The Red Sox recognize that they have access to a different pool of talents in this year's draft than at any other point in recent memory. The team hasn't picked as high as No. 7 overall in 20 years, when it selected outfielder Trot Nixon out of New Hanover (N.C.) High School.
The opportunity is one that was earned painfully. The Sox had to endure a year of organizational misery, a 69-93 record and a last-place finish in the AL East in order to get one of the top picks in the draft -- a system that confers picks in inverse order to a team's record. In most years, the Sox have been too good to pick in even the upper half of the first round, let alone in the top 10.
And so, rather than identifying a class of players that's outside of the year's most renowned amateur talent, the Sox find themselves daydreaming about whether a player whom they view as perhaps one of the best few in the draft will be available to them when they select. These are guys who, on draft day, look like potential stars.
"As everyone knows, there's no guarantees in the draft. Good players come from all parts of the draft. But when you look at it historically, the odds of getting a good player are higher the higher you pick," said Sox GM Ben Cherington. "That's relative to year and whatnot. We'll know five years from now how good this draft is. But it's an opportunity to choose from a different pool than we normally would, and we've got to take advantage of that opportunity. I don't think it's changed much about our process. It's just that we've allocated more time to a pool of players that we might not have spent quite as much time on in previous years."
So who might be in play for the Sox at No. 7 overall? Based on conversations with a number of industry sources, these appear to be the most likely names in play when the Sox make their first-round selection on Thursday.
First, there are two names that it appears have virtually no chance to fall to the Red Sox.
RHP Mark Appel, Stanford University
Appel was expected to go No. 1 overall to the Astros (or shortly thereafter) in 2012, but uncertainty about his bonus demands led him to drop like a stone to the Pirates at No. 8 overall. He didn't accept Pittsburgh's reported offer of $3.8 million. Right now, industry consensus is that while one should never say never -- after all, no one predicted Appel staying on the board through seven picks last year -- there's essentially no chance that the right-hander with a major league-ready arsenal (mid- to high-90s fastball, swing-and-miss slider and change), and if he makes it past the Cubs at No. 2, it would represent something of a shock. In the very, very unlikely event that he were to slide to the Sox, the team would be confronted with a very interesting dilemma -- chiefly, whether to blow up its draft board either this year (channeling more or less its entire bonus pool into Appel, at the expense of other potential impact draft selections, given that if he slips, it's because he's not settling for the sort of slot-allocated bonus that the Sox would offer) or next.
In the latter scenario, the Sox could blow past their recommended bonus pool (and the 5 percent overage that results in a financial penalty but not a lost draft pick in the following year) and part with their first-round pick for next year in order to sign Appel. Already having destroyed their recommended bonus pool, they could keep spending like drunken sailors on players with signability questions. But, again, it appears almost impossible to imagine the Appel scenario.
3B Kris Bryant, University of San Diego
Bryant is a player with a long track record of huge power. He's as good a bet to be a perennial 30-homer player as there is in the draft. In the last week, one industry source suggested that Bryant was the greatest certainty to be off the board before the Sox' pick.
So, who's at least potentially in play -- perhaps as a long shot, but not a virtual impossibility along the lines of Appel and Bryant?
SOME CHANCE, BUT VERY UNLIKELY
RHP Jonathan Gray, University of Oklahoma
A couple of days ago, no one would have even imagined the possibility that Gray would get to the Sox. After all, he's been dominant as a junior while featuring the most explosive fastball in the draft, an offering that regularly registers in triple digits as a starter with a wipeout slider to boot.
However, there's now some uncertainty about Gray's draft stock after he tested positive for Adderall this week. Sources remained skeptical that six teams would pass on a huge arm with a solid college track record, yet no one really knows at this juncture how many teams -- if any -- will back away from a top prospect who may have demonstrated an ill-timed lapse in judgment.
3B Colin Moran, University of North Carolina
In 64 games for UNC this year, Moran hit .348/.478/.557 with 13 homers, 25 extra-base hits, and a startling 60 walks and 22 strikeouts. He's something of a wild card -- some teams seem inclined to consider him in the same category as and perhaps even ahead of the other three top college talents in the draft (Appel, Gray, Bryant), while some consider him a corner infielder without the power potential to project as a potential star at the position. Indeed, even within the Sox organization, there's likely some disagreement about what kind of ceiling he possesses.
Still, his long track record as an excellent hitter in the ACC (and in the summer Cape League) would certainly have him in the conversation with the Sox, and he did meet with team officials. He's as solid a bet to be an above-average regular as anyone in the draft save for Bryant.
The fact that some organizations are likely to view Moran as in the same category as Appel, Gray and Bryant suggests that he's very unlikely to be on the board by the time the Sox draft. Indeed, he could go No. 1 overall.
So, who are the most likely candidates among whom the Sox will choose?
MOST REALISTIC SCENARIOS
RHP Kohl Stewart, St. Pius X HS (Texas)
By virtue of the fact that he is a high school pitcher, Stewart represents as risky a category of draftee as there is. Moreover, the fact that he has a two-sport commitment to Texas A&M gives Stewart something of a hammer in negotiations.
Still, he's got potential top-of-the-rotation stuff, a present mid- to high-90s fastball, curveball, slider and change that all have the potential to be plus major league pitches. One evaluator suggested he could have a higher ceiling than Appel or Gray, even though there's greater uncertainty about whether he would achieve that potential.
It's worth noting that the Sox have taken a high school right-hander with the team's first pick in the draft before (2008, Casey Kelly). Moreover, the team has done a number on Texas A&M recruits in past years, including two-sport commits such as Will Middlebrooks and Kendrick Perkins.
However, Stewart is viewed as such a high-ceiling talent that other teams picking in front of the Sox might be willing to role the dice on him. The Twins, for instance, who have the No. 4 pick, have scouted every one of his starts this year, with essentially every key front-office evaluator having looked at him.
Stewart would be a truly fascinating option -- the ultimate debate in weighing a player's ceiling (sky high) as opposed to his probability (Kelly, after all, is currently out for the year while recovering from Tommy John surgery). So how do the Sox approach the risk vs. reward calculus at No. 7?
"When you're picking up high, you do look at your situation and hope to never be picking this high again, so you do want to have a chance to swing for the fences," noted Sox amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye. "But a lot of these high-upside guys are some of the guys that have pretty good probability, too. You talk about whether it's a high school or a college player, the guys who typically go in the top 10 have pretty decent probabilities with it."
OF Clint Frazier, Loganville HS (Ga.)
Frazier possesses huge power potential thanks to exceptional bat speed. And the Sox rarely have an opportunity to draft players with this kind of power with approaches that are this advanced.
The team swung and missed, so to speak, on outfielder Jason Place as a first-rounder in the 2006 draft. Place had a hitch in his swing that the Sox thought might prove correctable; it was not, resulting in incredible strikeout rates that rendered his raw power functionally irrelevant. He was released in 2011 after topping out in Double-A.
Frazier is different -- a more advanced approach and cleaner mechanics than Place -- and he has long-term middle-of-the-order potential to which the Sox rarely have access. That's clearly intriguing to the Sox, even if they vow not to be seduced by a single tool to which they rarely have access.
"We'd much rather get the best player than look for a particular strength or tool," said Cherington. "Power does tend to go quickly in the draft -- every year, not just this year. By virtue of the fact that we can look at a different pool of players, we don't know who's going to be there at seven but we can look at a different pool of players, maybe that's a tool or a strength that we might have access to that we might not in a normal year.
"[But] we can't allow that to sort of overwhelm the rest of the conversation, we still have to line it all up and look at every aspect of each player, the strengths and weakness, whether they be a pitcher, a position player, high school, college. Weigh the upside and the risk and try to get it in right the order. There's no one particular tool or strength that carries the conversation."
One other element merits mention: The notion that the Sox have failed to find amateur power bats is at least somewhat misleading. Xander Bogaerts, signed out of Aruba, has clear 30-plus homer potential. Middlebrooks, despite this year's struggles, likewise represents a player with well-above average power, as does Triple-A outfielder Bryce Brentz. The team also made a great find with Anthony Rizzo as a sixth-rounder (signed to a bonus roughly in line with a third-rounder) in 2007, one round after picking Middlebrooks.
Still, Frazier represents a prospect of greater probability than were Middlebrooks and Rizzo when they were drafted.
OF Austin Meadows, Grayson HS (Ga.)
Meadows possesses one of the most diverse skill sets in the draft, showing the potential to be a center fielder who can impact the game with his base running and defense while also having the potential for high averages and OBPs. As a two-sport high school player, he's more raw -- and hence riskier -- than Frazier, and he likewise profiles as a very different kind of player with some power. He might more closely fit the mold of the types of players whom the Sox have emphasized in the early rounds of the draft for several years -- players with the ability to impact the game across the board, rather than one standout, off-the-charts tool -- than Frazier. Still, there was considerable debate about whether he or his neighbor Frazier represented the better prospect, both in terms of ceiling and floor.
RHP Ryne Stanek, University of Arkansas
Stanek entered the year ranked perhaps behind only Appel in terms of the college arms crop. Inconsistent junior year performances (despite a 10-2 record and 1.39 ERA, his 79 strikeouts and 41 walks in 97 1/3 innings both represent surprisingly mediocre numbers) dropped his stock, but the Sox are longstanding believers in evaluating a player's broader history rather than just focusing on his junior year performance (see Brentz, Jackie Bradley Jr., Deven Marrero and Anthony Ranaudo for prominent instances when the Sox benefited from looking beyond down years as college juniors). And Stanek has multiple years of pitching not just in the SEC but also for Team USA, where he showed huge stuff in international competition, and he spent some time pitching on the Cape after his freshman year, so the Sox have a lot of history with him. The longer-term evaluation suggests a player whom the Sox would consider at No. 7.
But is there a wild card? If many -- perhaps even most -- of these players are off the board, is there some chance that the team would look a bit further down its draft board to a player of comparable potential impact, but who might cost less?
Under the current rules of the draft (which took effect last year), teams are rewarded for signing talented players to bonuses that are less than their recommended slot. Doing so permits a reallocation of that bonus recommendation to other draftees. As an example, the Sox drafted Pat Light in the supplemental first round last year, but instead of using their full $1.4 million recommended bonus, they got the huge right-hander for $1 million, and redirected the $400,000 earmarked for his pick to other players such as third-rounder Ty Buttrey and first-rounder Marrero.
However, it should be noted that Light was the Sox' third pick in the draft. Marrero -- the team's top pick -- actually received an above-slot bonus. And the team seems inclined to make its decisions motivated by the position its rankings of talent rather than letting strategy compromise its decision.
While the Sox have scouted other players (such as Alex "Chi Chi" Gonzalez of Oral Roberts) in order to keep alive the possibility of making a decision based on strategy, it appears that the team is more likely to draft based on how its board lines up from a talent standpoint.
"I've always thought you've got to take the best player. That's the way I've been taught," said Sawdaye. "That's the way we've tried to proceed here in the last 10 years, 15 years. That's the way we'll continue to do it. Do the new rules change some things where in the past you were able to spend some money a little bit later? Yeah. But I still think, at the end of the day, you're going to take the best player on the board."
The Sox just hope that, five years from now, that player will look like one of the best seven in the draft. Thursday night will represent a day of considerable excitement in the Red Sox organization, but the reality of the impact that they've made on the organization will have to wait for years to be determined.