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ON BASEBALL

Outfielder has gotten a bad rap

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It's hard to remember a significant player who was trashed by Boston fans and media long before he arrived or swung a bat in anger. But outfielder J.D. Drew, who became a member of the Red Sox yesterday (pending a physical) after agreeing to a five-year, $70 million deal, will arrive with some segments of Red Sox Nation looking at him cross-eyed.

The reaction to Drew has been strange and unfair, to say the least.

What is it about him?

Was it Tony La Russa's evaluation of Drew, pegging him an underachiever in his Cardinal years? Do fans take everything La Russa says to heart because he indicated a couple of years back that Edgar Renteria might not be able to handle the atmosphere in Boston and was proven correct?

Did fans react to the possibility of losing Manny Ramírez and having Drew as his replacement? Or did they react to Drew replacing their beloved Dirt Dog, Trot Nixon, the kind of gritty player Drew has never been regarded as?

Were they reacting to the Sox letting the popular Johnny Damon, a gamer and one of the toughest players in team history, go to the Yankees? Especially in light of the Sox offering Damon only four years and $40 million, far less than they were willing to spend on Drew.

There's no question Drew is flawed. His critics will say they can't remember anything extraordinary he did last season, anything they felt singlehandedly won a game. They say he can't be the centerpiece of a lineup because sometimes he's too content to take a walk instead of trying to win the game on his own.

Can he play in Boston? Over and over it's asked. Some of the responses come back uncertain. Some, like Grady Little's, come back strong.

"Of course he can," said the former Red Sox manager, who had Drew in Los Angeles last season. "He's an outstanding ballplayer. He can play anywhere."

Strong in his opinion, too, was Dave Jauss, Drew's outfield coach in Los Angeles who spent many years in the Red Sox organization.

"I expect him to be a really good player in Boston," said Jauss. "The game is the same between the white lines. J.D. is a fine athlete. He's such a good human being, a Christian man, a family man. He'll do so much good in the community, as he did in Los Angeles, that you can't help but like him."

As for the Renteria-Drew comparison, Jauss said, "The situations are completely different. The player the Red Sox got was different than the player they had seen in St. Louis the previous year. I don't know if it was an injury thing or whatever it was, but J.D. is coming to the Red Sox as a fine athlete who takes pride in his athletic ability.

"He's an excellent outfielder. He's got very good speed. He can score from first on a double and definitely score from second on a single. The fact he doesn't pull the ball is going to make him an effective hitter at Fenway. Not so much for the wall but for the fact on those cold days there, he's going to be able to go the other way and contribute as a hitter."

All along, Little and Jauss have praised Drew to the hilt. There's no agenda. In fact, you could even see why there would be resentment toward Drew because he opted out of a five-year $55 million deal after repeatedly saying he loved Los Angeles and wanted to remain with the Dodgers.

"Oh sure, we were surprised," said Little. "We thought J.D. was going to be our right fielder for a long time. We enjoyed having him on the team. We liked his game. He played hard for us."

Sox general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona reaffirmed last night that they did their homework on Drew. They knew the reputation Drew had for missing games with injuries. It's not that much different from what they've gone through with Ramírez. Bill James's statistical analysis on Drew came up roses, especially his .393 on-base percentage. And injury-related studies provided data that indicate Drew's physical woes might be a thing of the past.

As Epstein pointed out, the Red Sox finished 30th among 30 teams in OPS from the No. 5 slot. Not acceptable. Drew will most likely hit fifth, barring a Ramírez deal.

"He was an excellent No. 5 hitter for us," Jauss said, "and when Nomar [Garciaparra] got hurt, he was hitting third. He also hit well in the cleanup spot when he had to, though he's not the prototypical cleanup hitter because he doesn't hit a lot of home runs. But he could be a very good No. 2 hitter as well."

Drew will make a lot of money with the Sox, and while part of the fifth year of the deal is guaranteed, there's a portion that's tied into games played. Obviously the Red Sox are somewhat concerned about Drew's past. He's averaged only 118 games per season since he became a regular in 1999. He's had his fill of injuries -- knee problems, backaches, quadriceps and wrist injuries.

The Sox were also attracted, as Epstein would put it, by the thought of putting a center fielder in right field. And Drew could end up in center, because there is a market for Coco Crisp. If Crisp could bring end-of-the-game relief help in trade, the Sox might turn to Drew to play center. Drew's agent, Scott Boras, said Drew has agreed to play either position.

Boras also talked to his client at length about playing in Boston, and he believes it is the right fit. Don't forget there's another prominent Boras client on the team in Jason Varitek. Drew and Varitek have similar histories. Both held out of their first years in pro ball in contract disputes.

Drew, a Phillies draft pick in 1997, wound up playing for the St. Paul Saints before returning to the draft the following year and being taken by the Cardinals.

A five-year starter for the Cardinals, he broke out in Atlanta in 2004 with a .305 average, 31 homers, and 93 RBIs.

"We think J.D. has a chance to be very special in Boston," Boras said. "The left field wall is something we think he can utilize a lot and be very productive there. Being a component on a team that has two great sluggers like that, I think he has a chance to really have a fine career there.

"You look at what J.D. has done in these last three years. Other than getting hit on the wrist by a ball, this guy has put up numbers. He's an above-average defender. He's a guy that can steal 20-30 bases. He has a very fine throwing arm. He has 25-30 home run power.

"And in Fenway, with the ability for him to go to left field, because he has the ability to spray the ball around, I think it's really going to increase his average and put him in a position playerwise where he has a chance to be a very potent offensive threat."

Forget about the reputation that came out of his early years in St. Louis. If he plays like he did in Atlanta, and if he plays like he did in Los Angeles last season, you'll forget about all the nasty stuff you were obsessing over.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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