The Red Sox have a shortstop who hit .450 and played nearly flawless defense over the first eight days of the season. Yet inside the team's front office, there is no real debate when it comes to the question of whether to send him down Wednesday and to commit to the man whom the club signed this offseason to be the everyday shortstop of the 2013 Red Sox.
Outside of the front office and clubhouse, however, the dialogue is different. In a somewhat remarkable turn of events, before Stephen Drew has played a single game in a Red Sox uniform, there is a public examination of whether or not he deserves to be the shortstop.
Perhaps the fact that Drew has been out of sight -- and has extremely limited exposure to Boston -- helps to explain the sentiment (by no means universal) that Jose Iglesias, after an admittedly strong stretch to start the year, will be sent to the minors to clear a spot for him. Perhaps there is a halo of distrust related to his brother, former Red Sox outfielder J.D. Drew, that lends itself to suspicion about Stephen Drew. (Certainly, the "here we go again" public characterizations of Drew's efforts to return from an injury -- in this case, a concussion after a fastball smashed him in the middle of the forehead -- speak to the perception of his brother rather than the specifics of Stephen Drew's career.)
Here's the reality: Iglesias is a spectacular defender whose offense remains a work in progress. His .450 average was misleading, given that it was predicated on a pair of bunt hits and a handful of infield singles. Right now, as much improvement as he's shown, it would be somewhat surprising if he could crack a .300 OBP over a full season in the majors. A commitment to him would represent a conscious decision to accept below-average offense for defensive excellence.
There may come a time when he's able to push his on-base percentage north of .310 -- and if he does so, then he would look like an above-average major league starting shortstop -- and that time may not be far off. But for now, when the Sox have a more well-rounded and polished player with a track record of providing average to slightly above-average defense and well above-average offense, there isn't much of a dilemma.
The front office and Red Sox scouts who have tracked Stephen Drew have seen that skill set over time. Those who have seen Drew only from afar during his career in Arizona and Oakland have not.
That being the case, it seems worth examining: Who is Stephen Drew, who isn't Stephen Drew, and why is he the player whom the Red Sox want to be their everyday shortstop?
A(NOTHER) PRODIGAL TALENT
The three Drew brothers -- J.D., a two-time first-round pick out of Florida State in 1997 and 1998; Tim, who was taken in the first round of the 1997 draft as a right-handed pitcher out of high school; and Stephen, a 2004 first-round pick out of FSU -- came to baseball at the same time. J.D. didn't start playing baseball until he was about 12, but when he did, his brothers got their own exposure to the game.
"I can remember Stephen when he was 5 years old -- the sweetest left-handed 5-year-old swing I've ever seen," mused Danny Redshaw, who met Stephen while coaching J.D. Drew in Little League and would later coach Stephen Drew in all four years at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga. "It was obvious from a very early age that Stephen had a chance to be something special.
"They both had that same sweet swing. They both had very quiet demeanors, let their play speak for themselves. It was almost like watching a clone, except that J.D. was an outfielder and Stephen an infielder."
Certainly, if he'd wanted to, Stephen Drew could have gone the same route as his brother and played the outfield. Even when he was in junior high, it was difficult to suggest that he was out of place in the company of much older competition.
"Years ago, when you could do things a little differently rules-wise, it's about 15 years, we would have one of the brothers dress in a uniform and go out in maybe the eighth grade and dress in a uniform. We were taking [batting practice], the ball was hit in the outfield and the guy came in and caught it beautifully," said Florida State coach Mike Martin. "The guy came in and got the ball better than J.D. and I said, 'Who is that out there?' It was Stephen."
Though Stephen Drew would go down to see his brother play at Florida State on weekends when he was in grade school and then junior high, he nonetheless made a conscious decision to go a different route than his brother. While he might have caught Martin's eye while chasing down fly balls in the outfield, Stephen Drew was determined to make an impact elsewhere on the field.
He played shortstop. He only played shortstop. Indeed, Drew can never recall playing a single inning at any other position on the field. Doing so helped him cultivate his own baseball identity.
"I always played that position growing up. I didn't want to change. I didn't want to go to the outfield. I wanted to go another route, play short and see if I could do it," said Drew. "I'm my own self. I tell people that. It's great to look up to [J.D.], but playing this game -- he plays right. I play short. There's a lot of different dynamics at those positions."
Perhaps most notable of the distinctions was the on-field personality type that gravitates to shortstop. It is a position that requires a degree of leadership, and often a presence both on and off the field. The fact that Stephen Drew was drawn to that position underscored the fact that, while he possessed a similarly gorgeous left-handed swing as his older brother, he represented a different sort of player and teammate.
"My brother's a few years older than I am. He's left-handed. He's a businessman. He's totally different. The same scenario with the Drew brothers," explained Martin. "You have one who might have been hard to understand but a great competitor. He just competed more like maybe a Tom Watson instead of maybe a Tommy Bolt or maybe even a Tiger Woods. They showed their emotions, whereas Tom Watson doesn't show his emotions. Well, J.D. Drew didn't show his emotion, but he was still a tough competitor. It was just that he was hard to read. Stephen, he'll go through you if he has to to win the game. J.D. would go around you to win the game. Stephen will go through you. He's a tough competitor. He plays hard."
"He wasn't a glove-throwing, bat-throwing, throw-a-helmet type of guy, but he could make one or two comments to his teammates and get them going, not out of fear, but those guys respected not just his talent but his work ethic. He was a little more vocal in prodding his teammates to get going," added Redshaw. "Stephen showed some fire at times when he had to."
Stephen Drew was comfortable enough in his own skin on a baseball field to follow his brother's path and go to Florida State. Doing so came with some inevitable challenges -- after all, J.D. had been one of the best college players ever, the first ever to have a 30-30 campaign in Division 1 history -- but the younger brother did not buckle under the weight of that mantle.
Stephen Drew was not burdened by the comparisons to his older brothers. Nor, for that matter, did he seek any favor or harbor any arrogance because of the baseball status of his siblings.
"I think that's probably the most impressive thing about Stephen, the way he handled that," said Redshaw. "He didn't walk around and say, 'I'm J.D.'s brother, I'm Tim's brother, they're No. 1 picks.' He never talked about it. He just went out and played."
Stephen Drew did not match his brother's collegiate impact. Still, he was a well-rounded, impact performer. There was talk for a while that he would be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft. Signability questions dropped him to the No. 15 spot of the first round, but that slippage did not detract from the view of the shortstop as a polished player who was close to big league ready.
Interestingly, one man who participated in the Red Sox' scouting effort with Nomar Garciaparra also was deeply involved in the effort to scout Drew.
"They were both slated to be outstanding defensive shortstops with range, footwork and arm strength.
Stephen was a guy who did everything very smoothly, very routinely," said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who was Arizona's amateur scouting director in 2004 -- 10 years after he had contributed to the scouting of Garciaparra while an area scout for the Sox. "Nomar had more first-step quickness. Stephen was a much smoother, finesse type of shortstop. Nomar had power that came into his own when he was a professional player. Stephen had that smooth left-handed stroke that could produce a lot of doubles, a lot of triples and a surprising ability to hit for power when healthy. I think although they had different skill sets, they both penciled out to be above-average shortstops on major league contenders."
THE BIG LEAGUE PERFORMANCE
Whether or not Drew has lived up to that description is subject, in some quarters, to disagreement. His career numbers -- a .265 average, a .328 OBP, a .433 slugging mark and 77 homers in parts of seven seasons -- probably don't match the projections that most had for him coming out of college.
Yet those aggregate career numbers are somewhat misleading. Drew was pushed to the big leagues on a fairly aggressive timetable, getting fewer than 700 minor league at-bats before he became Arizona's everyday shortstop by the middle of the 2006 season. In 2007, his first full year as an everyday big leaguer, he struggled in his acclimation to the game's highest levels, hitting just .238 with a .313 OBP and .370 slugging mark.
It is worth noting that he was good enough to be the everyday shortstop for a Diamondbacks team that advanced to the NLCS that year. Nonetheless, it wasn't the performance that was expected of Drew, nor did it represent what he would become.
From 2008-10, Drew hit .277 with a .335 OBP, a .465 slugging mark, an .800 OPS and 48 homers while averaging 146 games per season. His OPS during that three-year span ranked third in the majors among big league shortstops with at least 1,000 plate appearances, behind only Hanley Ramirez (.917) and Troy Tulowitzki (.883), and ahead of Jose Reyes (.791) and Derek Jeter (.783).
A horrific compound ankle fracture in the middle of his age-28 season in 2011 intruded upon Drew's emergence as one of the most impactful shortstops in the game.
"He was a guy that we thought was going to be a terrific shortstop in the major leagues for a long time. I think that injury that he had really derailed that. He was coming off one of those magical seasons where he hit for a high average, hit for a lot of doubles and triples, hit for home run power, played terrific defense, showed range to both sides and the arm strength we thought he was going to possess. He was really coming into his own, making a name for himself," said Rizzo. "He had that really horrendous ankle injury with the collision into home plate and it really derailed his career to the point that he's just getting his sea legs under him, trying to regain the consistency he had prior to the injury."
Now, as he prepares for his 2013 unveiling in Boston, can he return to that peak, or at least resemble the player with the same diverse skill set that made him such an impressive shortstop prior to his injury? That is a gamble that the Red Sox considered worth taking, not just to the tune of his one-year, $9.5 million deal, but also in the unwavering commitment to the notion that his talents are such that there is no real dilemma when it comes to the matter of whether he or Iglesias should start.
By the end of last year, after all, when he was the shortstop (following an August trade from the Diamondbacks) of a playoff-bound Oakland team, he looked like a healthy player. There may have been some rust in his game -- he hit .250 with a .326 OBP and .382 slugging mark in Oakland, marks that are above average across the board for a major league shortstop but not up to the pre-injury standards Drew had set -- but he showed no physical ill effects of the fracture that left him unable to play for a year.
"I didn't really see much of him after he got injured, so I was kind of taking it how he is," said Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes, who played with Drew after he was traded to the A's last season. "It looked like he never got hurt. I talked to him about his ankle, his injury, his rehab stuff, but just by watching him, it wasn't like, he's running better or he looks better -- he looked fine. It wasn't like, he doesn't have that much of a limp today. He looked great. He looked awesome. The injury he had was pretty hairy, so for him to come back and want to play shows a lot about his character."
Because there is a gap between his most recent performance and his peak performance, it created an opportunity for the Sox. An everyday shortstop with a chance to be an above-average contributor on both sides of the ball -- with passable range and above-average arm strength and accuracy on defense, and a disciplined approach with the ability to reach 50 extra-base hits and double-digit home totals -- is rarely available on a one-year deal.
But because there are questions about whether Drew can return to that peak, he understood that a one-year deal in a park that works for his swing represented his best-case scenario.
"I knew coming into it, in free agency, that was probably what I was going to get. The Red Sox were the final fit, and I'm looking forward to this year. I think it's going to be a great year. Going to go out there, play hard and help this team win games," said Drew. "I'm a gap hitter. You can look over my career with the (52) triples. You've got 420 [feet] in center and the big Monster over there. If everything clicks and everything, hitting the ball the other way off the wall is going to be a big advantage for me."
And, the Sox hope, his return will represent a big advantage for them as well. Though Drew will not dazzle with any one tool that has the flash to match Iglesias, the sum of the parts is pretty impressive. He was on the cusp of being an elite player before his injury. His overall impact at that time exceeded that of nearly any shortstop in the game.
This spring, team officials raved about his beautiful left-handed swing -- the one that can help to bring a measure of balance to the lineup -- and about how smooth he looked in the field. He did not look like a player who suffered an injury that put his career in jeopardy. Instead, he permitted the team to daydream that maybe, just maybe, he can once again be the player he looked like in Arizona.
For the chance to see if he can replicate that form, the Sox are willing to let Iglesias wait -- and with reason.
"I think he was going to be hitting his stride when he got hurt. A couple of years, he was a borderline All-Star, I thought," said Redshaw. "I don't think you've seen the best of him. I think he's really going to put together two, three, four really good years."
For his part, Drew is focused on a more basic appreciation of his place. While the concussion he suffered on March 7 proved an impediment to his opportunity to make an impact in Boston, he recognizes that he has almost a new lease on his career.
While his name certainly is familiar in Boston, the city and park represent a novelty for Drew, a possibility of a baseball renewal and a chance to show once again the player that he was, and that he hopes once again to be.
"You look back at that injury, going back to how hard I worked, I was just glad that I was able to come back from it and come back 100 percent," said Drew. "You couldn't do anything about the injury. I worked really hard to get back because at the beginning, I didn't know what it was going to be. To be able to come back from that injury and still play, it's almost a miracle. I thank God every day to be able to play.
"I look at it this way: I'm just glad to play the game. At the first of it, I didn't know what I was going to have. I didn't know if it was going to limit me in some stuff or if I'm going to have to retire from the game. I praise God for that. I'm just thankful to be here and thankful to still get the chance to play."