The free agent market has slowed down now that top free agents like Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Shin-Soo Choo and Robinson Cano have signed. Free agent pitchers are stuck waiting for Masahiro Tanaka to land somewhere before they can find there own deals and market for Nelson Cruz seems to have dried up. It is hard to blame teams for waiting on Tanaka to make their decision about middling pitchers like Matt Garza and Erwin Santana or for turning away from an immobile slugger like Cruz with few tools and a price tag of $75 million, but it is harder to see why teams are so down on free agent shortstop Stephen Drew.
Drew had a very strong season for the World Champion Red Sox in 2013, putting up a 3.4 fWAR and a 3.1 rWAR. After battling ankle injuries in late 2011 and 2012, Drew eased fears that his once near-average defense was headed for serious decline with his 2013 performance in the field. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) was the most positive on his fielding, crediting him with 5.2 runs saved for his glove work last year. Total Zone (TZ) was the least impressed, charging him with four runs and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) was fairly neutral with at -2 runs. Whether teams view him as a plus on defense going forward as UZR advises or slightly below average as the other major systems do, it is clear that his glove is not going to force him off the position in the near future.
That is a major key for Drew because as long as there is no reason to fear that he will have to shift somewhere lower on the defensive spectrum, his skills at the plate should make him extremely desirable. The 30-year old posted a wRC+ of 109 last season with a batting line of .253/.333/.443 in 501 plate appearances. The average shortstop hit .254/.308/.367 for a wRC+ of just 85. The ability to hit 24 percent better than average for your position is extremely valuable when you aren't a liability in the field. That is the difference between the average first baseman and Allen Craig, for example. So, why has the market for Drew disappeared so completely?
Obviously, teams aren't optimistic about his ability to repeat his 2013 numbers on at least one side of the ball. Projection systems reflect this. Steamer projects most of that decline to come at the plate, pegging him for a .232/.314/.378 batting line with average defense at short. Based That would be a wRC+ of 91, still 6 percent better than the average shortstop last season. Oliver basically agrees with a .230/.308/.390 projection adding a little variation in the numbers on the way to nearly the same production. Those projections still put him in the 2 WAR range, making a deal worth a between $10-$11 million market value for 2014 apart from the non-negligible cost of a draft pick.
There a few reasons to believe that the projections might be a little too down on Drew's bat, but the issue for teams is almost certainly more about cost than production. Drew rejected the Red Sox qualifying offer of $14.4 million and as we just saw, multiple projections say that would have been an overpay of at least $3 million. Drew is represented by Scott Boras, who struggled last season finding homes for his clients who came with draft compensation attached to their price. If Boras and Drew are eyeing a payday comparable to Jhonny Peralta's four year, $53 million deal, the draft pick and the overall cost simply leaves too few suitors to make that happen. At this point, the most likely destination appears to be the Red Sox, though Boston hardly needs to go hard after him with Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts and Garin Cecchini all emerging as options for the left side of the infield in 2014 or beyond.
Among teams with protected picks, the Mets, Twins, and Astros all have starting shortstops who project as worse than Drew but only the Mets appear to be suitors and they are playing it very cool at this point. Their tepid interest is very likely just a negotiating tactic, as Peter Gammons suggests, but the lack of urgency shows just how little interest he is getting right now. Twins could get involved but money is probably a factor against them. Houston would be an interesting option to sign Drew. They could use him as an immediate upgrade over Jonathan Villar then dangle him at the deadline every year of his deal as the Carlos Correa-era approaches, which could be an excellent strategy. Still, it is hard to see them taking on the risk for such a purpose unless the market for him collapses even further. Their second round pick is also more valuable than anyone else, so that is a consideration there as well.
Steamer also says Drew would be an upgrade for the Yankees, who have already lost so many draft picks that another one would hardly register, but they seem content letting some guy named Derek Jeter get those at-bats for whatever reason. If the Phillies could move Jimmy Rollins as they desire, Drew might be a replacement option there, but it would be little more than a lateral move in production for 2014 and it would add salary and cost a draft pick. The Royals would benefit from Drew, but his glove would a major step back from Alcides Escobar, and even if they suddenly came to appreciate his skill set and its value, they probably couldn't afford him. Likewise, legit contenders like the Reds and Pirates would do well to add his bat, but sadly they are probably priced out as well.
Once again, it seems Boras is repping a player who is caught in the qualifying offer middle ground. Drew is too expensive for some of the poorer borderline contenders and the attached pick makes him unappealing to a number of rebuilding teams who could use him short term or benefit from trading him later. He has enough risk to turn teams off, and not enough upside to clearly offset it. This is the same situation that Adam LaRoche, Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse sound themselves in last season. The current compensation system makes it tough to be an average to slightly-above-average player coming from a rich club that can risk a qualifying offer. Drew should still get a multi-year deal, but the subtleties of the current system will take their toll on the final dollar amount.
Teams' concerns are certainly valid, but the complete lack of a market for Drew is still surprising and it should create an opportunity for a team bold enough to seize it. Drew was the eighth most valuable shortstop in the game last season and while a number of players project better than him, many of those projections look optimistic while his is anything but that. Shortstops tend to be black holes of offensive production and landing a player like Drew, even at market value is likely to be a win in the short term. With the forces of this year's market moving against him, Drew might even come at a discount. If that turns out to be the case, a number of teams will be wishing they hadn't forgot about Drew.
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