How big a deal is the amateur draft? Ask Stephen Drew.
The opportunity to acquire a top talent through the amateur draft -- which starts Thursday night at 7 p.m. -- represents such a significant mechanism for shaping a franchise for the long term that it's creating ripples in terms of how teams are building for the short term. Drew, along with fellow free agent Kendrys Morales, offered a dramatic glimpse of that phenomenon this offseason and through the start of the season.
Both Drew and Morales are talented players who represented upgrades for any number of teams. And both, after declining the one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer from their 2013 teams -- thus meaning that any team that signed them would have to part with a draft pick -- sat unsigned in a free agent purgatory because teams simply couldn't justify giving up one of their top picks to sign either player. (The Sox' decision to re-sign Drew only came once it was clear that no other team would sign him at the cost of a draft pick.) That same phenomenon also explains why current major league home run leader Nelson Cruz could do no better than a one-year, $8 million deal.
The possibility of acquiring a draft pick and the desire not to lose one has played a significant role in guiding the Red Sox' last two offseasons. The team has been aggressive in extending the qualifying offer (witness Drew) because of the significance it places on gleaning a pick; at the same time, the Sox have not signed a free agent who would require them to sacrifice a draft pick since adding Carl Crawford after the 2010 season.
"I don't think it's too shocking that a large majority of the teams are a little hesitant to give up their top draft picks. That's the landscape we live in," said Red Sox amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye. "Some teams are willing to go out and spend on free agents. They might lose their first-round and second-round pick. [But] I think most clubs have gotten a pretty good sense that building through the draft is a pretty smart move."
The Sox have become, if anything, even more covetous of their picks in the last couple of years. The rules surrounding spending on the draft changed with the arrival of the last collective bargaining agreement, which went into effect for the 2012 draft.
The Sox used to be able to compensate for a lost draft pick high in the draft, at least in part, by spending big on later-round picks who had fallen due to questions about their signability. For instance, in 2007, the team lost its first- and second-round picks in order to sign J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo, but it blasted past its slot recommendations to sign players like Will Middlebrooks (fifth round), Anthony Rizzo (sixth round) and Drake Britton (24th round) deeper in the draft.
The new rules that have gone into effect limit teams' flexibility to do that, since Major League Baseball punishes teams -- first with taxes on their spending, then by forcing them to lose a draft pick (or picks) in the following year -- if they go more than 5 percent beyond the slot recommendations.
That new reality arguably hit the Red Sox harder than any other team in the majors. After all, under current ownership dating to 2012, the Sox had shown a greater willingness than any other team in the game to horde picks and spend aggressively beyond the slot recommendations from the MLB Commissioner's Office.
From 2002 through last year's draft -- the first 12 years of drafts under the current ownership group -- the Red Sox spent a bit more than $86 million on draft picks, a mark that ranked fourth in the majors (behind only the Pirates, Royals and Expos/Nationals) in draft spending. No team in the American League East and just one in the American League (the Royals) spent more on the draft during this period -- in some ways, a remarkable commentary on the degree to which the Sox prioritize the draft given that only once in that period (in 2013, when the Sox had the No. 7 overall pick) did the team pick in the upper half of the first round, where the signing bonuses are their largest.
"They get it," an opposing American League GM once said with more than a hint of frustration about his own organization of the Red Sox' owners willingness to open their wallets and spend beyond slot recommendations for the draft. "No one has to tell them why they should spend the money on picks. They understand."
But now, that same understanding of the value of a pick constrains the Sox, who don't want to spend on draftees (more than 5 percent beyond MLB's recommended draft bonus pool for an individual team, which is determined based on the picks that the team has in its top 10 rounds) to the point where they'll lose a pick in a subsequent draft. (Indeed, it's worth noting that in the first two amateur drafts under the new CBA, no team has spent to the point of giving up a pick in the following year's draft.)
There is a measure of flexibility -- the Sox were able, for instance, to sign a number of draftees in the 2012 draft to below-slot bonuses in order to put more money in the kitty and reallocate those funds to sign fourth-rounder Ty Buttrey for $1.3 million, a figure roughly in line with a late first-rounder.
Moreover, the team's taken an approach in free agency over the last couple of years to increase its early-round picks and, hence, its financial flexibility. In 2012, the Red Sox captured an extra two picks for the departure of Jonathan Papelbon; they didn't sign any players who would cost them a pick. In 2013, the Sox kept all their picks even after an offseason in which they signed seven free agents. In 2014, the Sox will have an extra supplemental first-round pick for the departure of Jacoby Ellsbury; once again, they didn't sign any free agents who would cost them a pick.
Still, unquestionably, the Sox have less of an opportunity to flex their financial muscle in the draft than other times than they did a couple of years ago. In short, the success of the draft now relies more heavily than ever on Sawdaye's department, and the scouts blanket the country both looking for the players who are most worthy of the large bonuses that come with top picks and mining for diamonds in the rough.
"There are teams that have a clear advantage in terms of how much they can spend in the draft, and those teams tend to be the ones picking up top unless you have multiple picks," said Red Sox GM Ben Cherington. "There is an advantage in terms of pure spending power to be picking at the top of the draft. Removing that, and obviously we don't want to be in that situation at all or too often, it gets back to really having the best process possible. I think Amiel and his group have doubled down really the last couple of years in light of the changes to make sure that our scouting process -- and that involves our visual looks and subjective looks and building history on looks on players but also a lot of other things -- is as precise and thorough as possible, because we know that ultimately it's going to come down to our [process]."
The good news for the Red Sox is that the lack of financial flexibility need not eliminate the chance for a draft to be franchise-changing. After all, the two drafts in which the Sox spent the least under the current ownership -- both drafts in which the team didn't have a first-round pick -- yielded Jon Lester (in 2002, when the team ranked 25th in spending) and Dustin Pedroia (in 2004, when the team ranked 20th in draft spending).
Here's a primer on this year's draft:
WHEN: The draft will take place over the next three days, with Rounds 1 and 2 taking place on Thursday night starting at 10 p.m., rounds 3-10 occurring on Friday starting at 1 p.m., and rounds 11-40 taking place on Saturday starting at 1 p.m.
WHAT PICKS DO THE SOX HAVE?: In the first round, the Sox have the No. 26 overall pick, as well as the No. 33 pick as a result of the Yankees' signing of free agent Jacoby Ellsbury. The Sox also have the No. 67 overall pick, at the back of the first round, on the first day of the draft.
BUT: Under the new CBA, as important as where a team picks is how much it has to spend to sign picks. This year, the Sox have a draft bonus pool for the first 10 rounds of $6.373 million, a total that ranks 17th among the 30 teams in the big leagues.
ARE THE RED SOX DESPAIRING OF HAVING THEIR FIRST PICK SO LATE?: Emphatically not. The individuals inside the Red Sox draft room would much rather spend 2 1/2 hours waiting for their first pick while staring at their shiny new World Series rings than be in the position that they were in for the 2013 draft, picking No. 7 overall after a horrific 69-93 big league season in 2012.
"It's the place we like to be. I always say we like to make sure our pick begins with a two or three because it means our major league team is winning," said Sawdaye. "It's not something we haven't had experience with. We've picked in the 20s before. It's harder to actually pinpoint the person you think you're going to get. Sometimes you take the worst-case scenario and throw 26 names up and say, 'If 25 guys are gone, this is going to be our pick.' But it almost will never happen like that. But you have to line the board up exactly how you see it and hope you get a guy a little bit higher than you anticipate."
WHAT IS THE STRENGTH OF THIS YEAR'S DRAFT?: There doesn't appear to be a clear one. Whereas the 2011 draft was head-turning for its wealth of terrific college pitching, for instance, there's no single category of player that this draft seems to feature in particular abundance.
"I don't think there is a strength," said Sawdaye. "To be honest with you, this draft is pretty deep. There's not necessarily one area that sticks out, so I think that this is probably one of the more balanced drafts. You're going to see some college position players, some college pitchers, especially up top, I think you're going to see a little more balance than in previous years. It's hard to say there's one clear strength of the draft."
WHAT WILL THE RED SOX BE LOOKING FOR IN THE DRAFT?: The best available player. The Sox don't draft based on organizational need or even based on the category of player (for instance, high school or college). They once did emphasize college players, for instance, at a time when their farm system was fairly barren when the current ownership group took over; college players were thus the fastest way for the team to build major league depth.
But once the team got its farm system back in solid shape, it was in position to take the best available player. As a result, the team's strategy hasn't followed a particular formula in recent years. For instance, in 2010, the team took college players with each of its first four picks. In 2008 and 2009, the team spent big on high school players at the top of the draft.
While in theory, the fact that the Sox have a couple of first-round picks permits them the opportunity to diversify their picks -- focusing on bigger upside but greater risk with one pick, for instance, while emphasizing players with a more established track record who might not have true star ceiling but represents a relatively safe bet with another -- the team won't feel like one pick needs to dictate the shape of the other.
"Every year, we go about it looking for the best player around. Sometimes you need to diversify a little bit depending on what your system looks like," said Sawdaye. "But I don't think, generally, we're going to sit here and say we took three college players, we're going to take a high school player because we took three college players. We're going to line the board up with the best players out there. That's kind of the way it works. If the next best player on the board is a college player, then that's who we take. If the next best player is a high school player or a high school pitcher, then that's who we're going to take."
IS THERE A CATEGORY OF PLAYER WHOM THE SOX MIGHT LOOK TO TAKE GIVEN WHERE THEY'RE PICKING?: The Sox love to take players with established track records of success whose performance dropped off in their draft year, whether due to injury, performance struggles or both in their draft year as a means of grabbing players with upside that exceeds where they're being selected. Some noteworthy recent instances:
2010: Anthony Ranaudo was a potential top-five pick entering the year, Bryce Brentz was a candidate for the upper half of the first round and Garin Cecchini was likewise a top-20 candidate. Ranaudo dealt with an elbow injury and struggled when on the mound for LSU; he dropped to the supplemental first round. Brentz had an ankle injury that prevented him from replicating his monster 2009 producing at Middle Tennessee State; he, too, was on the board in the supplemental first round. Cecchini, after blowing out his ACL, was available in the fourth round.
2011: Jackie Bradley Jr. endured a year beset with both injuries and performance struggles, but he had entered the year as a top-15 or top-20 candidate after a dazzling college career that including Most Outstanding Player in the College World Series honors as a sophomore at the University of South Carolina. The Sox were elated to grab him with the No. 40 overall pick.
2012: Deven Marrero was perhaps the best pure college shortstop in the draft. But an unimpressive junior year pushed his stock down from perhaps the top 15 to the 24th overall pick in the draft, where the Sox grabbed him.
There are others, of course. The recurrent theme is that the Red Sox believe in established track records, and if they can reach the conclusion that a struggle in a draft year represents an aberration, they'll go after a player in hopes of capturing someone who can make a significant impact down the line.
This year's draft features a few such players. Right-hander Jeff Hoffman had positioned himself as a potential top-four pick before undergoing Tommy John surgery, while right-hander Erick Fedde had put himself in contention for the top 10 before he, too, required ulnar collateral ligament transplantation surgery. While it appears increasingly unlikely that they get to the Sox, they represent the sort of profile that the Sox have pursued in recent years.
"It's a case-by-case basis," Sawdaye said of drafting players who either had undergone Tommy John surgery or who might require it after signing. "It's so hard to clump them all into one grouping, whether it's Tommy John or another injury. A lot has to do with the kid, the body, the makeup, the stuff, the surgeon. There are so many different elements that go into it. We may say that we're in on taking one guy but we're not in on taking another."
University of Virginia outfielder Derek Fisher, who was one of the top players in the Cape Cod League last summer but who had a very meh junior year for the Cavaliers, likewise fits a category of player whom the Red Sox have been aggressive in taking in the past.
WHAT ABOUT A POWER HITTER?: The last time the Red Sox drafted a player who ended up hitting 30 homers in a season? That would be ... Josh Reddick in 2006, who reached the 30-homer plateau in 2012 with the Athletics. Prior to that, the team had taken Brandon Moss in the eighth round of the 2002 draft; he hit 30 with the A's last year.
Given the current deficit of power -- and homegrown power -- on their roster, the Red Sox are sometimes questioned for not having identified and developed more mashers through the draft. Yet that criticism doesn't just fall on them.
"I understand how people would ask, 'Where is the power?" " said Sawdaye. "Power is at a scarcity in the game. Looking back on it now, I wish we did draft Paul Goldschmidt. But obviously he goes in the [eighth] round [in 2009]. The Diamondbacks did an unbelievable job with making sure they got him and signed him.
"Power typically goes at the top of the draft. We're hoping that we don't pick at the top of the draft every year. When you do, you have that opportunity to get to those big power guys, but I'd argue that we have drafted and developed those guys. Some we've traded, like Anthony Rizzo. Obviously Middlebrooks has shown easy raw power and obviously some game power.
"Obviously, there's a balance where you can say, do you want to take your chances on that power hitter than just might strike out a lot, or do you want to take a guy who can control the zone, really hit and hopefully gets to that power? I'm a believer that good hitters get to their power eventually if they have a lot of the traits that you look for and it comes over time. These kids, a lot of these kids, we expect so much but they have to develop their man strength.
"The way, not just the draft, but the minor leagues, what we expect out of them, we have so many blogs and so many websites that are dedicated to following these kids, we expect them to go out and hit 20 or 30 home runs right away, and there are only a handful of guys who are strong enough to do that. As you start to see some of these kids get stronger and start to develop, you start to see more power. I do feel like we have some of those kids in our system who are eventually going to get to their power, but it doesn't happen overnight."
At the top of the draft, the Sox have more often emphasized players with diverse skill sets -- thus giving them a greater chance of making a big league impact regardless of whether they show power in the big leagues -- as opposed to players with a single standout tool like power but little else to offer value should the offensive approach not translate to the professional ranks.
LOOKING FOR AN ACE? LOOK UP: A likely trend among pitchers whom the Sox select -- they'll be giants.
The Sox have formed a startling line of mound giants under Sawdaye, with clusters of pitchers looking like they could comprise an impressive college basketball team. It's rare to see the Sox draft a pitcher who's under 6-foot-3, and it's common to see them add hurlers who are 6-foot-5 or taller (Anthony Ranaudo and Henry Owens, for instance, are 6-foot-7).
It's not an accident.
"I'm not going to run away from a kid who's 6-0 or 5-11. If that was the case, we probably wouldn't have been in on Sonny Gray. [But] I always say to our guys, if you walk around a big league clubhouse and you've been around our pitchers, they're big boys. They have to be. There's a durability factor that's involved with being able to haul, you want them to pitch 200 innings or 250 innings in the big leagues," said Sawdaye. "I'm a true believer that your body can only handle so much. The smaller guys, while there are some who can do it -- and those are probably more the exception than the rule -- it's going to take a bigger toll when they're popping out 200 innings and throwing 92, 93.
"So I think the John Lackeys, the Jon Lesters, the Josh Becketts, the Curt Schillings who have come through our clubhouse and been big, durable pitchers and had long careers, there's a reason for that," he added. "Guys come in different shapes and sizes. A lot of them can be really successful in the major leagues. But when you're playing the field and you're trying to bet, a friend of mine used to say, 'If you're going to miss, miss big.' "
WHO WILL THE RED SOX TAKE?: I don't know, you don't know, they don't know.
"Every time I touch base with a member of the Red Sox front office, they're always like, 'We have no idea what's happening in front of us. Can you tell us? Please help us out,' " noted Baseball America editor John Manuel in the Minor Details podcast.
The reality is that, in contrast to a year ago, when the team had a fairly well-defined group of about a half-dozen players in consideration at the No. 7 overall pick, the variables are far-reaching when picking at No. 26 and 33, to the point where the team can't say with certainty whom it will select. It's unclear who will be on the board when it's time for the Sox to make their pick.
Nonetheless, the team is confident that it will emerge from Day 1 of the draft with three players it likes -- and probably some they view as being better than where they pick.
"I bet you if we took 40 players, and we took our top 40 players, we'll probably get our top three picks out of it. That would be my guess, even though our second-round pick is in the 60s. There's just so much deviation, [where] every club looks at a player differently," said Sawdaye. "If I took 15 players, are we going to get one of those 15? I have no clue. I'd hope so, but I don't know that that is going to be the case."
That is different than what the Sox faced a year ago. But while the number of possibilities have increased, Sawdaye and the Sox plan to follow a process that is very similar to the one that guided them in 2013.
"I actually think 2013 taught me a little bit about the process. One of the things I did in 2013, we ended up seeing a lot of players, but the last month or so we really ended up focusing on the guys we were [thinking about taking] at pick seven," said Sawdaye. "It's obviously a little bit harder picking where we're picking this year. But I felt so comfortable with the guys we were talking about up high because I went back, I saw them, I met with them. It was, whether it was the multiple looks or really honing in on these players and really doing research on them, you felt pretty good.
"This year, I took a little bit of the same approach. I can't tell sit here and tell you who is going to get to our pick, nor can I tell you who we're going to select," said Sawdaye. "[But] I spent a little bit more time this year, instead of the last month still running down and trying to chase kids I hadn't seen, you trust the people on your staff, you don't need to see every player and you just get really comfortable with those first couple picks. And personally, it makes you feel a lot better, going into the draft. At least I know that we have a really good feel about the all-around player."
WHEN WILL THE PLAYERS DRAFTED ON THURSDAY MAKE THEIR IMPACT IN THE BIG LEAGUES?: Check back in about three years. Then check back again in five years. And again in seven.
This year's draft marks Sawdaye's fifth as the Red Sox amateur scouting director. In his first draft in 2010, the Sox were elated to see a potential top-10 pick, Kolbrin Vitek, on the board where they picked at No. 20.
Vitek, after spending most of his professional career fighting injuries, retired this spring. Yet that 2010 draft has still been a strong one given the presence of players like Brandon Workman, Ranaudo, Cecchini and Brentz in the organization. Those players look like present or future big leaguers, though we're still years from knowing what impact they'll make at the highest level.
"If you had told me back then that we'd be in this position, I'd probably tell you that you were crazy," said Sawdaye. "We believed in Kolbrin. Great kid. Obviously had a lot of talent. ... Whether those other players make that draft a more fruitful and productive draft, I guess we'll have to wait and see, but I think looking at it right now, looking at it today, we're still very optimistic that there will be a handful of very productive major leaguers and hopefully some All-Stars.
"When you look back on teams' drafts, it's not only the first-round pick that makes it. You certainly don't want to miss on your first-round pick, and that's why you spend as much time with your first-rounder as you do with your second or third. I think you've got to spend a lot of time with the guys deeper down because that's how you make your draft."