 million contract this winter, Drew is the starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, who sit atop the American League East. The Red Sox have succeeded, but Drew really hasn't, with an O.P.S.+ of just 89 entering Thursday night's game. The story has been much the same for Drew this season, with a concussion keeping him out of most of spring training, and a back injury that slowed him in May.
Drew had a pair of multi-hit games this week, and says his back is "coming along". But so far, the kind of breakout season Drew planned on to rebuild his value this year hasn't materialized. And with his track record, at age 30, it is fair to wonder: is the idea of Stephen Drew as a star gone for good?
"You know, it's there," Drew said when I asked if the talent that allowed him to excel in several previous seasons was still present, as he sat in front of his locker at Citizens Bank Park prior to Thursday's Red Sox-Phillies game. "I mean, look back at my career, I always start slow anyways. I don't worry about it until the end of the year. That's how I look at it."
For now, Drew's goal is a simpler one: hit, and contribute, to a legitimate contender.
"I've come here to play hard, put in the hard work," Drew said, in response to where he saw his career at this point. "The injuries happened, and it was unfortunate because it put me out for a year. I won't dwell on it. It is what it is."
Oddly, though, he seemed to answer even questions that had nothing to do with his attitude with a preventive defense of his attitude, a possible response to the questions about his makeup that have followed him throughout his career. When I asked a fairly innocuous question about why he saw Boston as a great fit this winter, he responded: "Yeah, I haven't had any issues, with the coaching staff on up, and then in the clubhouse."
Instead, it was the Boston fans who took issue with him early, forcing Red Sox manager John Farrell and others to defend him. And again, it was telling that when Farrell described Drew earlier this month, he said this: "As advertised. He's played as we fully expected. Very dependable."
For Drew, then, it really is as simple as going out there regularly. Drew still believes the performance, at that point, will take care of itself.
"You've got to go out every day and play," Drew said. "You can adjust, and make adjustments here and there, that's the name of the game. It's still early, and I'm not looking...", he paused, seeming to change tracks. "I'm looking at the here and now, that at the end of the year, we're where we want to be. You know, I want to make it back to the postseason."
In the meantime, Drew has another four months to convince teams that, at long last, they can depend on him to make the next at-bat, the next month, the next year just as consistent as the last one.