PHOENIX — Like most athletes in team sports, Stephen Drew endures the spotlight; he does not seek or embrace it. Drew prefers do to his job quietly and efficiently, leaving the sound bites to others. That approach has taken him to a high level, as he was the No. 2 shortstop in the major leagues in the Elias rankings in two of his last three full seasons, 2008 and 2010.
Take it as a given that Drew would rather have spent his winter in a deer stand in a Kansas wheat field, or just about anywhere else, than going through a strenuous rehabilitation program on his right ankle at Brett Fischer’s Valley clinic.
But because the defending NL West-champion Diamondbacks made several offseason moves to fill holes and upgrade other spots, Drew’s availability is the spotlight issue of the spring.
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There are no answers yet, and there will not be until Drew actually gets on the field and performs the routine but rigorous acts of a shortstop: fielding a ground ball in the hole and planting to make a long throw to first, sprinting to cover second base on a stolen-base attempt, making a sharp turn around second to turn one of his gappers from a double to a triple.
“I’m not going to sit here and lie to your face and say, ‘OK I’m going to be ready for opening day.’ I can’t tell you that right now. Nobody wants me out there hobbling,” Drew said Saturday at the D-backs’ Fan Fest at Chase Field.
By what is said and left unsaid, it seems almost certain that the D-backs will open defense of their NL West title as they closed last year, with Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald — both proactive, early-offseason re-signs — at shortstop.
“We are probably going to err on the side of being cautious, just because of the significance of the injury,” general manager Kevin Towers said. “Ultimately, what we want is a very healthy Stephen Drew — when he is game-ready and ready to go out and perform like he’s accustomed to performing.”
As grotesque as Drew’s injury was, it was also that serious. His ankle popped three inches out of the socket when he caught his spikes in the dirt around home plate before colliding with Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy on July 20, causing the ankle to twist 180 degrees.
Drew suffered a spiral fracture to his right fibula as well as torn ligaments. A plate was placed on his fibula, attached with screws and wires, and X-rays show the bone is healing properly. The issue is the ligaments that stabilize the ankle. They must be strengthened, a process that only occurs with time.
D-backs third base coach Matt Williams knows exactly what Drew is going through. Williams suffered the same injury in 2002 spring training, three months after helping the D-backs to their World Series title. Williams’ ankle buckled as he moved to take a ground ball to his right in mid-February, and he was sideline for about five months. He said that was not enough time.
“When your ankle dislocates, it tears all the ligaments on the opposite side of the dislocation. That’s all fixable. They sew them back together and they will heal. It takes time to get that flexibility back in there. You are going to have inherent swelling and inflammation. The issue that he is going to face is, how flexible is that ankle? And his confidence planting on it, turning on it, running the bases, all of those things,” Williams said.
Williams was 36 when he suffered his injury, and he said he was never the same. He retired in 2003.
“I was a lot older than him. The older you get, the less healing that goes on. I think he’ll be OK. I think it’s just a matter of him getting confident on it,” Williams said.
Drew admitted that immediately after he suffered the injury, he wondered “if it’s the end” of his career. Part of that was because the ankle was so stiff after it came out of a cast, and part of it was because he had never had an ankle injury.
“With that said, I started getting the mobilization back in my ankle and I was like, ‘OK.’ There have been rough days. There have been setbacks in weeks to where the ankle was so sore that I couldn’t really do nothing,” said Drew, whose rose at 5:30 a.m. for daily sessions with Fischer and his staff and admits that he still feels pain in the joint.
“Within the past three weeks, it’s been a lot better. Each day has gotten better instead of taking a step back, so that’s a sign of it coming along pretty well.”
Drew’s timetable is hard to gauge, in large part because there have been so few injuries similar to his.
New Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura suffered a compound fracture of the fibula and a dislocated right ankle on a play at the plate in spring training in 1997, an injury so gruesome that a woman in the stands fainted. Ventura returned in four months, although he, like Williams, was not the same. He underwent an ankle transplant in 2005.
Jason Kendall suffered a season-ending ankle injury when he landed awkwardly on first base on July 4, 1999, with pieces of bone protruding from his skin. He was back for the start of the 2000 season.
Angels first baseman Kendrys Morales has not played a major league game since suffering a spiral fracture and a dislocated left ankle in a freak accident when he was injured after landing awkwardly on the plate while celebrating a game-winning home run on May 29, 2010. He had a pin and six screws attached the bone in his first surgery in 2010, then had a surgery to clean out scar tissues, cysts and debris in 2011. The Angels believe he will return this season.
Giants catcher Buster Posey, like Drew a former Florida State star, suffered a similar but less severe injury than Drew’s on a collision at the plate last May. Posey’s broken fibula did not require a plate, and his ankle came about 90 degrees out of the socket. He has said he hopes to be 100 percent this spring, but he has not participated in any baseball activity in the interim.
It is a big year for Drew, who could be playing for a contract. The D-backs hold a $10 million mutual option for 2013 with a $1.35 million buyout, making for a tough decision if his health issues linger.
Drew wants to make one thing clear: He will be on the field this season.
“Two months ago, I couldn’t even run, and now I’m running. It takes time. How much time? I don’t know. I know one thing: I’ll be playing this year at one point.