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Progress made in Drew talks

Length of deal is seen as one possible hurdle

Don't be deceived by the silence. The Red Sox are quietly but aggressively trying to close a deal for outfielder J.D. Drew, who opted out of the last three years and $33 million of his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers to become a free agent.

There are hurdles to be jumped, but progress is being made in talks between Sox general manager Theo Epstein and Drew's agent, Scott Boras, and an agreement appears within reach. Given the speed with which other free agent outfielders have signed -- Alfonso Soriano, Gary Matthews Jr., Juan Pierre, Jim Edmonds, Moises Alou, Frank Catalanotto, Carlos Lee have all struck deals, and the winter meetings are still nine days away -- Drew and the Sox may be within a few days of coming to terms.

Boras said earlier this week that there are a half-dozen teams interested in Drew, but he is clearly the Sox' top choice to play right field, and the interest is reciprocated. One possible hurdle, according to a source with direct knowledge of the talks, is that no Sox player has been given a contract for longer than four years by the current ownership. Drew, who turned 31 Monday, is seeking a deal for more years, according to the source, and with Soriano signing for eight years and Matthews and Pierre getting five-year deals, he would appear to have the leverage.

His asking price, according to sources, is at least $14 million. That's $4 million a year more than the Sox offered last winter to Johnny Damon before he signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the Yankees. Bobby Abreu, the right fielder the Sox passed on in July because of luxury-tax ramifications before he was dealt by the Phillies to the Yankees, is due $15 million in 2007, with the Yankees holding an option of $16 million for 2008.

Manny Ramírez, who is due $18 million next season ($4 million deferred), ranks as the Sox' highest-paid position player. David Ortiz, who this spring signed a four-year, $50 million deal, is next at an average salary of $12.5 million. The club holds an option year of $12.5 million in 2011; offering Drew option years could be one way Epstein may be able to circumvent Drew's desire for a deal longer than four years.

Statistically, Drew ranks among the game's best players. In the last three seasons, he has an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .946, which ranks 11th among players with at least 1,200 plate appearances, just ahead of Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees (.945). Only four outfielders had a higher OPS: Ramírez (1.014), Lance Berkman of the Astros (1.000), Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels (.961), and Edmonds of the Cardinals (.947).

Drew's on-base percentage of .415 over the last three seasons ranked sixth overall, and third among outfielders, trailing only Berkman (.428) and Abreu (.419).

Last season, Drew led the Dodgers with 100 RBIs, 89 walks, 34 doubles, and a .393 OBP, and tied Nomar Garciaparra for the team lead in home runs with 20, despite a 43-game span between June 2 and July 26 in which he failed to hit one. His best season in the majors came in 2004, with the Atlanta Braves, when he hit .305 (.436 OBP) with 31 home runs and 93 RBIs, and finished sixth in the National League MVP voting.

Defensively, he's considered an above-average outfielder who can play both right and center field.

"If you get him on the field, he's the best free agent outfielder of the bunch," said an executive with a team that signed one of this offseason's other prime targets.

Since signing with the Cardinals as a first-round pick in 1998 (he was picked No. 2 overall the year before by the Phillies but went back into the draft when he couldn't come to contract terms), Drew has developed the reputation of being injury-prone. He played a career-high 146 games for the Dodgers in 2006, but has been on the disabled list seven times in his career and has played 130 or more games just four times in nine years.

He played just 72 games in 2005, when he sustained a fractured left wrist when hit by a pitch by Brad Halsey; his 2001 season was similarly cut short when he was hit by a pitch from David Wells and sustained a fracture of his right pinkie. His most serious condition was the patellar tendinitis in his right knee that plagued him, he said, for nearly 2 1/2 years while he was with the Cardinals. That condition ultimately led to surgery in the offseason of 2002, and caused him to be placed on the DL at the start of the 2003 season.

The Sox were well aware of Drew's injury history when they came close to signing him as a free agent after winning the World Series in 2004. Had Epstein succeeded in trading Ramírez to the Mets, he intended to sign Drew to play right field, with Trot Nixon moving to left. But talks with the Mets fell through, and Drew signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Dodgers, a contract that included the out clause he exercised in November, much to the surprise of Ned Colletti, the Dodger GM, who had been led to believe by Drew that he intended to return to LA.

"You just don't snap your fingers and find another player like that," Colletti said in a conference call after Drew opted out. "He wants out, he can have out. He's moving on, we're moving on. We'll find players who like playing here. If he doesn't want to be here, he has the right to leave, and he's exercising that right."

Drew, who had just two singles in 13 at-bats while the Dodgers were being swept by the Mets in their National League Division Series and was one of the two players tagged out at the plate on the same play in the most bizarre moment of the postseason, also has been the subject of intense media criticism for a perceived lack of passion, especially when it came to playing hurt. His nickname in the Dodger clubhouse, according to one big league coach, was "Nancy Drew," and according to one major leaguer who has played against Drew for much of his career, one Dodger player greeted the news of Drew's departure by phoning friends in jubilation.

Some of that same undercurrent was present when he was with the Cardinals. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger, who spent much of the 2003 season with the Cardinals for a book entitled "Three Nights in August," wrote in the book that Cardinals manager Tony La Russa "wondered whether Drew's underlying ailment, like it was for so many young players coming into sudden millions, was an absence of sustained passion that had no medical remedy."

When questioned about those comments La Russa said that it was Bissinger's interpretation -- hardly a denial. Drew, meanwhile, told a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he had not read the book.

"I leave it on the field," Drew said at the time. "I give what I've got out there. Some people say that I don't, but I do. I'm going to give you all that I am able to do. If I've got an injury -- which I had for a long time here -- it's going to hurt my performance. For 2 1/2 years I played with my knee injury and that was wearing me out, but I kept pounding, giving what I had."

Clearly, the Sox entertain no such reservations about Drew. They envision him offering Ortiz the protection he did not receive last year from the No. 5 spot in the order, and assuming Ramírez is not dealt, would give the Sox a formidable 3-4-5.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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