The natural reaction to the Red Sox’ selection of Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero with their top pick in the 2012 draft was to hearken back to Dustin Pedroia, whom the team took as a shortstop out of ASU with its top pick in the 2004 draft. And there are meaningful similarities between the two players (more on that in a bit).
However, the more meaningful context for the selection of Marrero dates back even further. After all, when the Sox took Pedroia, it was with an understanding that he was likely destined at some point to move to second base. Marrero, whom the Sox took with the No. 24 overall pick of the first round, thus represents a bit of a different animal -- one for whom a history lesson is in order.
In 1994, the Red Sox selected Nomar Garciaparra out of Georgia Tech with the No. 12 overall pick of the first round. The next 17 drafts yielded just six college players who were drafted as shortstops and then reached the majors at that position (rather than either adopting a utility role or moving to another position) for a stay of at least 50 games.
Troy Tulowitzki, Cliff Pennington 2005
Stephen Drew, 2004
Khalil Greene, 2002
Bobby Crosby, 2001
Adam Everett, 1998
That’s it. Six college shortstops were good enough to be first-round talents while reaching the majors at short.
In other words, players like Marrero -- the Arizona State shortstop who is viewed as an outstanding defender with the glove to remain at short going forward, and who might be capable of jumping on a relatively fast track to the majors -- are almost never available to anyone, let alone the Sox, given that they typically must wait until the latter stages of the first round to pick. When there are big league-caliber shortstops to be had in the draft, they get taken (and signed at considerable cost) out of high school, and almost never come with a college pedigree of having performed against higher levels of competition.
That Marrero was available to the Sox was something of a surprise. Some mock drafts had him going in the top 10 picks, and most had him falling no lower than the mid-teens.
But there he was, still on the board at No. 24, a pleasant surprise to a Red Sox scouting staff that had been watching him for years -- dating back to his time as a high school teammate of Eric Hosmer in Florida and continuing at Arizona State for the last three years, with summer performances in both the Cape League and for Team USA added to the mix.
“He’s a talented shortstop who’s been a good player at a major program and a good player at Team USA and a guy we liked a lot coming into the spring and like a lot moving forward,” said Sox GM Ben Cherington. “There were a couple of teams we thought might be a spot where he’d go, and he didn’t. We were happy he got there.”
Part of the reason why Marrero was on the board when the Red Sox picked was that he had a somewhat disappointing offensive season as a junior. He hit .284/.340/.436 with four homers, modest across-the-board numbers that reflected a decline from his prior seasons. After all, he’d been dominant as a freshman when he hit .397/.442/.628 with four homers. Then, as a sophomore last year (in the season when college changed to a different kind of offense-suppressing wood bat), he hit .313/.352/.434.
Scouts tried to discern the cause of those limited numbers. Some questioned Marrero’s makeup, and wondered about his commitment and effort level on the field. To Arizona State coach Tom Esmay, such curiosities bordered on offensive.
“That’s unfortunate. That’s totally not a reflection of who he is, and totally the opposite of what he’s been in my three years that he’s coached him,” said Esmay. “Those statements are observations by people who really don’t see him day to day, watch him in practice and see how committed he is to the game and how hard he works at the game.
“He’s a guy that you’ll come to the clubhouse in the morning and he’s already there, or after he’s doing stuff. He’s always picking the brain of our infield coach or watching film,” he continued. “At the end of the day, he’s a guy that everyone gravitates to.”
Esmay suggested that Marrero got away from his comfort zone as a gap-to-gap hitter in the early part of the season as he struggled with the pressure of proving that he deserved his first-round status. Regardless, the Sox looked beyond those numbers and saw enough in Marrero’s offensive approach – and trusted his track record in both his prior ASU career and in summer wood bat leagues – that they were comfortable picking him.
“I didn’t actually the offensive decline was as much of a worry for us. He showed us some things in the box that we really liked and some things that we really look for,” said Sox amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye. “Certainly, I think he expected to have a better year statistically but it’s not something that is a concern for us either from injury or physical play.”
Indeed, in recent years the Sox have made a habit of taking players who entered the year as potential selections in the upper half of the first round who struggled (and thus fell) as juniors.
In 2010, the team selected both outfielder Bryce Brentz and right-hander Anthony Ranaudo, neither of whom would have been on the board had they not endured junior seasons that represented steps backwards from their prior college careers. Last year, the Sox pounced when Jackie Bradley Jr. -- the College World Series MVP in 2010, and someone who entered the year as a potential top half of the first-round pick -- fell to them with the No. 40 overall pick. In their full-season pro debuts (Brentz and Ranaudo in 2011, Bradley in 2012), all three produced at a level in line with their pre-junior year standing.
Sawdaye said that Marrero has an all-fields spray approach that is complemeneted by “sneaky power” and the ability to “juice the ball out of the stadium.” Esmay suggested that there are more untapped reserves for Marrero.
“As he gets a little bit stronger, a little bit bigger, I think there’s going to definitely be some power in there. It’s just going to be a question of how often is he able to show that,” said the ASU coach. “He’s a gap-to-gap hitter. He’s going to have some strength in that body when it matures. There’s definitely some bat speed. But right now, for his success, he needs to be a gap-to-gap guy who can do some things. I look at him as a two-hole hitter all the way down to an eight- or nine-hole hitter right now.”
Yet while Marrero does have an offensive skill set that suggests promise, his defensive tools are unquestionably more advanced at this stage of his career, as he has a sixth sense that permits him to be in the right place on the field. In that sense, Esmay said, the 21-year-old harbors some similarities to the player whom the Sox drafted with their top pick eight years earlier.
“[Pedroia and Marrero are] very comparable in their baseball intellect and their baseball leadership in that we wanted them to be in control as much as they could,” said Esmay. “You can only compare Deven to Pedroia in college, because Dustin’s taken it to another level. But I just think that they’re both talented players, they always seem to be in the right place at the right time. That was one thing that stands out with both those guys. We were always trying to find ways to get the ball in their hands.
“What stands out to me was that when you needed something big, whether a big play up the middle, a big backhand, a big double-cut throw, a big at-bat – home run, double – whatever it took, it seemed like he was always there, in the mix. He embraced that type of setting. That, to me, tells me this kid is a gamer.”
The similarity to Pedroia has its limits, of course. Esmay said that as much as Marrero’s teammates gravitated towards him, the shortstop exerted a sort of quiet leadership by example. Even so, while the personality types are different, the ASU coach sees similarities in the advancement of the two players’ games, to the point where he can imagine the two becoming teammates with the Red Sox in the not-so-distant future.
“My phone’s blowing up about, ‘Devils up the middle, Devils up the middle,’ ” said Esmay, referring to the idea that former Sun Devils Marrero and Pedroia could play opposite each other around second base. “That would be a great and proud moment.
“From a maturity standpoint, understanding the game and the ups and downs of it, the skill level at shortstop as a defender, absolutely [it could happen quickly]. I’m basing that off of guys I’ve coached and guys who I’ve seen coming through our conference. Deven is definitely, definitely in a position where I feel like he’s not that far off from having success at the major league level.”