The Nationals have struck a deal to sign infielder Stephen Drew, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com (Twitter links). Drew will reportedly receive a $3MM guarantee and can earn up to $1.25MM via incentives in the contract which max out at 130 games played.
This move rates as something of a surprise, but makes sense upon close inspection. Washington has already agreed to sign Daniel Murphy, likely to play second base, and can utilize Anthony Rendon at third. But the shortstop position remains in some flux. Danny Espinosa looks to sit atop the depth chart, but he is not an optimal everyday player. Top position player prospect Trea Turner is also a viable potential option, though it would arguably be foolish to utilize him in a part-time role.
Drew will presumably get a decent bit of action at shortstop against right-handed pitching. While Espinosa is a switch hitter, he struggles from the left side. The left-handed-hitting Drew, on the other hand, has a .765 career OPS against right-handed pitching, while posting a mark precisely one hundred points lower when facing southpaws. He’ll also likely provide a rest at times for Rendon and Murphy, or allow the latter to slide in at first base if the team chooses to rest the oft-injured Ryan Zimmerman against righties (though Clint Robinson also could see time in that role).
As Heyman notes, then-Diamondbacks scouting director and current Nationals GM Mike Rizzo selected Drew in the first-round back in 2004, so there’s a history. At the time, and at times since, there has been hope that Drew would settle in as a top-quality regular. That hasn’t quite happened, despite several good seasons, but Drew still brings some skills to the table.
Most notably, Drew delivers plenty of pop for a middle infielder. He swatted 17 home runs last year in just 428 plate appearances and finished with a strong .180 ISO. Reaching base consistently, though, has been a challenge. Drew ended 2015 with a .201/.271/.381 batting line.
There were some potential positives to be found — namely, a 16.6% strikeout rate that was far lower than recent years and a .201 BABIP that could point to some bad luck. But Drew’s anemic output at the plate over the last two years has also featured a significant fall-off in his line-drive percentage (15.7% last year) and hard-hit rate (21.3% in 2015).
Drew doesn’t have to hit all that much to function as a utility option, though, especially if he’s largely limited to facing right-handed pitching. He’s spent most of his career at shortstop, drawing mostly positive ratings in recent seasons. Neither UZR nor DRS has been particularly enamored of his work at second over the past two years, but at worst he’s been serviceable there.
From a market perspective, a $3MM guarantee isn’t all that much these days, even for an extra infielder. Earlier this winter, for example, Cliff Pennington got $3.75MM over two years from the Angels earlier this winter and Mike Aviles landed $2MM in a one-year pact with the Tigers. And last year, the Rockies gave Daniel Descalso a $3.6MM guarantee on a two-year term.
It’s probably worth noting, too, that this move makes it all but official that Ian Desmond won’t be back in D.C. That was clearly where things were headed anyway, but there had always seemed to be at least some possibility of a reunion in the event that Desmond was forced to settle for a pillow contract. With Drew on the books, though, there wouldn’t be room for the long-time Nats fixture to come back (barring a trade).