FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox have not given out the No. 7 Stephen Drew wore last season. His locker at JetBlue Park remains open, too. All it needs is a nameplate and a fresh set of uniforms.
Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training Saturday and the first full-squad workout will be Thursday. It would be hyperbole to label Drew’s absence a distraction at this point, but there is a clear sense of unfinished business.
Drew has been a free agent for a little more than four months since rejecting a one-year, $14.1 million offer from the Red Sox in mid-November. That qualifying offer attached draft-pick compensation to Drew and so far has limited his appeal on the open market.
The Red Sox value Drew because he would add to their depth on the left side of the infield. But Drew would have to sign a short-term deal that would enable the Sox to stay under baseball’s luxury-tax threshold.
The Red Sox, sources said, have not made Drew a concrete offer since the one in November. If Drew signs with another team, the Sox would receive a supplemental first-round draft pick.
Teams such as the Mets, Yankees, and Pirates could use Drew but so far have resisted the entreaties of agent Scott Boras. Any team signing Drew would lose their highest unprotected draft pick.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington has stayed in touch with Boras but there is nothing new to report, according to manager John Farrell.
Farrell then suggested the team’s patience has limits.
“The one thing that we don’t want is a lingering ‘what if’ if Stephen is still out there in all fairness to our guys, our clubhouse, [and] guys that would be affected if he were to be brought in,” Farrell said.
“Certainly I can’t speak for Ben in this situation, but I think the more that we know what our team is going to look like, or at least those guys in our clubhouse, it probably settles some of that wondering if another player is going to join us.”
Starting pitcher Jake Peavy said many of the Red Sox are “holding out hope” that the reliable Drew will return to the team.
But that’s not unanimous.
Two players are affected most by the uncertainty. Rookie Xander Bogaerts is preparing to take over at shortstop, knowing he could be shifted to third base if Drew returns.
“It’s not perfect,” Bogaerts said. “But there’s not really anything I can do. It’s up them.”
Farrell told Bogaerts a few days ago to put third base aside and do all of his drills at shortstop.
“I can tell you the conversations with Xander to date have been to focus on shortstop,” Farrell said. “If that needs to be adjusted, we’ll adjust it at that time. We’re moving forward with the players that are here.”
Third baseman Will Middlebrooks faces even greater unease. Drew coming back could put him on the bench or, worse, sent back to Triple A Pawtucket.
The Red Sox could try to distribute playing time at two positions among the three players. But that wouldn’t satisfy any of the parties, particularly if the 30-year-old Drew is trying to rebuild his value for another run at free agency.
Middlebrooks is doing all he can to earn his chance. He reported to Florida early and with added muscle. He also has been working diligently on his defense, spending extra time on the field with infield coach Brian Butterfield.
Middlebrooks had a guaranteed starting spot at this time a year ago after a strong rookie season in 2012. Middlebrooks lost his spot in late May, his season undone by poor performance and a back injury that was more serious than the Red Sox let on.
Middlebrooks was demoted to Pawtucket but played well when he returned in August. The coming season will be telling for him.
“In talking with Will at length, whether it was throughout the course of the year or having sitdown conversations with him in the offseason, he learned a lot last year,” Farrell said. “He was challenged in a few ways. I think through those experiences, he’s understanding of what his needs and what his strengths are more readily. That’s part of the maturation process of a player.
“The one thing he hasn’t lost is his raw abilities and his talent. We feel like what he was two years ago was maybe more representative than what he was a year ago. We feel like there’s a very good major league player in there.”
The other position battle in camp will be in center field between Jackie Bradley Jr. and Grady Sizemore to replace Jacoby Ellsbury. Or has that been overstated? Farrell sounded a cautious note about Sizemore, who is attempting a comeback after missing two full seasons with myriad injuries.
“I’ve seen him in the early workouts. He’s moving well,” said Farrell. “We’ll probably reserve any kind of evaluation on him until we get into games and see how he tolerates the volume and what kind of recovery time he’s going to need.
“This is a guy who hasn’t been in game action for a couple of years. We have to be open-minded to the needs he’s going to have.”
Bradley, who arrived here in late December, is confident.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” he said. “I’m not replacing Jacoby. I’m just going to be myself.”