By Maureen Mullen
This was the move that should have been made all along. Instead the Red Sox waited until they were 43 games into the season -- and three games under .500 at 20-23 -- before they brought back shortstop Stephen Drew.
The deal came together in a matter of hours on Tuesday.
But the re-signing wasn't inspired by Boston's record so much as it was a byproduct of Will Middlebrooks' fractured right index finger -- and the dearth of available third basemen who would be an upgrade. Middlebrooks was placed on the 15-day disabled list Saturday. The signing of Drew will allow the Red Sox to move Xander Bogaerts -- who went into Tuesday's game leading the team with four errors and committed another on the second batter of the game -- from shortstop to third base, with Drew taking back his shortstop position. The Sox won't have to make a decision on Middlebrooks for about a month, after his finger is healed and he completes a rehab assignment.
The Sox gave Drew a $14.1 million qualifying offer in the offseason. He turned it down -- as did all players who received one -- looking for a better, multi-year deal. Instead, with a compensation pick attached to him, he languished on the open market.
As the June 5 draft drew closer, it became clear that agent Scott Boras' phone would not be ringing for Drew's services until after the draft -- at which time it very likely would have been ringing heartily. Several teams would have been interested in acquiring Drew. The Yankees, for one, were interested, but had no interest in giving up a draft pick to the Red Sox.
So, Drew sat -- until Tuesday, when the Sox offered him $10.19 million (the prorated portion of his qualifying offer) for the remainder of the season, when he can again become a free agent without getting a qualifying offer or compensation pick attached.
Drew is expected to take a physical on Wednesday and then begin a minor league stint. Manager John Farrell believes Drew could be ready after about 10-12 days or 25 at-bats.
What he will bring to the Sox remains to be seen. Drew was second in the American League last season with a .984 fielding percentage. But he has not played since Game 6 of the World Series. Other than a home run in that clinching game, his offense -- albeit never his biggest selling point -- was virtually nonexistent. In 16 postseason games, he went a combined 6-for-54 (.111), with two extra-base hits, two walks and 19 strikeouts.
In the regular season, he hit .253 with a .333 on-base percentage and .443 slugging percentage. Against right-handers, though, the left-handed batter hit .284/.377/.498. As a team this season, the Sox are hitting just .240/.321/.365 against right-handers and .233/.310/.354 against right-handed starting pitchers.
But it was Drew's defense that had his once and future teammates clamoring for his return. His exceptional defense last season helped to stabilize the Red Sox infield, and they hope he will do again. An added benefit is that the Sox can keep Drew away from other teams -- including the Yankees, who could use the infield help.
The signing, though, probably would not have happened if Middlebrooks had not gotten hurt. The Sox appeared committed to Middlebrooks (and to Bogaerts and his fellow rookie, center fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr.), and Farrell said the signing does not diminish the team's commitment to young players. General manager Ben Cherington was looking to field the best team possible; what they had instead was an underperforming, World Series-defending team and the highest ticket prices in baseball. Not a good combination.
Signing Drew was the move that made the most sense. If the Sox had looked to replace Middlebrooks with another third baseman, they would have had difficulty. It is a tough time of the season to engineer a trade. And there weren't many teams who would be looking to part with a major league third baseman. It's a position of little depth. Most of what would have been made available likely would not have been an upgrade over Middlebrooks.
Now the Sox will move Bogaerts to third base, with Middlebrooks' future unknown until he returns from his injury. Bogaerts, one of Boston's most highly-regarded prospects in recent years, has little experience at third base. He signed with the Sox in 2009, but never played third professionally until last season. He appeared in 10 games with Triple-A Pawtucket and nine in the major leagues during the regular season before supplanting the underperforming Middlebrooks at third in the postseason.
There has been speculation since before his arrival in the major leagues that Bogaerts would eventually outgrow shortstop, necessitating a move to third. AT 6-foot-3, 185 pounds and just 21 years old, it's very likely Bogaerts is still growing and filling out his frame -- so if a move is inevitable, then perhaps the sooner the better. Moving to third base might take some of the pressure of playing shortstop off Bogaerts, who entered Tuesday hitting .269/.369/.379.
But what does that mean for Middlebrooks, who is now in his third big-league season? Middlebrooks came up two years ago, and his play forced the Sox to trade veteran Kevin Youkilis in June 2012. Since then, however, he has been inconsistent. He has been limited by injuries to just 21 games this season, batting .192 with a .629 OPS. His OPS+ has fallen each season, from 121 in 2012 to 87 last season to 74 this year. His WAR has had a similar trend, from 1.3 to 0.0 to -0.2.
When he returns, he could become trade bait (several teams inquired about him at the deadline last year) or the Sox could use him in a platoon situation with Bogaerts (both right-handed hitters, playing short against left-handers).
Teams like to say these things have a way of figuring themselves out -- a player gets hurt, a decision gets delayed. Perhaps that will happen. But, for now, the Sox helped themselves by bringing Drew back.
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Maureen Mullen has covered the Red Sox and Major League Baseball since 2002. Her work can also be read on Boston.com and in the Boston Globe, USA TODAY and several other traditional and new media outlets. She is the author of Diary of a Red Sox Season, 2007 with the legendary Johnny Pesky, and Yogi Was Up with a Guy on Third, conversations with 53 of the 64 living Hall of Famers.