Red Sox' J.D. Drew Facing Big Questions, From His Hamstring To Missionary Work

BOSTON - JULY 04: J.D. Drew #7 of the Boston Red Sox heads back to the dugout after he struck out against the Baltimore Orioles on July 4 2010 at Fenway Park in Boston Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

J.D. Drew wonders if he'll be healthy, he wonders about the strike zone, and he wonders if Life After Baseball will begin after this season.

Questions, questions, questions ... As WEEI.com's Rob Bradford writes, Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew is facing a bunch of them this spring:

 

He has no idea how his injured left hamstring is going to hold up. The outfielder doesn't have a clue if the strike zone is going to morph back to something more manageable for his game. And Drew can't predict if he will even play beyond 2011, the final season of his five-year, $70 million deal with the Red Sox.

First, the hammy:

The first step for Drew in terms of uncovering his future starts with the healing of the injured left hamstring that limited him to 127 starts in '10. Thus far, the right fielder is still searching for peace of mind in regard to the ailment.

"I don't think it's going to be a major issue when I get to camp, but there are going to be some questions from me when I get there to make sure that thing is good," Drew explained. "I'm kind of in the process now of doing some light running to see where I'm at. It feels better than it did, but that being said, baseball speed is a lot different than workout speed."

Yes, it is. As Drew has discovered many, many times in his career.

Contract-wise, this is sort of a stat nerd's make-or-break season for Drew. When he got that $70 million, a lot of analysts wondered One rebuttal: The past does not necessarily predict the future.

Not necessarily, but I do believe the best predictor of future health is past health. When the Red Sox signed Drew, he had averaged only 120 games per season in the previous five seasons, and he'd never played in 150 games in one season.

Well, he still hasn't played in 150 games in one season, but at least he's averaged 131 games per season with the Sox. And that contract? Drew's been paid $56 million so far, and according to FanGraphs he's been worth ... $56 million.

OK, so I fudged that one a little for dramatic effect. It's actually $57.1 million, but these things are imprecise enough that we can say Drew has been worth exactly what the Red Sox have paid him.

So far. But even if the hamstring limits him to 125 or 130 games, he still figures to earn his $14 million salary in 2011. The only way the whole contract looks remotely bad is if Drew's on the shelf for two or three months, because otherwise he figures to come at least reasonably close to that $14 million target. In which case the Red Sox look pretty smart about the whole thing.

Granted, Drew did play in 139 games last season and wasn't worth $14 million, because he just didn't play well, with a .255/.341/.452 line that's among the worst of his career. That might have been about the hamstring, or it might have been about something else ...

Drew watched 45 percent of the first pitches he saw in '10 cross the plate as strikes. That's 5 percent more than either of the previous two seasons. Such a stat might not seem like much, but for the patient lefty hitter it went a long way in painting a problematic picture.

"My whole thing is quality at-bats," he said. "I had a really tough time with that last year. I had fits trying to have quality at-bats. I think you watched and saw on TV. ... What do you do? You scratch your head. It was hard to do what I do."

Drew won't come out and use the words "umpires" or "strike zone," but both were at the center of what bothered him...

I think it's pretty unlikely that the "umpires" or the "strike zone" were really the problems. I think Drew likes to take the first pitch, and for whatever reason - randomness, most likely - the pitchers simply threw more first pitches for strikes than usual. A lot more, percentage-wise.

From 2002 through 2009, the first-strike percentage - which presumably includes batted balls - ranged from 51.8 percent to 54.7 percent, averaging around 53.5 percent.

In 2010 it was 57.3 percent, and if you don't think that would make a difference then you don't understand just how important balls and strikes are. There is a massive difference between starting a plate appearance with an 0-1 count or a 1-0 count. Maybe not massive enough to explain Drew's subpar statistics last season. But it's one hell of a good start.

My guess is that figure drops to 53 or 54 percent this season, and Drew's numbers rebound. He might not be great, because he is gimpy and he is 35 years old. But I think he'll be good enough for the Red Sox, and for his salary.

Regardless of what happens this season, Drew figures to rank among the more attractive veterans on the free-agent market next winter. Unless he retires. To become a missionary.

Drew hasn't ruled out retirement following '11, but such decisions are far from being finalized. That's what the coming season is for.

He may be the only big league player ever who finds himself choosing between seeking out another multimillion-dollar contract or dedicating his time to missionary work around the globe.

I'm sort of pulling for this one, if only because everyone will have to pull out the Billy Sunday references. In 1891, Billy Sunday, who was one of the fastest players in the National League, announced that he was giving up his lucrative baseball career and taking an $83-a-month position with the Chicago YMCA. Ultimately, Billy Sunday became a hugely famous Christian evangelist, sort of an early version of Billy Graham.

I suspect that J.D. Drew will become less famous after he retires. But sometimes the world will surprise you.

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