Stephen Drew is running out of time.
Not in the macro sense -- while it's possible that Drew could have the dubious honor of being the first player under the new CBA to have to sit out until after the June 4 draft in order to sign, thanks to the draft pick tender attached to his qualifying offer, it's far more likely that will fall to former Seattle Mariner designated hitter Kendrys Morales. No, Drew will play professional baseball next year, and he will likely do it starting in April instead of midway through the season. The question is, when will he sign? And will it leave him with a full camp to prepare?
The list of reasonable candidates for Drew's services is already perilously short. You can knock off the list any team that would have to give up a first-round draft pick to acquire him -- the market to date has proven that he cannot justify that kind of expenditure. Knock off any team that already has internal or long-term plans in place at shortstop -- Drew is a veteran player and a decent enough complementary piece for an already established team, but he is entering his age-31 season and has already missed more than a full season's worth of games in his career, 177, due to lower body injuries alone. Additionally, while on the surface his 2013 was an affirming, positive comeback story, a peek below the hood -- specifically at his home (.859 OPS) vs. away (.687 OPS) and vRHP (.876 OPS in 2013, .795 OPS career) and vLHP (.585 OPS, .681 OPS career) splits -- tell the story of a shortstop with bad knees and ankles who provides good defense but has to sit against left-handed pitching and benefited greatly from playing in hitter-friendly Fenway Park.
That leaves little incentive for anyone outside of Boston to throw money at Drew, especially not the kind of money that agent Scott Boras is generally looking to get for a guy who, over the course of his career, has been a bit better than league average as a hitter and a great defender at a premium position and just won a ring.
Further, the problem with Boston throwing money at Drew is that the Red Sox have arguably the best position prospect in baseball, Xander Bogaerts, graduating to the 25-man roster for good this spring and slated to be the starting shortstop coming out of camp. As the Boston Globe's Peter Abraham notes, Bogaerts can't be certain that he'll be the starter until the Drew situation completely shakes out -- but all the indications from manager John Farrell, GM Ben Cherington and the Red Sox front office are that Bogaerts at shortstop is the direction they want to go.
That said, playing Bogaerts every day at shortstop instead of Drew could be to the detriment of the 2014 Red Sox -- because that means that instead of Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks will likely win the third base job by default. Middlebrooks followed a generally promising 2012 with a horrible 2013 that saw him demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket three times over the course of the season, most notably during a long stretch in the middle of the year when Boston's fortunes in the AL East were still very much in doubt. A left side of the infield that features Drew at shortstop and Bogaerts at third should be superior to one that features Bogaerts at shortstop and Middlebrooks at third nine times out of 10 in 2014 -- there's simply more developed talent in the former arrangement -- and while Middlebrooks's supporters have pointed to the 158 PA of .805 OPS baseball he had at the end of the season as a sign that he has discovered how to consistently hit major league pitching, it's unwise to read anything into a two-month sample size regardless of when in the season it occurs.
Signing Drew to another one- year deal and keeping Middlebrooks as an insurance plan while Garin Cecchini develops in the minors is probably the move most likely to improve the team for 2014 -- the Red Sox simply have to balance that against whether or not they want to commit to Bogaerts as a third baseman, or let him to continue develop as short. Scouts have long believed that Bogaerts was destined for third base anyway, and a similar situation down in Baltimore featuring two fairly similar players, J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado, has worked out quite well, save for one freak baserunning injury at the end of last season.
But the Red Sox aren't the only team left in the market for Drew -- there are two others now, and both of them play in New York. The stronger of the two contenders for Drew's services are the Mets. They wouldn't be giving up a first- or second-round pick to secure Drew's services; the former is protected as the Mets have the 10th overall pick in the first round, while the Mets spent the latter to sign outfielder Curtis Granderson. Drew would cost the Mets their third-round pick, which is still a heavy investment; not only do the Mets lose the draft pick itself, but the monetary "worth" of that slot in the third round will be removed from the bonus pool that the Mets have to offer the rest of their June draftees.
That said, while the Mets invested serious money into their outfield this offseason, landing not only Granderson but former Athletics and Diamondbacks centerfielder Chris Young on a one-year contract, the infield sans all-world third baseman David Wright could be a disaster. It's the weakest area on the team, and shortstop is easily the thinnest position within that area -- as things stand, the battle for the position in training camp will be fought between Triple-A and bench lifer Omar Quintanilla and Ruben Tejada, who is only 24 years old but who saw a significant amount of the shine come off his prospects when he displeased manager Terry Collins in camp last season and then went on to hit .202/.259/.260 in what Mets fans were relieved was limited action. Even with the above caveats -- that Drew is overmatched against left-handed pitching, that his offense was boosted by Fenway last year and that he's a serious injury risk -- Drew is still a clear upgrade over both Quintanilla and Tejada, and Tejada could still make the team as an option against left-handed pitching (though he would likely be better served playing everyday at Triple-A or being traded).
This decision would almost be a no-brainer... if Matt Harvey were healthy. Harvey intends to pitch in 2014 if he's allowed, but the timetable for his return is around September at earliest. It's perhaps likely that he could come back for a late-season playoff push should the Mets be in a position to have one of those, but he won't be a major contributor to the squad. Without their ace, the Mets' pitching -- still their strong point -- is substantially less enticing for a dark horse pick, and the team's window would still look to open in 2015 at earliest. While Drew would likely get a multi-year deal from the Mets, and shouldn't have aged out of his prime by the time they're ready to contend, he still has an injury history that makes him more of a risk going forward than other guys his age might be. Then again, Hardy had similar concerns when the Twins traded him to the Orioles for a song (actually, for two minor league relievers -- a song might have helped the Twins more on the field), and since then he has played 446 games in three seasons for Baltimore. He never had anything quite as nasty as Drew's right ankle injury in 2011, however.
It's not often that the Yankees are the longshot when compared to the Mets in just about anything, let alone free agency, but due to expectations and current roster construct, that's the case with Drew. The Yankees have already inked just about every aging, flawed middle infielder on the market -- Brendan Ryan, Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson have signed on for the 2014 campaign, with Mark Ellis being just about the only fish in that particular pool that got away. Drew has the most upside of that lot, since Johnson can't play short, Ryan can't hit and Roberts has even more problems staying healthy than Drew does. The Yankees have also already burned through their first few rounds of picks with the Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann signings, so what's another first-day pick surrendered in a draft that they've already punted?
Drew was originally conceptualized as a second or third baseman in this arrangement, and if signed by the Yankees that's what he would be -- in name -- for 2014. But on Wednesday, Derek Jeter announced that 2014 will be his final season, so even if Jeter is healthy for all 162 games, the Yankees will need a shortstop moving forward. There's no guarantee that anyone more attractive than Drew will be available on the market next winter, and the Yankees will want a succession plan in place; the idea of Ryan or Eduardo Nunez being the starting shortstop in the Bronx for a full season is frankly unacceptable, unless Nunez jumps light-years forward in his development in 2014. Drew's a lefty, so he should see a mild spike in his home run totals at home should he sign with the Yankees -- helping left-handed pull hitters get the ball out of the park is essentially the defining feature of Yankee Stadium III, and while Drew is possessed of only average power he is certainly a left-handed pull hitter.
But Drew is still looking for a starting job from day one of 2014, and he's unlikely to turn down a chance to come back to the reigning world champions for another year but embrace playing second fiddle to the Derek Jeter retirement tour. Besides, if he takes a one-year deal with Boston (or the Mets, or someone else), by the time he hits the market next winter the Yankees could be desperate for someone, anyone, to save them from a middle infield that's losing signature players in back-to-back seasons -- and then Drew could really get paid.
There are other possible landing spots. Most notably the Twins or Giants could lose their minds, the Phillies could give Drew a bunch of money and their third base job for reasons known only to the Phillies, or a team with a currently healthy and productive shortstop could lose him to injury and panic. But however Drew and Boras want to play it, they had better play it quickly -- pitchers and catchers have reported. Baseball's around the corner. Spring is almost here.