J.D. Drew is surprisingly open to talking about a plan that would recast his role with the Dodgers.
“Why?” he says. “Where do you think I should hit?”
Second, he’s told. Or maybe seventh.
“I’ve never had a preference,” he says.
So, this should be easy.
Anymore, it doesn’t matter that the Dodgers paid him to hit in the middle of their order, to hit home runs and drive in runs and be an MVP candidate, which he was the year before he signed on.
What they have to think about now is who he is -- an on-base percentage guy who’ll hit you 15 or 20 home runs, drive in 75 or 80 runs and play a sturdy, graceful right field. He’ll have the occasional spikes in home runs -- 27 in 2001, 31 in ’04 -- but the RBIs won’t necessarily follow. He’ll have passive at-bats when the situation cries for a ball to be hit hard somewhere, leaving the situation to someone else.
Eight years into his big league career, Drew is 30 years old and an above-average player. Nothing wrong with that, as long as Frank McCourt is paying for it.
He’s no longer compared to Mickey Mantle, which he perhaps finds a relief. He’s lived all the difficult, adult things in the baseball world, some of his own making, some flung at him by former managers, some a product of an unusually fragile body.
Even Thursday night, in the last of a four-game series against the Colorado Rockies, Drew stayed out of the starting lineup, then grounded out in a pinch-hit appearance in the fifth inning.
The Dodgers were on the roll they needed, and needed the players who got them there to stay out there, when, on Drew, something “kind of grabbed.” And that was that, for at least another day, even as Nomar Garciaparra volunteered, observing of his own place, “I don’t think anybody’s 100% out there.”
Tiny round bandages on Drew’s thigh covered the pinprick scars of acupuncture, of another recovery from another irksome ailment. He concedes he’s not quite right from off-season shoulder and wrist surgeries, but has never mentioned it because pitchers read the papers, too.
He starts a lot of sentences, “When I’m healthy ...” and tips his head to the left, acknowledgment that, yeah, it’s getting repetitive.
Those who dislike him outside of Philadelphia, where he famously refused to sign out of Florida State, find ammunition in the exceptional skills he has yet to turn into a single All-Star appearance, or a batting title, or a championship. Some would settle for another full healthy season.
Tony La Russa, his manager for six seasons in St. Louis, collaborated on a book -- “3 Nights in August” -- that cast Drew as the villain.
In the book’s index, the heading is Drew, J.D. Underneath, with other subheadings, it reads: indifference of. There are three references, totaling five pages.
“A lot of young players fall into this trap where it’s uncomfortable to push yourself on a daily basis,” La Russa says. “They settle for some percent under their max. If you have the chance to be a two-million-dollar-a-year player, they might settle for 75 percent of that. In the case of J.D., if you have the chance to be a twelve-million-to-fifteen-million-dollar-a-year player, you settle for 75 percent of that.”
Stuff like that has followed Drew for years. Drew calls it “garbage,” all of it.
La Russa’s observation came during the 2003 season, when Drew was earning $3.7 million. It’s fair to say he’s covered the last 25%; he’ll take $11 million a season from the Dodgers through 2009.
So, whether in the lineup or on a trainer’s table, Drew is going to be around for a while. It is imperative that the Dodgers’ brains de-emphasize his skills as they currently relate to their batting order, accentuate his feel for the strike zone, and remake the middle of the order on the assumption that Drew won’t be in it.
When Kenny Lofton is not in the lineup, Drew bats second. This winter, when Ned Colletti reworks his roster, it’s with Drew hitting second. Or seventh.
Best scenario: Alfonso Soriano goes back to second base, this time with the Dodgers, and bats third. Kent goes to first, because God love Garciaparra, but injury-prone players in right field and at first base and an aging player at second base -- all hitting in the middle of your order -- will again be problematic. Colletti already has shown that he possesses little patience for injuries.
Drew shrugs at this, this notion of his potential and whether he’s played to it, or ever will, and what it means for the Dodgers and his role for them.
“I’ll tell you what,” he says, “I do love to play the game and I do have a desire to play the game well and win.”
Of the criticism he receives, the disappointment he engenders, he says, “Yeah, I think it’s unfair. The No. 1 goal of all players is to put a ring on this finger. I love championship baseball. I love the playoffs.
”... There’s times I feel really good and the game comes easy. There’s times you have to take that extra focus onto the field, where it’s not as easy. But I’ve still got a long time to play. There’s a lot of chances for championships.”