BRADENTON, Fla. -- It's been more than four months now, so why stop here?
Question (paraphrased): "Are you surprised Stephen Drew is still out there?"
Answer: "I really don’t have anything to say about him. He’s a free agent. That’s where it stands."
That was the conversation between the media and Red Sox manager John Farrell at approximately 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, prior to the Sox' eventual 4-1 win over the Pirates. It is a legitimate question, and has been since Drew turned down the $14.1 million qualifying offer in early November. And it's also an understandable answer.
Farrell and the Red Sox front office have been impressively patient in their responses to the Drew questions, considering the team and the player haven't really engaged in discussions for the last two months. But when you win a World Series with a player who has proven to be the ultimate security blanket on the ultimate stage, the little voice whispering, "So you're saying there's a chance," is hard to drown out.
But this is the reality, according to team sources: The Red Sox still are not engaged in talks with Drew, and the only way they would be is if the left side of their infield takes a turn for the worse. As of now, it hasn't; hence the lack of communication.
There are few under-the-microscope elements in this Red Sox camp, but one that remains magnified on a day-in, day-out basis is the left side of the infield. A big part of that is because of Drew's continued availability, with the other piece coming from the fact that both Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts haven't cemented themselves in the major leagues. (And we all know how much both teams and fans like the certainties of cement.)
Case in point: Middlebrooks makes a couple of errors on Wednesday in Jupiter, Farrell (when asked) talks about the tough day, and here comes the open window through which any and all Drew conversation can once again jump.
But while the two-error game certainly didn't offer early March comfort for the Red Sox -- just like every "Drew would have made that play" moment comes around for Bogaerts -- understand that the team was fully ready to dive into 2014 with these two manning the left side of the infield when camp began, and absolutely nothing has changed.
"I feel very good," said third base coach Brian Butterfield, who has been charged with serving as the lead instructor for the two infielders. "I think one of the biggest things for all players -- not just young guys, but also veterans -- is they need that little bit of success to chew on for a while to give them confidence. I'm hoping as we close out the last two weeks of the spring training schedule we have a bunch of guys that can have some success and are sticking their chests out and getting ready for the opener in Baltimore. We're kind of keeping our fingers crossed. We're pleased. Right now Will and Bogie feel good about their defense, and that's a plus. When you have a confident player you have a productive player. They're getting better and hopefully they're oozing with confidence by the time they start."
The occasional panic over the left side of the infield the product of just a too much of the unknown, and a bit of the known.
The likelihood is that the Red Sox take a few early lumps defensively (although with perhaps more promise -- even in April -- than what the left side of the Yankees infield will present with the glove). The payoff is a potential boost with the bats. And don't think for a moment that isn't a necessity considering you're replacing the production of Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalmacchia with what is perceived as probable offensive downgrades at each spot.
As we sit here, the work-in-progress defense at the two positions is a good conversation starter. It certainly was just that on the day Middlebrooks made those two errors. But what the two players have going for them is three weeks to quiet the conversation.
And, make no doubt about it, there is plenty of work to be done prior to March 31. More than would be needed for Drew. More than a lot of Red Sox fans would like.
According to Butterfield, here is the latest on each player.
Middlebrooks: "I like where Will is at. I think he's worked harder than anybody in camp to get where he's at. He's playing in a lower position. He did make a couple of errors the other day, but that's one of his few poor games. I think he gets a free pass on that one because that infield is like playing in a parking lot. The one thing we try to be guarded against is not evaluating and trying to be too negative or too positive in spring training because these guys are still getting their sea legs under them and working on individual things to try and get themselves better. I'm really pleased where Will is at. There's still some work we need to do, but we still have three weeks until the bell rings and I think he's ahead of the curve right now."
Bogaerts: "It's not easy for a young guy. His mind is racing right now. He's got a lot of responsibilities. He wants to do what's best for the ball club. We say we want him to exercise a little bit more leadership, but we leave it at that and watch him go. As he has a little bit more success, he will lead and he will relax and his mind will be free to do other things."
There is another question, of course: What if something happens to either player? That was one of the draws of potentially bringing back Drew, exchanging the potential discomfort that comes with designating playing time for one of the key components in last year's World Series run -- depth.
Right now, it would appear Jonathan Herrera is the fail-safe. The former Rockies infielder has been impressive, with one exception -- when he plays third base.
Herrera has played 30 major league games at third base but looks exponentially more comfortable in the middle of the diamond. It was a trend put on display Saturday night, when the infielder botched two chances at third but then looked completely at home when shifted over to shortstop.
Brock Holt also is in the mix, but he also has very limited time playing third. (Also, both he and Herrera have options, so that will not be a factor when determining the team's utility infielder out of camp.)
Right now, if something happened to either Bogaerts or Middlebrooks, Herrera likely would be the short-term fill-in. But in a long-term scenario, Garin Cecchini (who has had an impressive camp but could use some more defensive seasoning) probably would be summoned to play third. As for shortstop, an extensive absence from Bogaerts might take a more creative solution, with the likes of Devin Marrero serving as a possible option. (Butterfield calls the former Arizona State star perhaps the most fundamentally sound infielder of the bunch.)
For the time being, however, it is all about Bogaerts and Middlebrooks. Mistakes surely will lead to more Drew conversation. But right now the only talk among those who count -- the Red Sox decision-makers -- revolves around where each will hit in the batting order
It will take time, maybe even more than three weeks. Yet for the Red Sox, the upside of the duo is worth the wait.
"The two kids on the left side, they're still hoping they can do it. They don't know yet. They're still feeling things out. They're still getting acclimated to the major leagues. But they're doing a good job," Butterfield said. "But the confidence level isn't quite what it's going to be as they get more repetitions and get more success. They will be fine."