The off-season is moving along at a brisk pace and like a pot on one of those spin-y pottery things, the 2014 Boston Red Sox are taking shape before our eyes. As Chad Finn likes to say, maybe there's a blockbuster trade to be made somewhere here, but likely the roster you see right now is the roster that will show up for workouts in Fort Myers at the end of February. There is one more likely or semi-likely addition, however. Stephen Drew. Drew is still a free agent and having turned down the Red Sox qualifying offer, another team will sacrifice their first round pick should they sign him. This makes Drew signing with another non-Boston team just slightly more difficult and makes his return to Boston just slightly more likely.
Drew's agent, Scott Boras, held his annual media scrum yesterday and not surprisingly the topic of Drew's free agency came up. Pesky reporters, what with all their questions and wanting answers and such! You might have noticed, had you been following the trade rumors this off-season, that Drew's name hasn't often come up. That was of no concern to Boras who claims Drew has several multi-year offers, contingent on plans falling into place for those other teams. That's fine. For their part, the Red Sox seem content to sit back and wait to see what happens with Drew. That's a perfectly logical way to approach the issue, but I hope that when push comes to shove Drew is back in Boston next season.
This took some thinking, because it's not exactly clean cut, but it came down to a common theme for the 2013 team: depth. The Red Sox are a much deeper team with Stephen Drew on the roster than without him. With Drew, the Red Sox have an infield of Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia, Drew, and probably Xander Bogaerts. Without Drew, Bogaerts moves to shortstop and Will Middlebrooks probably becomes the every day third baseman. I like Middlebrooks a lot, but after last season I'm not sure that turning the starting job over to him is what's best for the Red Sox.
Last season Drew hit .253/.333/.443, which is damn good for just about anyone these days let alone a shortstop. That's above average on-base ability, and above-average power from a good fielding shortstop. Can he repeat it? The projection systems out now aren't so sure. FanGraphs has two, Steamer and Oliver, and they both say about the same thing for both Drew (and Middlebrooks). They have Drew at about a .315 on-base and a .380 slugging percentage. I'll take the over on both of those numbers.
I think there's a strong chance Drew repeats his 2013 numbers or maybe even betters them. Maybe I'm just bullish on Drew, but if you look at what he did when he was healthy both in Arizona and last season, the 2013 numbers are the norm. Will he stay healthy? No, probably not, but it's not the nagging injuries that have hurt his overall numbers. A badly broken ankle was the culprit in 2011 and 2012. Then a concussion in Spring Training derailed his last season before it could get going. So how'd he do in April of last season? .519 OPS. He was awful. Don't think the concussion had anything to do with that, do you? From May 1 on, Drew hit .267/.342/.469. That's about what I'm expecting him to do (if healthy) in 2014. Maybe a bit worse, maybe a bit better, but roughly that. Last season, the second best hitting shortstop in baseball was our old friend Jed Lowrie who hit .290/.344/.446. So after getting over his concussion, Drew was at roughly the offensive level of the second best hitting shortstop in baseball (Tulowitzki was first, if you were wondering).
Compare that to Middlerooks, who hit .227/.271/.425 last season. There's a lot to be scared about in that slash line. But I did some cherry-picking with Drew, so let's do some for Middlebrooks too. After an awful start to the season, Middlebrooks was sent to Triple-A. When he returned, he hit .253/.307/.443, which is a much more respectable line. Can he do that over a full season? Maybe, but I have my doubts. The last month of the season Middlebrooks hit .244/.270/.477. The slugging is nice, but oh total ugh to the rest of it.
If there was a way to guarantee that Middlebrooks would hit .250/.310/.420 next season, it would probably make financial sense to let Drew go and play Middlebrooks, but of course there isn't any guarantee. Of course there isn't one for Drew either, but for one Drew offers more certainty, but if something happens and Drew falters, guess what? You've still got Middlebrooks! If Drew signs elsewhere and Middlebrooks falters, you aren't going to get Drew, or anyone even remotely i the same ballpark.
I hear what you're saying. Last year the Red Sox won with Middlebrooks' lousy play, so if Middlebrooks is bad in 2014 maybe they can win again. But last season they won because Middlebrooks was their only hole. Everyone else in the lineup was healthy (enough) and productive. I don't think you can plan on that happening again. Middlebrooks may have a good 2014 in him, but he may hit .230/.270/.420 and then what do you do? Then you've got to make a trade for a lesser player and from a position of weakness. That or bring up a prospect from the minors, possibly before they're ready to face major league pitching. That's not a situation that a team wants to find itself in, but if the Red Sox don't sign Stephen Drew it's, if not a likely outcome, than a very easily foreseen one.
Drew is Middlebrooks insurance, but he's more than that. He's a legitimate above-average hitter and fielder at a premium position. He's not flawless, certainly, but he's a guy who moves the needle closer to Championship. Middlebrooks may be that guy, but right now there's a lot of uncertainty about it, and so the question becomes, do you want to take that chance? I don't.
Next season the Blue Jays aren't likely going to be a train-wreck. The Yankees have Ellsbury and McCann and may have much more by the time the season rolls around. The Orioles are made of grit or something. The Rays have young pitchers on top of young pitchers. Defending the AL East crown let alone the World Series championship is going to be a huge challenge. The Red Sox are going to need everything going their way to win in 2014. Having Stephen Drew at shortstop makes them better offensively, better defensively, and deepens the roster. Mostly though, Drew just makes the Red Sox better. And who wouldn't want that?