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BALTIMORE -- A changing of the guard may come as soon as Friday night in Fenway Park, when the Boston Red Sox come home and David Ortiz's three-game suspension comes to an end.
Even 35-year-old J.D. Drew, who after 4 ½ seasons as the team's regular right fielder is on the verge of losing his job to 24-year-old Josh Reddick, acknowledges the possibility.
"I understand the ins and outs of baseball and what's got to happen when you've got a guy going well," Drew said after Tuesday night's 6-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. The hot-hitting Reddick, playing left field, had his third three-hit game in barely a month since he was summoned from Triple-A Pawtucket, while Drew singled and grounded out twice.
|J.D. Drew has always been a solid outfielder, but his production at the plate has dropped off dramatically.|
"I want to get things rolling," Drew said, "but this team has to win ballgames. I want to see another postseason. Tito's got a decision to make. For me, it's a matter of getting to where I'm swinging the bat well, in whatever role. They'll figure it out."
Sox manager Terry Francona has expressed fealty to veteran players countless times and enthusiastically recounts how he has been rewarded for that loyalty, doing so again Tuesday on his weekly appearance on WEEI, mentioning Mark Bellhorn and Ortiz.
But Drew's situation recalls more the way Francona handled the shortstop position this spring, when he insisted for weeks that Marco Scutaro was his everyday shortstop until Jed Lowrie's scintillating start gave him no choice but to make a change.
Reddick is batting .367 in 28 games, with an on-base percentage of .418 and a slugging percentage of .671.
Drew is batting .223, with an on-base percentage of .309 and a shockingly low slugging percentage of .321, a product of just six doubles, a triple and four home runs in 77 games. He has driven in just 22 runs.
They call it "blind" loyalty for a reason. While the Red Sox at least entertain the prospect of making a blockbuster deal for another right fielder in Carlos Beltran of the Mets, an unlikely proposition according to one well-placed club source, it appears the Sox have reached a point of no return with Drew.
What would Drew do if he were manager?
"I don't know anything about that," he said. "That's not my decision. My thing is to get my swing where I want it and try to get it right. It just isn't falling into place the way I want it to.
"But that's why you keep pushing, you know? I'll figure it out."
Drew has always been a better player than his critics have acknowledged, especially in Boston, where his performance has always been filtered through the prism of a five-year, $70 million contract that has not extracted enough sweat from his brow, according to those maddened by his bloodless approach to the game.
As recently as 2009, when he posted numbers that ranked him in the highest echelon of American League outfielders -- a .392 on-base percentage (second), a .522 slugging percentage (fourth) and a .914 OPS (third) -- Drew was worth five more wins to the team than a journeyman in his position would have been, according to the metric known as WAR (wins above replacement). And even if he doesn't dive for balls -- his feet-first slides are as close as he comes to doing so -- he has always been an above-average defender in right field.
But his production has gone into decline since then and has bottomed out this season. For $14 million in 2011, the Red Sox are employing a player who so far this season has a 0.1 WAR, meaning he has been worth a 10th of one victory more than an ordinary replacement.
Francona time and again has noted how Drew has a knack for getting on a hot streak and can carry a team, the way he did in 2008 when Ortiz missed 45 games with a wrist injury. But that has not happened this season. The last time Drew's average was as high as .240 was on May 29. With just seven hits in 41 at-bats in July, a .173 clip, he seems as lost now as at any other time this season.
"This is not something I'm real excited about, the way I'm playing, by any means," he said quietly. "It's frustrating. It's the stuff you lose sleep over, you know?
"You just continue to do the work I feel like I need to do. I've taken some decent swings here lately. I've made a lot of hard outs, but they're still outs. I've got to get a nice rhythm and I haven't quite gotten that rhythm."
The cumulative evidence, however, points to a player in free fall. He is chasing pitches out of the strike zone at the highest rate of his career, 25.7 percent, according to FanGraphs. The percentage of ground balls he has hit is a career-high 49 percent; so is the percentage of infield popups, 15 percent. And his isolated power, which is calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage to offer a picture of a player's extra-base percentage, is just .087, more than 100 percentage points below his career average of .212.
But Drew insists he does not feel like his physical skills are betraying him.
"No, this is one of those years," he said. "I never have had to deal with this. There are times in a season you slump and deal with different things, but this has been a continual. I haven't gotten into that nice rhythm.
"I know the swing's still there. It's just a matter of getting it rolling, and I haven't been able to get it rolling."
Meanwhile, he says, there is no denying the impact Reddick has made.
"Absolutely," Drew said. "[Reddick is] swinging the bat great. It's good to see. He struggled early coming up here, but he looks like he went back and fine-tuned some things. He's done some good work staying behind the ball well. He's been a nice addition. He's definitely swinging the bat great."
Even if the Sox decide not to make a play for Beltran, it only makes sense they would look for a right-handed bat to share time in right, something Mike Cameron was supposed to do but failed to produce before being traded to the Marlins.
Drew, meanwhile, has mentioned this might be his last season. Has he given that further thought?
"No," he said, "this has been such a frustrating run for me that's all I'm thinking about. Trying to turn things around."
The sand in the hourglass may have run out. Ortiz returns to DH duties Friday night. Jacoby Ellsbury will be in center, Carl Crawford in left. The right fielder? This could be your life, Josh Reddick.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.