When the Red Sox signed J.D. Drew to a five-year, $70 million deal prior to the 2007 season, GM Theo Epstein worked hard to ensure that the team would be protected against an injury to the fragile outfielder.
The previous year, Drew had played a career-high 146 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers before being convinced by agent Scott Boras to opt out of his contract and strike it rich in free agency. But Drew's surgically repaired right shoulder and balky back were significant concerns for Epstein, and Boras was forced to agree to a pair of contract-voiding conditions that ultimately have not come into play.
Although the ultra-talented Drew has been unpopular with fans throughout his career — for reasons ranging from perceived financial greed to a questions about his effort — the Red Sox believed that they were getting an elite player, one who would contribute profoundly on both sides of the ball. Drew was once compared to Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial, and although he has never attained their greatness, he has regularly excelled at two of the skills Epstein considers most important: avoiding outs at the plate and creating them in the field.
Nevertheless, when it comes to evaluating Drew's performance, the caveat about health is prevalent. According to the Boston Globe, the Red Sox penciled Drew in to play 135 games per season when they committed to him as their right fielder for half a decade. He appeared in 140 games in 2007, 109 in 2008, and 137 in 2009, so Drew is 2-for-3 in that respect since coming to the Hub.
Tony La Russa, who managed Drew for five-plus seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, defended the team's first-round pick from 1998 from his reputation for being unwilling to play through nagging pains.
"I think he's received an unfair tag about injuries," La Russa told the Globe. "I know in our experience every time that he was hurt, he was hurt. I don't think he ever willingly dodged some games because he was tired and a little ouchy. I just think his body betrayed him."
Entering the season at age 34, Drew's body is not getting any younger, and Terry Francona will be responsible for finding a way to keep him intact and on the field. Drew is one of just four American League players (along with Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis) who posted an OPS of over .900 in each of the past two seasons. He was also the fourth-best right fielder in baseball in 2009, according to Bill James Online. That means the drop-off from Drew to any backup Boston outfielder is significant.
And unfortunately for the Red Sox, the answer to the question of whether Drew can stay healthy enough to fulfill their 135-game expectations is anyone's guess. However, by acquiring Jeremy Hermida from the Florida Marlins at the beginning of the offseason, Epstein ensured that Francona will have a solid player to take Drew's place when necessary — whether that's for 27 games or 50.
The Red Sox have benefited greatly from Drew's performance during his first three years with the team, yet they have also been aware of his shortcomings. Durability is arguably the biggest, but it's one that Epstein has accounted for and properly addressed.
NESN.com will be answering one Red Sox question every day through Feb. 23.
Tuesday, Feb. 16: Who will be Boston's fourth outfielder?
Thursday, Feb. 18: Which new pitcher will make an impact out of the bullpen?
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