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Prospect Retrospective: the career of Stephen Drew

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Stephen Drew has retired from MLB. Here’s what he was like as a prospect.

Washington Nationals v Oakland Athletics Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This morning, veteran infielder Stephen Drew announced his retirement from Major League Baseball. Drew was quite the prospect when he came into pro ball 13 years ago. Let’s take a look at what was expected of him and what he actually accomplished.

A star shortstop at Florida State University, Stephen Drew hit .344/.468/.692 for the Seminoles in the spring of 2004 and was considered by many to be the most complete player available in the draft that year. He also had a history of injuries and Scott Boras as an agent, factors which pushed him down draft boards.

He went 15th-overall to the Arizona Diamondbacks but held out. I filed this report in the 2005 edition of the Baseball Prospect Book:

Picked in the first round but “just” 15th overall last June, Stephen Drew was rated as the top college player available by most experts, but fell in the draft due to his bonus demands. As I write this (December 5, 2004) he has not signed, but supposedly there is a good chance he will by spring training. Drew is a complete player, a Seven Skill middle infielder. He hits for average, hits for power, controls the strike zone, steals bases, has good range in the field, is reliable, and knows how to use his arm. That’s all seven. About the only thing anyone says bad about him is that he hasn’t always been a rah-rah leader-type guy in the clubhouse. There have also been concerns that he’s not willing to play through injuries. At this point, it is hard to know how seriously to take those kinds of worries, since they are impossible to quantify. For now, he gets a Grade B+ since we don’t know exactly how quickly he will adjust to pro ball. Understand that this is a conservative grade, and that most people think he’ll be ready for the Show within two years, if not sooner. I think he’s more likely to turn out to be a good player like brother J.D. rather than a disappointment like brother Tim.

The holdout went on longer than expected: he began 2005 playing with the Camden Riversharks in the independent Atlantic League. He spent 19 games there until finally coming to terms with the Diamondbacks. He ripped up the Cal League after signing (.389/.486/.738 in 149 at-bats) but was less effective after moving up to Double-A (.218/.301/.386 in 101 at-bats), at least partially due to more nagging injuries.

The report entering 2006:

Maybe there is something I just don’t understand about life. But I really don’t comprehend why it’s necessary for guys like Stephen Drew to hold out. What point does it make, really? He’s gonna make millions anyway. Why delay the start of his career? It’s one thing for a top draftee to hold out for a few months, but I really don’t get the whole “hold out until next spring and get your career off to a late start” dynamic, not for a guy like Drew who will be set for life either way. Anyway, whatever his personal philosophy, Drew is one helluva player, and could possibly end up being the best of the three Drew brothers. His bat is excellent, with unusually good power for a middle infielder. His strike zone judgment is solid, and he has pop to all fields. Although he struggled during a one-month Double-A trial, he smoked the Arizona Fall League, and no one doubts his bat despite the shaky Tennessee numbers. Defense is another matter. Drew is athletic enough to be a fine defender, but scouts say he doesn’t seem to care about his glovework, at least in comparison to his hitting. He runs well, although a leg injury hampered his speed in ’05. I have no doubts that Drew is one of the best prospects in the game, but nagging concerns about his defense will keep him from the absolute top of the list. Grade A-.

Drew split 2006 between Triple-A and the majors and was quite good after moving up, hitting .316/.357/.517 in 209 at-bats. He was the regular shortstop in 2007 and was healthy, playing 150 games, but often struggled and finished with a disappointing .238/.313/.370 line.

He rebounded in 2008 with a .291/.333/.502 line across 611 at-bats. Shaky defense drove down his WAR value however, which came in at 1.9 fWAR. His best season turned out to be 2010, with a .278/.352/.458 line and better glovework resulting in a 4.8 fWAR. He was 27 years old, the classic peak.

San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks
Stephen Drew, 2010
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It started to go bad in 2011, with a serious ankle injury limiting him to 86 games. He came back in 2012 but was never the same, was traded to the Athletics, then drifted between various major league clubs as a free agent, seeing time with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Nationals.

At times he would flash the old ability. He hit just .201 for the Yankees in 2015 but did knock 17 homers. He was a useful part-timer with the Nationals in 2016 (.266/.348/.524 in 70 games, 143 at-bats) but was clearly winding down in 2017 and his retirement this week is no surprise.

Overall, Drew hit .252/.318/.423 over 4917 plate appearances, collecting 14.1 fWAR.

Among retired players with a similar amount of playing time, his fWAR puts him in the neighborhood of Bucky Dent (15.5), Walt Weiss (14.8), Rey Sanchez (14.6), Julio Lugo (13.9), Dick Schofield (13.8) and Zoilo Versailles (13.5). Sim Score comparables include Jeff Blauser, Alex “Blue Jays” Gonzalez, Robby Thompson, Felipe Lopez, and Versailles.

Despite criticisms of his defensive effort in college and the minors, his glove actually turned out to be better than his bat, at least if you believe WAR. His range declined with age but he made few errors and was still playable in the middle infield on a reserve basis at the end of his career.

Overall, Drew was a very good player at his peak but never lived up to the full superstar potential perceived by scouts when he was an amateur.