Stephen Drew has signed a one-year deal to return to the Washington Nationals, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The contract includes a base salary worth $3.5 million — half a million more than he made in his first season in Washington — plus incentives. Drew passed a physical Thursday, so the deal is complete.
Drew, who turns 34 in March, is Washington’s second free agent signing this offseason. Outfielder Chris Heisey, who re-signed for $1.4 million in November, was the first. Drew will return as a utility infielder and provide some lefty pop off the bench after a resurgent 2016 campaign. He hit .266 with an .864 on-base-plus-slugging percentage last season after batting .201 with a .652 OPS in 131 games with the Yankees the previous year. He played in 70 games — a total curtailed by a puzzling bout with lingering dizziness and inner-ear trouble — and made 15 starts at second base, five at third base and three at shortstop.
As it stands, Drew joins Heisey, Jose Lobaton, Clint Robinson and either Michael A. Taylor or Brian Goodwin on Washington’s bench. If the composition remains and Taylor wins the fourth outfield spot in spring training, then Washington would have the same bench with which the team opened in 2016. That group — which included Pedro Severino, Wilmer Difo and Goodwin, among others, throughout the season — earned praise all season from Manager Dusty Baker and the front office.
If the Nationals hadn’t retained Drew, who reportedly had sought a starting role in free agency, Difo would have likely assumed his role as utilityman. A natural shortstop, the 24-year-old Dominican appeared in 31 regular season games in 2016 at shortstop, second base and third base before making the postseason roster. He now appears likely to begin 2017 in the minors.
The Nationals had no reason to think Drew would not pass his physical, though the vertigo that sidelined him late last year had not entirely dissipated by October. Drew said he expected the trouble to evaporate completely with time, though he did have a concussion end his 2015 season in New York. Still, good health played as much of a role in Drew’s season as bad, as multiple people around the Nationals noted his energy, speed and freedom of motion — aspects of his game that diminished after a gruesome ankle injury in Arizona five years ago.
Drew emerged as the anchor of a bench Baker relied upon heavily last season, and he will now provide insurance behind first-year big league shortstop Turner and hitting machine Daniel Murphy, who battled a glute strain late last season and said he must be careful with his legs moving forward. Regardless of his play on the field, Drew’s greatest impact might be in the clubhouse, where “Dirt,” as the baseball world knows him, endeared himself to teammates young and old with good humor, good coffee and a good attitude.