BOSTON -- WHEN the Portland Sea Dogs visit Manchester to face the New Hampshire Fisher Cats this weekend, they’ll bring with them a possible Red Sox shortstop of the not-too-distant future in Deven Marrero.
It may turn out they’ll have the Sox’ shortstop of the immediate future, as well.
Welcome back to New England, Stephen Drew.
With the Sox struggling to escape the mires of mediocrity — the under-performance of their inexperienced players exposed, their general problems against right-handed pitching leading to the club’s first four-game losing streak since 2012 — a question had become increasingly pertinent.
Was the organization willing to stay the course in the name of development, even if it began to diminish the major-league team’s ability to compete in 2014?
Tuesday afternoon, general manager Ben Cherington furnished the answer, agreeing to re-sign the veteran Drew in a deal that will bump rookie Xander Bogaerts from his full-time role at shortstop and leave third baseman Will Middlebrooks in limbo when his fractured finger heals.
The move strengthened the Sox’ efforts to contend this season without compromising any of the plans Boston had set for seasons in the future.
At about $10 million, the Sox will pay a steep price for the presumed upgrade, especially considering that after forgoing spring training Drew will need a week or two in the minors to get himself major-league ready.
(With Triple-A Pawtucket headed to distant Syracuse for a four-game series beginning on Thursday, that tune-up may well begin in Manchester.)
Considering what the Red Sox have lacked over the first quarter of the season and the opportunity still ahead of them in a wide-open American League East, the investment in Drew dividends in the form of a playoff spot.
Pinning the 20-23 record that Boston took into Tuesday night’s tilt with Toronto on one issue would be wrong, though third base was one obvious spot where the Sox’ performance was lacking. Through Monday, Boston third basemen’s .576 OPS ranked 12th of 15 AL teams while their .194 aggregate batting average slotted the same and their total of two homers tied for the fewest.
That position was Middlebrooks’ to start the year, but between his play (he’s hitting .197) and his injuries (he’s been on the disabled list twice) there’s been little to indicate that he is the short-term answer. Garin Cecchini, the PawSox prospect who could be the long-term solution there, isn’t ready defensively.
So if they were indeed serious about this season being more than just a breeding ground for the future, the Sox had every motivation to consider moving Bogaerts over a position and going outside the organization to address the problem on the left side of the infield. And when that determination was made, the general manager made his clubhouse happy by bringing back a player who was popular with his teammates en route to a World Series title in 2013.
That part of the situation can’t be overlooked here. First and foremost, Drew’s greatest asset is the terrific defense he brings to shortstop, where he’s as steady as they come — and so this is a move that’s sure to thrill the pitchers because of the outs he’ll save them there. In fact, Bogaerts shifting to third probably improves the gloves at both positions.
But offensively, Drew should be a plus, too, particularly against righties. The Sox are 10-19 in games started by right-handed pitchers, with the AL’s second-worst average (.233) and third-worst OPS (.664) against righty starters. And whereas Middlebrooks was hitting .143 against right-handers this season, Drew hit .284 with a .377 against them last season.
At least initially, according to manager John Farrell, Drew will play shortstop against righties. Against lefties, Drew may sit, with Bogaerts moving back to short if Middlebrooks is on the team, but given that he has options, Middlebrooks could just as easily be demoted for a second straight year once he’s healthy.
For that reason, if there’s anyone in the pipeline whose future with the Sox is in doubt with Drew’s return, it’s Middlebrooks. Bogaerts could easily move back to short next year. He’s not necessarily blocking Cecchini. And Marrero, still likely a year or more from the majors, is no more blocked now than he was before.
After two injury-plagued, disappointing years, Middlebrooks’ trade value has been minimized, so to deal him, the Sox would be selling low on a player who was formerly considered a top prospect. Ideally he’d get more time to show what he can do and start to prove himself at the big-league level. He’d be given more of a chance to figure it out, a chance to keep developing.
But Tuesday we learned that the Sox won’t let that experience come at the expense of winning now.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davedonofrio.