Sox agree to deal with Drew

Sox agree to deal with Drew

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Ending weeks of speculation and external debate, the Red Sox plucked talented outfielder J.D. Drew off the free-agent market, agreeing to terms with the left-handed hitter on a reported five-year, $70-million contract.

Drew's agent, Scott Boras, confirmed the agreement to reporters Tuesday night at Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings here at the Dolphin Hotel. The deal will not be finalized until Drew passes his physical.

That physical will take place in Boston -- most likely during the early portion of next week.

"I think Drew is a great fit to complement our existing personnel," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "If you look, last year and the last couple of years -- especially last year -- a couple of our weaknesses were a No. 5 hitter and outfield defense, generally, especially with a fly-ball staff which we have. Drew, if we end up signing him officially, he addresses both of those areas of concern."

This is not the first time the Red Sox have made a run at Drew. After winning the World Series in 2004, the Sox contemplated trading Manny Ramirez to the Mets and then signing Drew as a free agent.

"When J.D. was a free agent the last time, Boston came in and showed a great deal of interest," Boras said. "I think Boston always really liked the fact that J.D. was a five-tool player and that he's an athlete who can play center field, play right field. It gives you a lot of versatility. Having guys that can get on base, score a lot of runs and drive in a hundred runs are rare commodities in this game."

Drew is likely to supplant fellow free agent Trot Nixon -- a starter for the Red Sox since 1999 -- in right field. He will also give the Red Sox an impact bat either in front or behind David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, assuming the latter slugger isn't traded, which appeared more unlikely Tuesday.

Epstein spoke of Drew's potential impact on the team by noting what kind of factor he could be in the lineup behind Ortiz and Ramirez.

"I think we ranked 30th out of 30 teams in No. 5-hole OPS [on-base plus slugging] last year," said Epstein. "It wasn't even close. We weren't even close to 29th. If you do even a conservative estimate of Drew's performance for us next year in Fenway Park, that goes I think to around sixth or seventh out of what you should expect from the five-hole in all of baseball. It takes away a real weakness -- five-hole production. Another elite bat behind David and Manny and turns it into a strength."

There is also the matter of Drew's defense, which is regarded as well above average. With a cavernous right field in Fenway Park, that is no small factor.

"With outfield defense, for a long time we've talked about having a center fielder in right field," said Epstein. "Fenway Park has a very difficult right field to play. We all know sort of what a difference it was when Dwight Evans, a guy like that, was patrolling right field. I think J.D. Drew is a really good defensive player and is certainly capable of playing center field. Having him out there in right will really help address our outfield defense."

Only because Drew decided on Nov. 9 to exercise the out clause for the remainder of his contract with the Dodgers (three years at $33 million) were the Red Sox able to acquire him.

"Once he opted out of his contract, he became a real attraction for us, because in one player -- sure, it's a large commitment -- but in one player, we could address or help address two areas of real weakness, and that's hard to do sometimes," said Epstein.

Drew, 31, is coming off one of his finest seasons, as he helped the Dodgers to the postseason by hitting .283 with 34 doubles, six triples, 20 homers and 100 RBIs.

With his patient approach (career on-base percentage of .393), Drew should fit right in with Boston's offensive philosophy. Drew can also hit the ball to the opposite field, which will help him make a few dents in the Green Monster.

"He really has a great swing for Fenway Park," said Epstein. "When he pulls the ball and elevates the ball, it will certainly reach the bullpen. He's got plus raw power. The big dimensions in right field and even center field won't be a problem for him. If you look at his hit chart, those balls get out.

"He has the ability to hit the ball to left field in the air on a pretty consistent basis. That's before he makes any adjustments in his approach. The left-field wall really rewards left-handed hitters who let the ball get deep and are confident in their hands and have the ability to go the other way. We certainly think he can do that, even more than he has in the past. Just with the approach he's taken in the past, it will reward him. We think there's more in there."

The biggest problem for Drew in his career has been staying healthy. Through his career, he has had problems with his knees, wrist, shoulder, back, ankle and quadriceps. Since becoming an everyday player in 1999, Drew has averaged 118 games per season.

But Epstein notes that Drew has played 145-plus games in two of the last three years.

After being taken second by the Phillies in the 1997 First-Year Player Draft, Drew held out and played for the St. Paul Saints of the Independent League. The next year, he went back into the draft and was taken by the Cardinals.

That decision made Drew a target and a bit of a lightning rod. He's been labeled as soft by a large portion of the fans and media around baseball. But Epstein and manager Terry Francona both did plenty of research on Drew, and became confident that he would thrive on the Red Sox.

"There's always a lot of speculation from guys who aren't in the clubhouse," said Epstein. "It's probably most important how a player fits into the fabric of the team. I think we have a clubhouse that will be very welcoming to J.D. for a lot of reasons."

If the Red Sox trade Ramirez, Drew would probably face a lot more pressure from the ravenous fans and media of Boston. But if he's just another piece to the puzzle, the transition will probably be far more seamless.

"Sometimes you have to make a distinction whether a guy is coming to town to be the guy, and take all that on his shoulders, or whether a guy is coming here to be a very important part of a team but not a guy who has to carry the team by himself," said Epstein.

The Red Sox have other core players who should take up a large part of the burden.

"We have leaders," said Epstein. "We have outspoken leaders on this team, we have quiet leaders on this team. From a position player standpoint, I think everyone would agree that David Ortiz and Jason Varitek are the leaders of this team. We want someone to come in to play great outfield defense and get on base, hit for power, contribute to a winning team and do no harm in that clubhouse. He certainly qualifies as all of those things. He's a very good person. From all our research, he's probably quieter than most."

Drew started for the Cardinals for five years (1999-2003) before getting traded to the Braves prior to the 2004 season. After a big year in Atlanta (.305, 31 homers, 93 RBIs), Drew moved on to the Dodgers as a free agent, where he played the last two seasons.

He is a career .286 hitter with 162 homers and 509 RBIs.

Ian Browne is a reporter for reporter Mark Bowman contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.