When news broke that J.D. Drew was considering retirement, the reaction from fans and experts across the country ranged from “meh” to “good riddance.” Drew had never been a favorite of the national media, while his penchant for intense contract negotiations and seemingly lackadaisical style of play had long turned off even his hometown fans. Words like “overpaid,” “bust” and “lazy” seemed to cover just about everybody’s opinion, and it’s hard to see any team deciding to put together an elaborate on-field retirement ceremony.
All of this is really a shame, because a very good case can be made that J.D. Drew was not only a terrific talent, but also one of the most underappreciated players of his generation.
Part of the problem with J.D. Drew is that expectations for him were set far too high for him before he ever played a game in the Majors.
Simply put, J.D. Drew was the most-hyped college position prospect in the history of the MLB Draft. Drew had perhaps the greatest college season ever as a junior at Florida State, putting together an improbable 30-30 season in only 67 games while providing outstanding defense in the outfield and winning virtually every Player of the Year Award imaginable. Drew’s game seemed to have no weaknesses, and many scouts figured that he would need very little time in the minors before he was ready to contribute at the MLB level.
It was these scouting reports that gave Drew, along with super-agent Scott Boras, the inclination to try and blow up the salary structure of the MLB Draft.
The previous season, a handful of prospects (most notably, first-round picks Travis Lee and Matt White) discovered a loophole in the drafting process, which allowed them to be declared free agents and sign contracts on the open market. Both Lee and White inked deals that were in the neighborhood of $10 million, which dwarfed the salary of 1996 top pick Kris Benson, whose $2 million deal was highest contract ever given to an amateur at that point.
Lee’s and White’s deals gave Drew a starting point for negotiations, as Drew was considered more MLB-ready than either Lee or White and therefore thought he was deserving of the same kind of deal. These demands scared off Detroit, who instead chose Matt Anderson with the top pick, but Philadelphia decided to take a chance and call Drew’s bluff.
He wasn’t bluffing, however, as Drew would not budge from his demand and chose to sign with the independent St. Paul Saints over returning to FSU or accepting the Phillies’ $3.1 million offer. Drew re-entered the Draft the following season and was selected by St. Louis with the fifth pick, eventually signing a $7 million deal that included a $3 million signing bonus. To this day, Phillies fans list Drew among their most-hated players—and to be fair, they have a point.
But here’s something that you don’t usually hear about Drew’s initial contract: he was worth every penny.
Scouts who predicted a fast track to the Majors for Drew turned out to be right, as he joined the Cardinals late in the 1998 season and would give the team three All Star-caliber seasons before being traded to Atlanta following the 2003 season.
By comparison, Lee was never able to lock down a starting job in the Majors, while White never pitched an inning in the Big Leagues. Drew, however, has never gotten credit for living up to this deal, primarily because the hype was so great that no player could live up to it.
Problems in the Pros
J.D. Drew’s other major problem was that, while he never had an injury that could be described as career-threatening, he always seemed to have trouble staying healthy. Drew missed somewhere in the neighborhood of 554 games during his thirteen full seasons in the big leagues while never playing in more than 146 games in any single season. This led to questions about his toughness in every city he played in, with some going so far as to believe he was refusing to play hurt or even faking injuries.
Aside from injuries, Drew’s other biggest problem is that there was seemingly nothing he could do to live up to the hype—and that hype only seemed to grow worse as his career went on. Truth be told, Drew had no weaknesses on the field: he made consistent contact, had good power, an excellent batting eye, good speed, a terrific arm and excellent range at every outfield position.
The numbers back this up: Drew’s OPS is a healthy .878, while his OPS+ is a very solid 125. He also compares favorably across eras, as his 45.9 career WAR is tied with three other players (HOFer Ralph Kiner included) for 209th all-time among position players. In fact, since Drew’s WAR is higher than at least 30 inductees, it’s fair to call him a borderline Hall of Famer.
Drew’s problem is that, while he was very good at everything, he was not elite in any one area. In many ways, he was the prototypical "Moneyball" player, as Drew’s biggest strengths (getting on base, playing fantastic defense) had been traditionally undervalued by both fans and experts. This goes a long way in explaining why Drew never won a major award (even a Gold Glove), earned MVP votes only once, and played in only a single All-Star game.
Of course, Drew’s skillset was no longer undervalued in terms of monetary gain, as Drew was twice able to sign free agent deals that netted him eight figures a season. For a player whose career began under the shadow of intense contract negotiations, this only seemed to make things worse, as many have considered Drew to be radically overpaid throughout his career.
But here’s the thing: for all the hubbub surrounding Drew’s multimillion dollar contracts, he was never paid like a franchise player. Drew never cracked the list of ten highest-paid players in the league. In fact, there were only two seasons in his career (2006 with the Dodgers and 2009 with the Red Sox) where Drew was even the highest-paid player on his own team.
In fact, a very good case can be made that Drew’s last two contracts were simply market value—or even below that. Drew’s first free agent deal was a five-year, $55 million deal with the Dodgers, but Drew decided to exercise an escape clause after only two seasons and $20.8 million. His second deal was for five years and $70 million with the Red Sox.
Well, according to Fangraphs, Drew was worth approximately $25.8 million during his two years with the Dodgers, and he exceeded the value of his contract in both seasons with the club. With the Red Sox, he was worth a total of $56.7 million, but that was primarily because of a dreadful final season with the club. In the first four years of that contract, Drew was actually worth $57.8 million, which is slightly above the $56 million he was paid during that time.
J.D. Drew was overpaid in the sense that all professional athletes are overpaid, but until his final season he was actually being paid what he was worth in terms of MLB. Fans, of course, never saw it that way and always downplayed his contributions to the team.
And Drew did contribute—a lot.
One of the reasons that the spotlight never seemed to lessen on Drew is that his teams always seemed to be in contention. Drew’s teams wound up with winning records in twelve of his fourteen seasons, with four different franchises combining for eight postseason appearances and a World Series win with the Red Sox in 2007. Yet Drew has never gotten credit for this, as the general consensus is that his teams made the postseason in spite of him.
Of course, all of those playoff teams had considerable talent beyond Drew, and there were only a couple of seasons where it was fair to call Drew the team’s best player. But why is this a surprise? Drew was not a franchise player, nor was he paid like one. He was, however, a positive contributor to several winning teams, and at a certain point he should receive credit for that.
With the possible exception of A-Rod, the saga of J.D. Drew does not really remind me of anyone else in baseball. However, there are two (very different) athletes in other sports whose combined legacy mirrors Drew completely: Tim Tebow and Chris Webber.
The Tebow comparisons seem obvious: both are on the short list of greatest college players in their respective sports who have skillsets that are not completely understood or appreciated by fans and experts of the pro game. They also come from similar religious backgrounds, as Drew claims he left Florida State a virgin, and has never been shy about sharing his Evangelical beliefs. And despite the polarizing nature of the two players, they both seem to always come out on the winning side.
The comparison to Webber also fits, as both players were considered historic talents coming out of college and had possessed conceivable gift one could ask for in their respective sport. Both players’ careers began with major "what if" questions regarding their draft statuses, and consequently the early years of both players are better known for controversial contract negotiations than anything they did during a game.
Both players also had the reputation for shrinking during big moments, even though they were far better postseason players than anybody cares to remember. Ultimately, however, both Drew and Webber are regarded as historic talents who never lived up to expectations, even though both players actually had very good careers.
In the End
J.D. Drew entered the pros with the expectation that he would be a franchise icon right from the get-go. However, he was never that kind of player, though he was a very solid (if underappreciated) outfielder no matter where he played. I would be shocked if Drew received any Hall of Fame support, considering his numbers are fairly borderline and he received very little support for major awards during his playing days. Nonetheless, Drew does not deserve to be considered one of the biggest busts ever, or even a failure in the pros. He was very good at everything but great at nothing, and his teams always seemed to win.
It’s hard to ask for much more from a player. Even one as hyped as J.D. Drew.