Outfielder J.D. Drew opted out of the final three years of his contract with the Dodgers on Thursday, forfeiting $33 million in a bet he can make more money by signing with another team.
The decision blasted a gaping hole into a lineup already in need of reinforcement and scrambled the Dodgers’ winter strategy three days before the start of the free-agent signing period. General Manager Ned Colletti said he was “surprised” and “disappointed,” because Drew said repeatedly last season that he did not plan to exercise his opt-out clause.
“I know J.D. is a spiritual guy and a man of his word,” Colletti said. “I guess he changed his word.”
In a free-agent market Colletti described as “thin,” Drew joins Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee and Barry Bonds as the top available outfielders. The Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros and Texas Rangers could pursue Drew, a baseball source said.
“In the marketplace for five-tool players and the marketplace for guys who can play center field, J.D. would certainly move to the top,” said Scott Boras, the agent for Drew. “This will provide him with a situation that will give him more rights in his contract and a chance to improve his situation contractually.”
Drew, 30, signed a five-year, $55-million contract with the Dodgers after the 2004 season, when Paul DePodesta was general manager. The contract allowed Drew to opt out after two years, a provision for which he said he asked in case he and his wife did not like living in Los Angeles.
During the season, Drew said he and his wife had discovered that they enjoyed Southern California. Drew repeated throughout the year that he did not plan to exercise the opt-out clause, telling Times columnist T.J. Simers in August, “I just want to give you some fun for the next few years.”
In the final week of the regular season, he reiterated he would remain with the Dodgers. “At some point, you make your commitments and you stick to them,” he told the Orange County Register.
Drew did not return two messages left on his cellphone.
Boras said he does not discuss contractual issues with players during the season. After a recent meeting with Drew to discuss what Boras called “the escalating market,” he said Drew simply made a business decision to exercise a contractual right, much as the Dodgers made their decision not to exercise their $12-million option on injured closer Eric Gagne.
“This decision had nothing to do with the Dodgers,” Boras said. “J.D. is happy with the Dodgers. He enjoyed his time with the Dodgers. He would certainly consider returning to the Dodgers.”
Said Colletti: “I’m done. He wants out. He can have out.”
The decision leaves the Dodgers searching for a second big bat this winter, with another $11 million to spend in a market in which few outfielders appear to merit such a salary. Drew hit .283 last season and led the team with a career-high 100 runs batted in.
“You don’t snap your fingers and find another player like that,” Colletti said.
The Dodgers ranked next-to-last in the National League in home runs last season. Drew and Nomar Garciaparra tied for the team lead with 20 homers apiece, and now both are free agents.
“We were in the market for a bat,” Colletti said. “Now we’re in the market for more than one bat.”
For now, the Dodgers’ outfield has Andre Ethier in left and vacancies in center and right. Ethier sparkled through most of his rookie season but slumped badly in September and lost his job to Marlon Anderson. Outfielder Matt Kemp, another rookie, hit seven home runs in his first 15 games and none thereafter.
“I think he still needs some more time in triple A,” Colletti said.
Colletti said Drew’s departure could increase the Dodgers’ interest in bringing back veteran center fielder Kenny Lofton, or in bringing back Garciaparra and shifting rookie James Loney from first base to the outfield.
The Dodgers reportedly have expressed interest in veteran outfielder Luis Gonzalez, and they could pursue center fielder and Southland native Jim Edmonds if the St. Louis Cardinals do not exercise his option. The Dodgers could join the Angels in pursuing center fielder Gary Matthews Jr. The remaining free-agent outfielders include Juan Pierre, Dave Roberts, Moises Alou, Jay Payton, Shannon Stewart and Preston Wilson.
Colletti said Drew’s decision would not make him any more likely to surrender top prospects in a trade.
“We’ve got some good young players here,” Colletti said. “At this stage, you’re not going to fix everything by buying up contracts or by buying free agents.”
Top of the class
With J.D. Drew no longer in the Dodgers’ plans, it frees up $11 million and enhances the pursuit for an impact player:
ALFONSO SORIANO, LF/INF
* There’s no denying his offensive exploits, but by some estimates he wants a five-year, $80-million deal.
CARLOS LEE, OF
* One of the top power hitters around, and he insists he wants to play in the outfield rather than designated hitter.
JIM EDMONDS, OF
* He’s getting older and isn’t the power guy they need, but he’s clutch and his defense remains an asset.
ARAMIS RAMIREZ, 3B
* Cubs have exclusive rights until Saturday to sign him. If not, he’ll be the top third baseman available.
BARRY ZITO, LHP
* Never missed a start in seven years because of injury and has averaged 213 innings in his six full seasons.