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Why Not Stephen Drew?

Do the A's need another free-agent signing splash to get them over the hump and into the ALCS in 2014?

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

While the A's opening-day roster forecast is fairly clear when it comes to pitchers, catchers, and outfielders, Oakland's infield is another story. There are currently four infielders in the organization who are full-on locks, given their past performances or contracts, to make the roster: Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Jed Lowrie, and Nick Punto. In addition, Alberto Callaspo and Eric Sogard currently seem like shoo-ins for the 25-man, and even though space is limited, Nate Freiman and Daric Barton won't let March pass without making a case for themselves. If Brandon Moss serves as a de facto fifth outfielder, the team could take either six or seven infielders, depending on whether catcher Stephen Vogt makes the major-league club out of spring training.

While the group is undeniably solid, its flaws are apparent. Alberto Callaspo's best defensive spot is third base, and Donaldson's stronghold on that position means Callaspo will be a major defensive liability on the right side of the infield, where Bob Melvin will be forced to play him. Lowrie is questionable defensively at shortstop, Sogard leaves much to be desired offensively, and if Ron Washington had been forced to teach Nate Freiman first base instead of Scott Hatteberg in 2002, he might have opted for a very early retirement.

But a familiar face is out there, waiting in the wings for someone to give him a one-year deal, a hypothetical segue to a multi-year contract worth multiple dozens of millions. Stephen Drew, who the A's brought aboard in August of 2012, has been training at his agent Scott Boras' corporation's private facility in Florida for the past few weeks, with no contract with any major league club in sight. When he returned to Oakland in 2012, he was just six weeks into his return from a broken ankle, but still showed solid defensive ability (despite his limited range) and made for a productive left-handed bat in the late season. The A's have been mentioned as a dark horse in the wait-it-out-for-Drew sweepstakes, but a return to the East Bay actually makes sense on multiple levels.

Bringing Drew (and his wRC+ of 137 against righties in 2013) back on board makes for some drool-inducing lineups, particularly against right-handed starters. For instance:

  1. Coco Crisp, CF
  2. Jed Lowrie, 2B
  3. Josh Donaldson, 3B
  4. Brandon Moss, 1B
  5. Yoenis Cespedes, LF
  6. Stephen Drew, SS
  7. John Jaso, DH
  8. Josh Reddick, RF
  9. Stephen Vogt, C

Rearrange that however — the point is that players like John Jaso and Josh Reddick are in the No. 7 and No. 8 spots in the above example, even though it would hardly raise an eyebrow to see them slotted into a Major League lineup at No. 2 and No. 3.

The difference is also very tangible on the other side of the ball, though the effect isn't as direct. Lowrie is barely a drop-off from Sogard at second base, but the difference between Drew and Lowrie at shortstop is huge. Allowing Callaspo to fill in mainly as a pinch-hitter, general utility man, and occasional rest-day replacement for the other infielders mitigates his defensive shortcomings — he can hold his own at third base, and starts at first and second base should be relatively few and far between. Drew's UZR/150 at shortstop in 2013 was 6.7, as compared to Lowrie's -9.2. Lowrie actually put together a very impressive year defensively in 2010, when he played second base slightly more than he played shortstop. Lowrie disappointed defensively last year, when he was also shuttled between the middle infield positions. But he was returning from an injury, and conventional baseball wisdom means he should be better off at second.

One of the two major roadblocks the A's must navigate before bringing Drew aboard is obvious: money. Oakland's payroll this year is in the range of $80 million, some of which is dead money from the likes of Chris Young's buyout and paying Brett Anderson $2 million to pitch against the National League West. Big deals for Scott Kazmir and Jim Johnson, too, have ballooned payroll to a range that seems unsustainable given the current ownership's track record.

The other is potentially even more significant — by signing Drew, the A's would be forced to give their first-round draft pick to the Boston Red Sox, whose qualifying offer of one year and $14.1 million wasn't enough to get a deal done. While Boras is widely known as the best in the game, the move seems to have backfired. Drew stands little to no chance of signing any multi-year contract in 2014, and the market for middle infielders is such that he won't get an out-of-the-blue, $20 million, one-year offer come April.

But if the A's do sign Drew and he plays well, the mid-round "sandwich" compensatory pick that teams on the losing end of Type-A free-agent deals receive would also find its way right back into Billy Beane's hands.

Another factor is the progression of Addison Russell, who would surprise few with a 2014 call-up. But the same reasoning applies: if Drew becomes unnecessary, it's hard to imagine Beane having a tough time finding a home for him elsewhere in exchange for some talent to add to the stocks in Stockton or Midland.

In classic Beane form, if Russell is ready come June or things go particularly sour and the A's aren't contending near the trade deadline, Drew could also get flipped again to a playoff-caliber team needing help in the middle infield. Signing Drew to a large one-year sum, in essence, is medium-risk, medium-reward. The best case scenario is Drew putting together a fantastic season and helping to key a deep playoff run while his departure rewards the A's with a first-round pick. The worst case scenario is a short-term waste of money that would have otherwise gone unused. I think Wolff and Fisher might not be quite as on board with that concept, but hey, it's not my money. And in that worst-case scenario, the A's break even prospect-wise, either via a mid-season trade that nets the organization some young talent or a compensatory pick in the 2015 draft.

Drew's acquisition would likely bump Sogard from the 25-man roster, and while the bespectacled fan favorite would be missed from a personality and public relations standpoint, there's little argument to be made for him baseball-wise when the alternative is a player of Drew's caliber.

Infield roles could be as follows, essentially: Donaldson would play every day at third base. Drew would play shortstop almost every day, taking the occasional day off against left-handed pitching. Moss would play first base against righties, Lowrie would play second base every day unless Drew is off, and Callaspo could play fill in at third, second, and first when other players get days off, with either he or Nate Freiman playing first base against left-handed pitching.

Despite the loss of the draft pick, yet another expensive one-year deal, and various other factors, Oakland signing Drew to a one-year deal isn't entirely out of the realm of possibility. Every A's fan's favorite national writer, CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, recently listed the A's as one of a few possible destinations for Drew, who, as was discussed in 2012 when he spent the last two months of the regular season in Oakland, played for Melvin when both were in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. While Drew might wait until after Opening Day or even until June to sign — waiting until after the season's start would mean that teams don't have to give him a qualifying offer, and waiting until June would mean that teams signing him wouldn't forfeit a draft pick.

The most important factor, obviously, is this: would Drew do it? He's not going to get the $14.1 million he turned down initially. Most teams likely wouldn't offer him that sum over the course of two years; it seems that he'll need to settle for yet another one-year deal that gives him the opportunity to play for a new contract. If the A's can dig up $10 million worth of gold coins in their backyard, which apparently is a thing these days in Northern California, Drew's value could easily outweigh the utility of a draft pick or two.

It's clear that Oakland is in "win-now" mode. But it's also apparent that "win-now" mode in Oakland, probably as a positive testament to the front office's discipline, is much more tempered than "win-now" mode in other small-market organizations that deal with narrow windows of competitiveness. If Beane wants to take it one level further, this is the kind of move that would display a potentially unprecedented willingness on his part to go out and pay for pieces he needs.