I love watching Stephen Drew play defense. God help me, but I love it. He charges even fairly well-struck grounders aggressively, making his own hops and bounces by timing his attack of the ball, and throws on the run with ease and accuracy. His hands are sure and quick. I get the distinct sense, as I review his defensive statistics, that Drew lulls in those who look too closely, dupes them, not in the same way that Derek Jeter did, but in the same sense. I suspect that great style and aggressiveness masks limitations in both range and arm strength, and accept the general consensus that he is, at least at this point, an average or slightly worse defender of the position. I just wanted to register my admiration for his approach.

Drew signed a one-year, $9.5-million free-agent deal with the Boston Red Sox prior to this season, and now that the Red Sox have won the World Series, he heads back into open water. The question before us today is whether the Sox should tender Drew a qualifying offer of $14.1 million for one year, making them eligible for draft-pick compensation if he signs elsewhere, and also, whether or not they will.

Defense be damned, Drew is a good player. He racked up 50 extra-base hits this season, despite stepping to the plate 501 times in 124 games. Fenway Park fed that, of course, but it’s probably also responsible for turning some home runs into doubles and triples. (In other words, whereas he hit 29 doubles, eight triples and 13 homers this year, his true-talent distribution of the same number of extra-base hits would likely have been 25-7-18, or something.) He also walked 54 times in those 501 trips, so despite a high 25-percent strikeout rate, he posted a really solid offensive line. Guys with above-average power and patience have to whiff a third of the time or more to avoid being good.

He will turn 31 before Opening Day, so a five-year deal is just not happening. He’s had his effort and his toughness questioned during his career, but while health is a skill (and Drew does have an injury history), those tags on his baggage are, more than anything else, a leading indicator of being undervalued on the free-agent market.

If I’m the Red Sox, even with Will Middlebrooks hoping to get his third-base gig back and Xander Bogaerts too clearly ready to stash back in the minors, I’m making Drew his offer. If I’m Drew, I’m turning it down. The market balked at surrendering draft picks for anyone below the top tier of free agency last winter, but that position simply has to soften. Too much money is flooding into the game. Too many teams have chances to put distance between themselves and the guys behind them, or to close the gap between themselves and the guys ahead of them. Too much effort is being wasted on squeezing draftees, and squeezing the draft itself for small advantages. Teams need to refocus on their big-league product, and I think this winter will be the turning point at which that actually takes place.

Now, in reality, Boston is probably in a tough spot. Drew isn’t alone in leaving the World Series champs for free agency, and while Jacoby Ellsbury is definitely going to take a pass when he gets his qualifying offer, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mike Napoli and Koji Uehara pose more interesting questions. The Sox probably have to make Napoli an offer, and he might just take it. I wrote, though, about the possible downside of that sequence, during the playoffs. Saltalamacchia cast his future with the team into serious doubt with his poor October, but might also have precluded them making an offer. Uehara might be the most fascinating case of the bunch, the relief pitcher moving toward 40 who signed for $4.5 million before this season, then posted the best WHIP in big-league history, and whose skill profile makes it hard to dismiss that as pure fluke.

Assuming Boston makes offers to both Napoli and Uehara, making that offer to Drew means risking having those three players all come back for 2014—for $42.3 million. The same trio made $27 million in 2013, and it’s hard to see them doing anything but declining slightly from the return they made on that investment. Nor should the Middlebrooks-Bogaerts conundrum be treated as a soft issue, with a soft solution. That could be prickly. Middlebrooks has been a good soldier, generally speaking, but ht was the Red Sox’s MLB Players’ Association team representative barely over a year ago, and suddenly, seems destined to be brushed aside.

Ultimately, I think the Red Sox still make an offer. I think the front office will acknowledge that either a compensatory draft pick, or Drew, plus the trade value of Middlebrooks, if that’s what it comes to, exceeds the value of letting him go for nothing, even accounting for a one-year salary that might outrun his median expected 2014 performance. Being a part of this team, meanwhile, this team with so much grit and baseball-rat and facial-hair narrative surrounding it, might have washed away some of the mud others have slung at Drew over the years. I think he’ll take this opportunity to go find somewhere to play for two or three years, be it in Boston or elsewhere, and not settle for a one-year pillow contract.

Since you asked, if Drew does depart Boston, I foresee interest from:

  • Cincinnati – Zack Cozart’s glovework becoming less and less worthwhile
  • Los Angeles Dodgers – moving Hanley Ramirez to third, and adding a lefty bat to break up a right-leaning bottom half of the order. Juan Uribe would have to leave as a free agent, to pave the way.
  • Minnesota – The Twins never seem willing to spend the last dollar and land guys like this, but Drew is a pretty good fit for them. He’d hit tons of triples at Target Field.
  • Pittsburgh – Call me crazy, but I don’t think a team that just got back to contender status and plans to stay there leans too heavily on a handsome half-season from a guy named Jordy.
  • St. Louis – Put a star next to this one. No free agent could improve the Cardinals more, and no team needs Drew worse.
  • Washington – Ian Desmond has proved himself a capable big-league player. I’m still not sure he doesn’t work better as a second baseman. This is a stretch, but it’s not impossible.

 

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