After an 11th-hour frenzy of signings, the Red Sox were loaded with a diverse array of new prospects.
In the end, the breathlessness about whether the team would be able to lock up a number of players who were considered tough signs proved ill-founded. The Sox had done their homework on player signability and had accurately gauged the landscape.
Just one of the team’s top 14 picks did not sign, and even that one player — outfielder Senquez Golson, who had a two-sport scholarship to play at Ole Miss — had been considered a longshot from the outset. In the end, the Sox signed one of their most diverse array of draft classes in years — a collection of high-ceiling players from both high school and college, position players, catchers (well, catcher) and pitchers.
Here is a look at the group of players the Sox locked up — at a cost of more than $8 million, for a total expenditure of more than $10 million this draft season — on Monday night:
A RARE AND PRICEY JEWEL
1st round (No. 26): Blake Swihart, $2.5 million
The Red Sox have long envied those teams that had the opportunity to select a tools-rich catcher whose abilities screamed future All-Star. They had watched the likes of Matt Wieters and Buster Posey get selected with little more than a passing sigh.
After all, it was unrealistic that players with the evident — rather than projected — ability to deliver above-average offense and defense behind the plate would fall to the Sox at the stage of the draft where they typically make their first pick.
Posey and Wieters were snapped up among the top five picks in their respective drafts. Because the Sox feature competitive teams on a year-in, year-out, the likelihood of seeing an elite catching prospect fall to them bordered on non-existent.
Yet this year, such a reality-bending phenomenon took place. Many teams believed that high school catcher Blake Swihart — a Team USA star who had grown up with a closet full of University of Texas gear — was virtually unsignable. The Sox drew a different conclusion.
While some teams had heard a $4 million pricetag floated by Swihart and concluded that he was intent on going to school, the Sox experience something that suggested that the 19-year-old was more open-minded about his future. In particular, after a pair of Sox talent evaluators saw Swihart play both halves of a doubleheader (the first game as a catcher, the second as a shortstop), they asked if the switch-hitter would be willing to work out for them after the games.
Swihart’s high school field was unavailable. But the catcher was amenable to driving 45 minutes each way to work out on another high school’s field. It was after that episode that the Sox concluded that not only did Swihart have the rare combination of skills to project as a well-above-average offensive and defensive catcher, but that he also was willing to go the extra mile to show his skills to a team that wanted to sign him.
The conclusion? Swihart was signable.
That belief was borne out on Monday, as Swihart signed in the moments leading up to the deadline for $2.5 million. That could turn out to seem like a pittance if Swihart reaches his potential.
“If he’s hitting over .300 with 15-18 home runs and a plus defender,” said one talent evaluator, “he’s probably in an All-Star Game every year.”
SOLID BETS WITH UPSIDE: THE COLLEGE PITCHERS
1st round (No. 19): RHP Matt Barnes, $1.5 million
4th round: RHP Noe Ramirez, $625,000
The strength of the 2011 draft was considered its college pitchers, a fact underscored by two of the hurlers whom the Sox signed on Monday.
Matt Barnes features the sort of stuff that doesn’t require much projection. He is a 6-foot-4, hard-throwing pitcher who features a mid-90s fastball that can top out at 98 mph, a powerful offering that he complements with a curveball that has become a swing-and-miss pitch and a changeup.
Given Barnes' velocity, some evaluators are surprised that he doesn’t get more swings and misses with his fastball. But the Sox think that some subtle delivery alterations can allow the right-hander to achieve greater deception, thus allowing his fastball to play up further.
The Sox project Barnes as a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter. While that isn’t quite as wide-eyed an assessment as the top-of-the-rotation projections for a pitcher like Anthony Ranaudo, its significance cannot be underplayed. After all, that is essentially what John Lackey was signed to be for $82.5 million. The idea of having acquired Barnes for less than two percent of that is meaningful.
Meanwhile, in another year, Ramirez’ college performance (including an impressive spell with Team USA) and the fact that he features a swing-and-miss changeup that graded as one of the best in the draft would have made him a higher pick in a normal year for college pitching.
Instead, the Sox got a right-hander whose advanced knowledge of how to use his three-pitch mix should allow him to progress relatively quickly to the majors. The Sox considered him a second-round talent and paid Ramirez accordingly. If Ramirez stays healthy, it is not a stretch to suggest that he could provide major league rotation depth by early 2014.
THE UNEXPECTED COLLEGE TALENT
1st round supplemental (No. 40): OF Jackie Bradley Jr., $1.1 million
The bar has been raised. The Red Sox want position players who can serve as above-average offensive and defensive contributors. They are not interested in fielding a team of softball sluggers, instead feeling that the most valuable players are those that can contribute to a team’s run scoring and run prevention.
That explains why the team was so excited to draft Jackie Bradley Jr., the starting center fielder for a University of South Carolina team that won the last two College World Series titles. Bradley was the star of the 2010 team, winning tournament MVP honors in Omaha.
But in 2011, he suffered a significant down year at the plate, with a line of .247 with a .346 OBP and .432 slugging mark, along with six homers in 42 games. It was easily his worst offensive season in college, a fact that — coupled with a wrist injury that required surgery and cost him a substantial chunk of the season — led Bradley to slide in the draft.
The Sox, privately, were thrilled. Entering 2011, they thought it unlikely that Bradley would be available with their top pick at No. 19. His difficult 2011 campaign, however, made him available with their fourth pick.
And the Sox remained sold on Bradley’s talent. He was still an elite defensive player, someone who simply seemed to run perfect routes to the ball and have an uncanny ability to be in perfect position to make plays. Meanwhile, while his offense plummeted, the team still believed in the fundamentals of his offensive game — the fact that he has a plate approach, his bat speed, the looseness of his swing, his hand-eye coordination.
In some respects, the fact of Bradley getting to the Sox in the sandwich round paralleled a pair of picks made by the Sox in 2010, when both Bryce Brentz and Anthony Ranaudo suffered through seasons that were marred by injury and performance downturns that resulted in slides out of the upper half of the first round.
When teams lack the opportunity to pick in the upper half of the first round — a function of good records that result in later selections — the opportunity to take players with those sorts of ceilings represents an extremely valuable opportunity.
The Sox paid Bradley (who was advised by Scott Boras) a $1.1 million signing bonus that approximates roughly what a top 30 pick might get. It was roughly $300,000 over slot, but at the same time it was also likely at least $300,000 less than Bradley was likely to receive as a bonus entering the 2011 season.
THE RISE OF THE LEFT: THE HIGH SCHOOL SOUTHPAWS
1st round supplemental (No. 36): LHP Henry Owens, $1.55 million
7th round: LHP Cody Kukuk, $800,000
The high school left-hander is an odd sort of demographic when it comes to the draft. It is a class of player that is generally considered among the riskiest in the draft. Whether coincidence or not, the Sox had avoided taking any prep lefties in the first 10 rounds of the draft since 2002, when the team used its first selection on an advanced high school left-hander named Jon Lester.
Since then, the team has taken calculated gambles on high school lefties. In 2004, the team dropped $1.575 million on 12th rounder Mike Rozier. He never advanced past A-ball. In 2007, the team dropped $700,000 on Drake Britton, a 23rd rounder with a big fastball. Britton emerged as one of the top Sox prospects in 2010 – his first full year back from Tommy John – only to endure a down year this season in High-A Salem.
Though both belong to the risky class, Owens and Kukuk represent two different sorts of pitchers. Owens is a stringy 6-foot-6 left-hander whose personality off-the-field is described as that of, well, a left-handed California surfer. One talent evaluator noted that he looks a little bit like Spicoli, the iconic stoner of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."
But Owens can pitch. Despite the fact that he has a tall, narrow frame that appears as if it could be knocked over by a modest wave, Owens’ athleticism permits him to repeat his delivery and command a three- and sometimes four-pitch mix: A high-80s to low-90s fastball, curveball, changeup and slider. He touched 94 mph in a single-inning showcase stint, underscoring the belief that his stuff is projectable if/when he can add muscle and fill out.
He also has what the Sox considered to be a very advanced understanding of his craft, with a sense of pitch sequences that is uncanny for his age. While he is a high schooler, Owens has succeeded against top competition, both in his region of Southern California and internationally, after having pitched for Team USA’s Under-18 squad in 2010.
Kukuk, meanwhile, already has power stuff, a fastball that sits in the low-90s and has touched 94-95 mph while also showing the ability to spin a breaking ball. He is a sturdy 6-foot-4 left-hander with a build and delivery that suggests a capacity to withstand a workload.
Yet Kukuk, in contrast to Owens, is also raw owing to the less advanced competition that he has faced in his career. Competition in the Midwest is usually of a different caliber than in warm-weather regions, and so Kukuk faces a more significant adjustment to professional hitters than does Owens.
For both, the upside is clear. But as high school pitchers, the distance to the majors is significant.
ONE LAST BETTS ON THE MIDDLE OF THE DIAMOND
5th round: SS Mookie Betts, $700,000
For the most part, the Sox were expecting to sign all of their top picks, but there were two wild cards who were related to one another. In the fifth round, the team took shortstop Mookie Betts out of Overton High School in Tennessee. Betts, a gifted basketball player and bowler (!) in addition to his baseball prowess, had a scholarship offer to play at his state school.
And in the eighth round, the Sox took Senquez Golson, an electrifying athlete with tremendous tools that made clear his upside. Golson, a cornerback who had become a protégée of former NFL star Terrell Buckley, had a two-sport scholarship to play football and baseball at Ole Miss.
Golson was considered unlikely to sign at the time that he was drafted, but the Sox wanted to take a chance on him to find out. Even so, the assumption for most of the summer had been that Golson would not sign.
Betts, meanwhile, was considered likely to reach an agreement to turn pro. He would combine middle-of-the-field athleticism and defensive abilities and speed with a promising plate approach for a high schooler.
But the final weeks of the negotiating process took some strange turns. Betts turned down an offer of second-round money, suggesting that he was prepared to go to school if he did not receive more. Golson, confronted with the reality of a seven-figure bonus, wavered a bit in what was seen as his steadfast commitment to Ole Miss.
Dialogue with Golson intensified over the weekend at the same time that it appeared to reach a frosty point with Betts. Golson made a very public decision to fly to Boston for a physical and to continue negotiations with the Sox, while radio silence prevailed regarding Betts.
However, in the end, Golson elected to go back home to Ole Miss, turning down the kind of bonus offer typically slotted for first-round picks. That, in turn, reopened the door for Betts, who reached a late agreement with the Sox.
While there is little question about how badly the Sox wanted to sign Golson, the ability to have Betts as a fallback plan was a solid one. Betts was a High School All-American who batted .509 with 30 stolen bases as a senior, someone who could develop into a multi-dimensional impact player in the middle of the field.
That assessment, of course, requires plenty of dreaming as well as time to see what develops, but in that sense, Betts largely embodies what the entire draft process is about.