Posted June 06, 2012

Drew’s absence isn’t biggest problem for Diamondbacks

Arizona Diamondbacks, Justin Upton, Stephen Drew

Stephen Drew hasn’t played for Arizona since suffering a gruesome ankle injury last July. (AP)

It’s been a disappointing season for the Diamondbacks thus far. Coming off a 94-win campaign, the defending NL West champions currently sit in third place, nine games behind the division-leading Dodgers and four games below .500 at 26-30. On Tuesday, frustration over that showing came to a head, as managing general partner Ken Kendrick called out injured shortstop Stephen Drew, who has been out since last July 20 after suffering a severe ankle injury that required surgery, as well as slumping rightfielder Justin Upton.

“I think Stephen should have been out there playing before now, frankly,” said Kendrick, sounding like a Sun Belt Steinbrenner. “I, for one, am disappointed. I’m going to be real candid and say Stephen and his representatives are more focused on where Stephen is going to be a year from now than on going out and supporting the team that’s paying his salary.” Drew’s agent, Scott Boras, fired back. “If you’re talking about what the best thing Stephen can do for himself, that’s to play baseball and play a lot of it… Why would he not want to play? The guy’s going to be a free agent. It makes no sense.”

The irony is that Drew’s absence has been the least of the Diamondbacks’ problems, both in 2011 and 2012. Last summer, when he broke his ankle and tore three ligaments sliding into home — an injury that bent his foot 180 degrees in the wrong direction and required a plate and three screws to fix — the Diamondbacks were 52-45, seven games above .500 and 4 1/2 out of first place. With Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald sharing the shortstop duties the rest of the way, Arizona zipped home at 42-23, winning the division by eight games. This year, Bloomquist, McDonald and (briefly) Cody Ransom have combined to hit .300/.339/.439 during their appearances at shortstop, though the team’s defensive efficiency has declined by eight points relative to the league, some of which might be pinned on the change.

Like older brother J.D., the 29-year-old Drew has never quite achieved the levels of stardom set out for him. Drafted 15th by the Diamondbacks in 2004, he was rated the fifth-best prospect by Baseball America two years later, and hit a blazing .316/.357/.517 for Arizona after being recalled in mid-July of that year. He has yet to reach any of those numbers again, hitting a combined .266/.328/.436. Once you adjust for the Diamondbacks’ hitter-friendly environment, that’s a .265 True Average (a Baseball Prospectus stat that expresses runs per plate appearance on a batting average scale, with .300 being excellent, .260 being average, and .230 being replacement level) —  in other words, nothing to write home about. The major defensive metrics are split on his value afield, suggesting he’s been anywhere from a few runs above average per year to a few runs below. Prorating for his lost half-season, he averaged 2.6 Wins Above Replacement Player per year, a solid performance but not an exceptional or irreplaceable one; not surprisingly, he has never made an All-Star team.

The Diamondbacks’ offense has bigger problems. After scoring a robust 4.51 runs per game last year (fourth in the league), they’re down to 4.09 (10th), a shade below league average. The 24-year-old Upton, who hit 31 homers and emerged as an MVP candidate last year, is batting just .243/.340/.365 with five homers, his power sapped by a bone bruise on his left thumb that he suffered during the first series of the year — a reminder, perhaps, that playing at well below 100 percent isn’t a huge help to a team. Since reeling off a nine-game hitting streak during which he went 13-for-31 (.419) from May 17-26, he has fallen into a 4-for-28 slump (.143). Manager Kirk Gibson, who says Upton is “overthinking and overtrying,” has benched him twice in the past four games, and hasn’t ruled out sitting him for four or five games in a row to clear his head.

Upton isn’t the only one not playing up to his usual standards. Miguel Montero, who emerged as one of the league’s top-hitting catchers over the past three seasons, has suffered a power outage as well, hitting .256/.358/.363 with three homers. Ryan Roberts, who at the age of 30 shed the utilityman tag, claimed the third base job and bopped 19 homers for last year’s Diamondbacks, is down at .234/.291/.329 with three homers.

Collectively, that trio has fallen from a .274/.355/.479 showing to .244/.331/.353. Meanwhile, Arizona’s shortstops have enjoyed an uptick from last year’s combined .247/.302/.360, numbers that include Drew. The offensive work of Bloomquist (.287/.324/.392) and McDonald (.290/.329/.493) isn’t sustainable given their track records, but the job they’ve done has more than offset Drew’s absence.

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