It is, in the words of many of the industry’s executives, the most important event of the baseball calendar.
Each year, the amateur draft can dictate an organization’s shape and success for years to come. Over the coming three days, there will be 50 rounds of selections and over 1,500 players drafted. The vast majority of those will never walk onto a big league diamond. But if a team hits on even just a couple of its lottery tickets, the shape of an organization can be changed indelibly over the next decade.
In rare instances, the change can come almost immediately, as when the Nationals made themselves relevant by drafting phenom Stephen Strasburg last year. (Strasburg, incidentally, makes his big league debut today.) More often, the change manifests itself in profound ways years later.
It is not merely that a team has a chance to get a quality player. A successful draft pick can be worth tens of millions of dollars because he allows a club to avoid paying through the nose to address a need through free agency.
Consider the Yankees. To some, when the Yankees signed outfielder Johnny Damon away from their archrivals following the 2005 season, it represented a coup. But to New York general manager Brian Cashman, the four-year, $52 million deal -- despite its merits, and Damon’s fine performance in New York -- reflected an organizational failure in the draft.
“I said [to team owners], ‘Listen, I have no choice. I have to sign Johnny Damon at this number because we just haven’t been as good in the amateur market,’” Cashman said this spring. “We needed to make that more important.
“I know one of the reasons I think we’ve gotten back to having success is the fact that we made [draft] day important again, protecting draft choices and not sacrificing them for a middle reliever, no longer saying, ‘That No. 1 pick, we may not even see him in the big leagues for six years.’ You know what? You have to protect your draft picks as best as you can.
“You increase your amateur talent budget because if I wind up being successful in having a number of players emerge in our draft, it will save me from adding $50 million or $60 million, $70 million or $100 million in the free agent market. I can turn from within and have a Phil Hughes and have enough remaining so that I can go sign a CC Sabathia.”
The ability or failure to acquire amateur talent ultimately plays a huge role in how a club must proceed to address its needs. The 2010 Red Sox are a striking example of that notion.
This offseason, Sox GM Theo Epstein made waves with his suggestion that his club was in a challenging situation of trying to forge a bridge from its existing nucleus to its next wave of impact prospects. The statement was subject to immense scrutiny (not to mention a healthy dose of confusion).
In many respects, the statement was a description of how the team had drafted. From 2005-08, the Sox addressed many of their major league needs internally, with prospects (Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, etc.) whom the club drafted. But a gap existed in the farm system, and the Sox felt they needed another year or two for the next wave of impact prospects (players such as Casey Kelly, Lars Anderson, Josh Reddick, Ryan Kalish and others) to be ready.
And so, while waiting on that group, the team would have to acquire players who would keep the team competitive while those prospects continued their development. Thus was set in motion a major investment in free agents John Lackey, Mike Cameron, Marco Scutaro and Adrian Beltre.
While it would be impossible to identify one sole cause for the talent gap in the Sox’ system, one can make the case that a philosophical decision about how to approach the draft played a key role in dictating this past offseason by the Sox.
In 2006, the team began in earnest to use the draft as a means of seeking impact players. To that point, most of the Sox’ most notable picks had been college players whose performance and estimated arrival time in the major leagues was predictable. But in 2005, with picks of players such as junior college pitcher Clay Buchholz and high school catcher Jon Egan, the team had started on a new path.
“The benefit of taking a high-school player over a college player is you can dream on him,” said Sox director of amateur scouting Amiel Sawdaye. “The benefit of taking a college player over a high-school player is that you’ve seen three years of performance typically so you know a little bit more about what you’re expecting. Whereas a high-school player, you might say ‘Oh, this guy is going to really grow into his frame and have this kind of raw power.’”
In 2006, the Sox felt that their draft and player development processes had advanced to the point where they could focus on players with impact potential, rather than more predictable college products with lower ceilings. And so, the team committed to spending aggressively on high-ceiling high school and college players who came with greater risk but who also had a greater chance of emerging as a player with the ability to impact the Sox in the future.
The front office understood that there were risks not merely that some of the draftees wouldn’t pan out, but also that doing so could help lead to an interruption – even if temporarily – the steady flow of minor leaguers through the system. Still, the Sox felt like the strategy was the right one.
“I think we recognized [a prospect gap] as a risk. You don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out, of course, but we knew that was probably a risk as we went from a typically college-oriented draft to a maybe little more risky draft,” said Sox Assistant GM Ben Cherington. “There was a shift and recognition that it may change the landscape in the minor leagues for two or three years down the road. But we felt like that over the longer horizon, it was the right thing, even if it made it potentially more challenging in a year or two down the road.”
Thus was set in motion one of the more interesting drafts that the Red Sox have had. In a year when the elite talent pool wasn’t regarded as particularly deep, the Sox acquired several players who have already impacted the big league team (Daniel Bard, Justin Masterson) and a number of the system’s top prospects (Lars Anderson, Josh Reddick, Ryan Kalish).
That draft had its share of noteworthy misses. But overall, it was a draft that was extremely successful, despite the fact that it played into the discontinuity in the flow of prospects.
“I know a lot of us who were involved with it will always be proud of that ’06 draft,” said former Sox director of amateur scouting Jason McLeod.
WHY THE SOX EMBRACED RISKY BUSINESS
There were three high school players whom the Sox regretted not signing out of the 2005 draft almost from the moment that they enrolled at college.
Two of them, Justin Smoak (A’s, 16th round) and Reese Havens (Rockies, 29th round), were drafted by other clubs after the Sox had invested significant time and energy into scouting them. Both were selected in the first round of the 2008 draft, and Smoak – now in the majors – is viewed as an elite power hitting prospect..
The other miss is an acutely painful memory for the Red Sox. The team drafted but did not sign Pedro Alvarez out of Horace Mann School in New York following the 2005 season. Alvarez enrolled at Vanderbilt, and three years later, was taken by the Pirates as the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
Alvarez is now one of the top power hitting prospects in the game. The fact that the Sox had a crack at him but failed to take advantage of it transformed how the team approached the draft.
“It was very clear to us as we got into ’06 that was a big miss for us, that type of player who could impact the franchise the way we thought he could,” said former Sox amateur scouting director Jason McLeod, now the Padres Assistant GM. “As we got into ’06, there was a bigger thought that, let’s try to find more players like that who we can focus on, a high school kid who isn’t a consensus first rounder going into the draft, but the tools are there, the upside is there. Maybe he’s that kid being looked at as a fourth or fifth round guy who has a scholarship to Vanderbilt or Virginia and would be considered a tough sign. Let’s spend more time scouting those types of players. That’s what we did as we started in ’06.”
It wasn’t just that the Sox felt like they missed on players with upside. They also felt that they had done a solid job of building depth in their system already, and their their minor league organization had achieved maturity. That, in turn, led to what Cherington described as “a loosening of the belt,” with the Sox feeling comfortable with gambling on players with risk but upside.
That belief had influenced picks such as Buchholz in 2005. By ’06, the team was even more convinced of the notion, playing into two first-round picks (the second a result of Johnny Damon’s defection) with dramatically different results.
With the No. 27 overall pick, the Sox took high school outfielder Jason Place. The South Carolina product oozed athleticism, and it appeared as if he could develop into a player with significant power to headline a five-tool skill set.
But there was a hitch. Place would have to alter his swing mechanics in order to be successful, the Sox believed, with work needed to get his hands into the right position to attack the baseball.
The Sox felt that their player development staff could work with Place to unlock his offensive potential. The team understood that the most likely way to acquire an elite talent was to find a player with great tools and a strong work ethic and makeup and to help him figure out how to unlock his potential.
“We were willing to take that risk because without that risk attached, he would have been gone much higher in the first round. … You have to prepare yourself to be willing to accept the fact that there are going to be decisions that you make, players that you pick that aren’t going to work out and you’re going to look back and it’s going to be painful to look at,” said Cherington. “When we go down that type of path, there are going to be guys that don’t work out and there are going to be guys that do.”
Though there was the acknowledgement of risk, the Sox did not hesitate when Place was still on the board at the No. 27 pick.
“We felt the most conviction in the room was for Jason Place. I think we did a pretty good job with the process,” said Sawdaye. “We knew what we were getting ourselves into. It was a high-risk, high-reward outfielder that we felt if he hit on him was going to be a five-tool guy with a chance to play centerfield.”
Place showed flashes of putting together his skill set in the minors, but they were all too brief. And this year, the 22-year-old was off to a horrific start in Double-A Portland. He was hitting .127 with a .497 OPS after May 12 when he took a leave from the Sea Dogs with the organization’s blessing.
Place now represents a risk that didn’t pan out. The next pick proved just the opposite.
With the No. 28 pick, the Sox took Daniel Bard, a golden-armed pitcher from the University of North Carolina who, on natural talent alone, likely would have been one of the first five or 10 picks in the draft. But, fairly or not, teams had makeup questions about the pitcher, resulting in a pitcher with a 100 mph fastball remaining on the board at the No. 28 pick.
“In Boston, we’re looking for players that have a chance to be part of really good teams,” said Sox Assistant GM Ben Cherington. “In the draft, in order to get those kinds of players without much risk attached, you have to be picking in the top five. Since, hopefully, we’re not in that kind of position, in order to get anywhere near the same kind of upside, we have to be willing to take a little bit more of a risk. Sometimes that means a high school player, but to a certain extent, Daniel Bard is a guy who we though had huge upside, but there was some risk attached.”
Bard, too, looked like a bust in 2007. But the team’s faith in the player development system was rewarded following a horrific professional debut. Bard was moved to the bullpen for the Hawaiian Winter Baseball League, and there, Sox minor league pitching coach Mike Cather helped him to regain his confidence and channel his filthy stuff.
KEEPING THE PEDAL DOWN
The Sox remained aggressive after their early picks. Mindful of the Alvarez lesson, the team believed that it could shoot for players with tremendous talent in later rounds and, if even one signed and reached his potential, it would represent an extremely strong return for the club.
“We talked a lot about utilizing every round of the draft as best as we could to acquire talent,” said Cherington. “Let’s not rely on the first few rounds, which historically all teams have done to some degree. You know, once you get past the 10th round, some teams just start filling out your short season rosters or things like that. I think we did a very good job of using the draft and each round of the draft as much as we possibly could.”
That started in the ninth round, when the Sox chose outfielder Ryan Kalish out of Red Bank Catholic High School. Kalish had been injured in his senior year, and so had been relegated to the role of designated hitter for most of the year, but the Sox felt strongly in his five-tool talent and makeup. The team selected him in the ninth round and then destroyed the slot recommendation for such a pick, giving him $600,000 to pass on his commitment to the University of Virginia.
Then, in the 14th round, the team drafted power hitter Matt LaPorta out of the University of Florida. The Sox ultimately did not meet the asking price of the Boras client, who was coming off of an injured season. They would come to regret their inability to sign LaPorta, as he was drafted high in the first round by the Brewers the following year and became a centerpiece of the deal that sent CC Sabathia from Cleveland to Milwaukee.
The Sox kept shooting for impact, drafting catcher Tyler Weeden in the 16th round. The Oklahoma native passed on his scholarship to the University of Arkansas for $420,000. Injuries, however, stifled his progress in the Sox system, and he was released this April.
In the 17th round, the Sox were the beneficiaries of a good find by area scout Rob English, who recommended a skinny leadoff hitting outfielder at tiny Middle Georgia College. Almost no other team was following Josh Reddick, a player whom the Sox believed was a sixth-round talent, but who lasted longer in the draft because of his obscurity.
Then, in the 18th round, the Sox took a player who represented, in some ways, a reversal from the Alvarez episode: Lars Anderson.
The Sox had not circled Anderson at that point entering the draft. Neither McLeod nor national cross-checker Dave Finley had even seen him play. The left-handed masher was rumored to be unsignable, with an assumption that he’d take his talent (and 4.0 GPA) to Berkeley. There were rumors that he wasn’t going to sign for less than $1 million, a figure that struck teams as high based on some performance inconsistencies during his senior year.
And so he just sat on the draft board as round after round passed.
“We’re sitting in the draft room towards the end of that first day. I think [Epstein] might have said, ‘Let’s take the tough sign kid here.’ It was really that,” said McLeod. “And even when we took him, I thought, well, we’ll get to know him and see him in three years [after his Berkeley career].”
But the Sox spent the summer scouting Anderson in a wood bat league and getting to know both the player and his family. The team learned that he was not stuck on the $1 million price tag, and that the family had simply been offering a figure based on what it believed the player’s worth to be.
Anderson had a tremendous summer performance. And as the Sox got to know the player and his parents, they started to realize that they would have a chance to sign the player who has become one of the organization’s top position prospects. Ultimately, Anderson signed for $825,000.
Anderson’s signing became a template for the Sox, providing an example of how the team could draft a player believed to be a tough sign, scout him in a summer wood bat league, establish a line of dialogue with the player’s family and hope to sign the players with the right talent and makeup to appropriate bonuses.
“The Lars Anderson summer really became the blueprint for our future summer follows, the type of workup that we wanted to do with a high school draft,” said McLeod. “It really allowed us to get to know him very well. We scouted him all summer. Better yet, it allowed the family to get to know professional baseball and the Boston Red Sox. We used the Lars Anderson process going forward with a lot of our summer follow guys.”
The 2006 draft brought a generation of young talent into the system. The fourth Sox draft in Epstein’s tenure as GM resulted in the most significant wave of elite high school talent. While some of those players haven’t panned out to date (Place, Caleb Clay), players like Anderson and Kalish are now in Triple-A Pawtucket, knocking on the door.
Yet because they have, quite reasonably, followed a more deliberate development path than college products from that draft such as Bard and Justin Masterson, the Sox faced the need to find placeholders in free agency this offseason. Hence the signing of a player like Mike Cameron while Kalish and Reddick conclude their development.
“You could see that the with the youth and high schoolers of that draft, there would probably be some gaps somewhere,” said McLeod. “I started seeing it more in ’08, going through the system.”
That manifest itself in the Sox’ player acquisition strategy of this past offseason. Certainly, the draft was not the only factor – for instance, the signing of Marco Scutaro had more to do with Jed Lowrie’s health than with the team’s draft philosophy.
Nonetheless, the far-reaching consequences of any single draft were at least partly demonstrated in the Sox’ need to build their “bridge” to the future. Yet for the opportunity to acquire key pieces of their future, the Sox harbor no regrets.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that this offseason was more challenging simply because of a slight change in the approach to the draft, but it contributed certainly,” said Cherington. “There are other things that impact just how much or how big of a transition you’re going to have in any offseason and the draft is just one of them.
“The approach that we have taken in the draft the last several years, starting probably around ’05, has [had] mistakes, but I think has largely been the right one. I think the long run will pay real dividends.”