By Marc Normandin
Stephen Drew is still a free agent, and it's not because he's patiently waiting out offers in the hopes of driving them up. The problem is the opposite, in that there are no offers out there at all. This made sense last winter, when Drew had only recently returned from a fractured ankle that cost him both time and talent, but after a strong 2013 where both his glove and bat returned to form, it was expected he would pull in a quality contract as a free agent. Once fellow shortstop Jhonny Peralta signed with the Cardinals for four years and $52 million, it seemed even more likely.
Instead, most of the Drew news out there is about who he won't be playing for in 2014. He won't be joining the New York Yankees, if general manager Brian Cashman is to be believed. It makes sense on one level, in that they already have Derek Jeter and Brendan Ryan to play shortstop, but on the other hand, the Yankees are relying on Derek Jeter and Brendan Ryan to play shortstop. Ryan has batted a combined .215/.285/.294 over the last three years, and Jeter's foot injuries kept him off of the diamond for most of 2013. Now, he'll be 40 years old, and likely even less mobile defensively than he was before. There's room to make Drew on the Yankees work, especially if the Yankees want to protect Jeter's health and use 2014 as his farewell tour/a moneymaker more than anything.
The Mets were seen as an obvious destination for Drew's services, especially since their first-round draft pick is protected. (Drew received the qualifying offer from the Red Sox, assuring them of draft pick compensation should he sign elsewhere.) They only have Ruben Tejada at short, and while he's young and still has potential, he also batted .202/.259/.260 in 57 games last summer, and has a career OPS+ of 80 thanks to as many awful seasons at the plate as tolerable ones. The Mets seem to want to wait-and-see on him, however, and maybe sign a shortstop next winter if Tejada can't get the job done -- they'll be in a better position to contend then anyway, with Matt Harvey returning from Tommy John surgery for the 2015 season -- but they might be better off just inking Drew now, since he will only cost them their third-round pick
A year from now, if they sign (pulls a shortstop out of a Mets hat) J.J. Hardy as a free agent, he might cost them a first-round selection. They're too good to bank on another protected pick, especially after adding Bartolo Colon and Curtis Granderson to the mix. Those two are also reason to push hard now and acquire Drew, because the National League East isn't that great, especially after the Braves might have taken a step or two back by losing Tim Hudson and Brian McCann. Should B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla fail to rebound, the Braves are much more susceptible to threats from the rest of the division.
Why Drew over patience, Tejada, or the potential problem in the Yankees' infield? Even with recovery from a concussion hurting his early season numbers, Drew hit .253/.333/.443, giving him a slash line 27 percent better than your average shortstop according to Baseball-Reference. His half-season in 2012, in which he moved worse than he used to since it hadn't been thatlong since his awful ankle injury, was a long-term blessing, as it taught Drew to focus more on positioning than his natural talents. When his range recovered in time for 2013, and was combined with his improved positioning, he was able to produce one of his finest defensive campaigns. Drew was a three-win player by Baseball-Reference's reckoning, despite playing in only 124 games due to the aforementioned concussion, suffered in spring training, and a thigh strain that cost him another few weeks. While he's had some poorer seasons at the plate than this last one, his career numbers are still well above the shortstop average, and his defense has aged just fine.
Convincing either the Mets or Yankees that Drew makes sense for them has been difficult for agent Scott Boras to this point, despite the obvious fits and his even more obvious ability. Mets' special assistant J.P. Ricciardi recently spoke to Boston radio network WEEI about his team being fine playing Tejada, with the expectation that their shortstop has learned some things about life in the big leagues that will make him a better player going forward. While that's fine, he also points out later in the same interview that he would rather have Granderson than a second-round draft pick, because the draft is supplemental to team building, not the sole source. It's kind of funny to read that and wonder why Drew doesn't make more sense than a third-round pick for a team attempting to reload.
It makes you wonder if the entire problem with Drew is price. He declined the one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer as expected, likely in the hopes of securing something along the lines of three-to-four years at $10-12 million per season. At this point, it looks like he'll get that rate for a year or two at most, but it's also never smart to count out Boras.
Kyle Lohse saw his market die just one year ago after receiving the qualifying offer from the Cardinals. He had been looking for the most significant payday of his career, but instead was virtually ignored even by teams with a need on the mound. Like Drew, Lohse was coming off of a strong year, but that didn't seem to matter. Not until March, anyway, when the Brewers inked Lohse to a three-year, $33 million deal right before the end of spring training. It wasn't what Lohse was looking for initially, but he ended up getting security and the promise of big checks anyway, even if it took all winter to get there. Boras will likely wait as long as he can with Drew, too, knowing that his market could open up down the line when teams who never even bothered considering him realize he's still out there for the taking.
It's either that, or Drew returns to the Red Sox on another short deal. Boston has the leverage in that situation, though, to the point where they aren't even going to bother making a second offer to Drew until he has exhausted all of his other options. That leverage exists in the form of top prospect Xander Bogaerts, and, to a lesser but still prominent extent, third baseman Will Middlebrooks.
While Middlebrooks had a tough start to 2013, he came on strong following his recall from Triple-A and hit .276/.329/.476 through the season's end. He has 660 major-league plate appearances and 32 career homers between parts of two seasons, at a time when teams are desperate in their search for power. There are risks in going with Middlebrooks, but he's still in his pre-arbitration years, and the Sox will get a third first-round pick for the 2014 draft if they let Drew walk. Plus, it's less of a shortsighted move, since Middlebrooks has a better chance of being around in the future for the Sox given he's used up all of one year of service time, and his presence could allow third base prospect Garin Cecchini to move to a different position like left field or first base, depending on Boston's future needs.
It's not that the Sox couldn't use Drew -- Middlebrooks could be packaged in a trade with one of Boston's extraneous starting pitchers before the 2014 season begins, and the whole team could end up better for it between Drew combined with Mystery Return -- but the fact they don't need him means they don't have to trip over themselves to re-sign him, especially when his market is currently nonexistent. Because of this, we might not see any Drew resolution for some time, not when the Cardinals already have their shortstop, the New York clubs are publicly shying away, and the Sox are waiting on Drew and Boras to tell them it's time to talk.
If we learned anything from Lohse, though, it's that things can change in a hurry, and in unexpected ways. The Indians could trade Asdrubal Cabrera tomorrow and then offer Drew a long-term deal. The Pirates might decide relying on Jordy Mercer isn't as attractive an option as handing Drew money. Kevin Towers might get bored in two weeks and trade Didi Gregorius just to pass the time, opening up a hole in the Diamondbacks' infield. For now, things are quiet, though, and we wait for that to change alongside Drew.
Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book The Hall of Nearly Great and has written for Baseball Prospectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.