Tuesday and Wednesday are arguably the most significant days of the baseball calendar for the Red Sox, and it has nothing to do with the presence of the Yankees. Today is all about the Major League Baseball Rule 4 draft, when the Sox will begin selecting the next 50 players who they hope will help to improve the team’s long-term fortunes.
The day (which features the first three rounds of the draft; the remaining 47 rounds will take place on Wednesday) is of such import that the Sox front office will likely pay scant attention to the proceedings on the field when Josh Beckett takes the mound against New York starter A.J. Burnett.
(Recent history, however, suggests that the team might want to keep one eye peeled on the game. On last year’s draft day, the team grabbed Casey Kelly (now 6-2 with a 1.35 ERA in Single-A) with its first-round pick on a night when Coco Crisp brawled with the Rays and Manny Ramirez slapped Kevin Youkilis upside the head.)
The Sox – and virtually every team, for that matter – views the draft as the currency upon which the success of the organization is built.
“The draft is such a central part of what we do as a baseball operation and organization,” said G.M. Theo Epstein. “Five or six years ago, the fan on the street wanted to tell you what superstar you should trade for, using all your prospects. A couple years ago, they started telling you what prospects you should promote from Double-A and Triple-A to the big leagues. Now they want to tell you who to draft. It’s definitely moving in that direction, which is great.”
Of course, the Sox have needed little help in terms of making those determinations. The team has enjoyed a remarkable track record of success under the current ownership group and baseball operations administration. Since 2002, when John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino became team owners, the Sox have built the foundation of a squad primed to compete for the playoffs for the long haul. (See chart.)
Even so, the team is under no illusion that it has mastered a process that has witnessed a seemingly endless succession of can’t-miss prospects who have, well, missed.
“Baseball is a game of failure. Failure is inherent in the game, probably in the draft more so than in any other aspect of our operation,” said Epstein. “You’re going to miss on 38 out of 40 picks in most years.”
It only seems like the Sox have hit on every pick. The draft remains an incredibly complex undertaking. Unlike the NBA, when teams can successfully project how high schoolers (until the league prohibited them from being drafted) and college freshman will perform in a professional league one year later, the draft involves a leap of faith about a player’s personality, on-field evolution and health for a period of several years while he makes his way through the minors.
It’s a complicated undertaking, with the potential to be immensely rewarding for any successes that are achieved.
“For real baseball fans, there’s nothing as sweet as following a kid from the day that he was drafted, getting to see him play at the local minor-league affiliates and being there or watching on TV when he makes his major-league debut, then following his whole career. You feel invested in a player,” said Epstein. “Winning (with players who are drafted and developed by the organization) is sweeter for us as people in the front office. I think it’s sweeter for the fans, too.”
Here are a few things to contemplate as the Sox prepare for this year’s big day:
IF THE SOX FIND AN IMPACT PLAYER WITH THEIR TOP PICK, THEY’LL BE BUCKING THE ODDS
Because the Red Sox are one of the best teams in baseball on an annual basis, they draft in a position where the elite talent of a draft at least should have been picked over. This year, the Sox’ first selection with be the 28th overall, a place in the draft that has been anything but illustrious.
In the 44-year history of the draft, 23 players (52 percent) taken with the 28th overall pick have reached the majors. The best pick ever at that spot was undoubtedly Lee Smith, the seven-time All-Star taken in the 1975 draft by the Cubs. But his success is something of an outlier for players selected at the spot. Smith is one of just three players taken 28th overall who has played in at least one All-Star game:
Charles Johnson (1992): 2 All-Star games
Norm Charlton (1984): 1
Lee Smith (1975): 7
Of course, the Red Sox hope that Daniel Bard, whom they took with the 28th overall pick in the 2006 draft, might help them to buck that trend, just as the Cardinals hope that Colby Rasmus (the 28th pick in the 2005 draft) might do so.
Despite that limited return on players taken in the No. 28 spot of the draft, however, the Sox have had tremendous success in the last few years with players taken after that point. Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia and Justin Masterson were second-round picks. Jonathan Papelbon went in the fourth round.
Top position playing prospects Lars Anderson and Josh Reddick went in the 18th and 17th rounds (respectively) of the 2006 draft. Suffice it to say that the Sox will never suggest that their draft position should justify a failure to make an impact.
THE CROP OF AVAILABLE TALENT ISN’T EXACTLY EYE-POPPING
Baseball evaluators feel that this year’s draft features some extraordinary talent at the top – foremost pitcher Stephen Strasburg, considered perhaps the best pitching prospect ever on the strength of a fastball that registers above 100 mph and is complemented by a clean delivery and excellent breaking stuff.
But the crop lower in the first round is considered less eye-popping. This is not 2005, when seemingly every first-rounder has already emerged as an immense major-league (or major-league ready, in the case of players like Clay Buchholz and Mike Bowden) talent.
Even so, the 2006 draft was described as a bit of a stinker in terms of the available talent. That year, though the team’s top overall pick (Jason Place) has yet to pan out, the Sox made a huge impact by drafting and signing Bard, Masterson, Reddick, Anderson, Kris Johnson and Ryan Kalish.
THE ECONOMY COULD OFFER THE SOX AN OPPORTUNITY
Last year, the rest of the industry caught on.
Major League Baseball issues “slot recommendations,” giving teams guidelines about what they think a player taken in every spot of the draft should be given as a signing bonus. In 2006 and (to a lesser degree in the case of the Sox) 2007, the Sox and Yankees ignored those recommendations at virtually every turn.
With the majority of other teams trying to toe the MLB-advised line, the two teams kept stocking their farm systems with prospect after prospect, well into the second day of the draft. Players whom other teams avoided out of concerns about their willingness to sign for slot would fall into the eager and waiting arms of the New York and Boston.
Case in point: Bard.
“Up to the draft, I had no contact with the Red Sox. I spoke to a couple teams that picked ahead of them,” said Bard. “The Mariners at five said they may take me. They took (Brandon) Morrow. The Giants picked 10 or 11. They said, ‘If you’re available, we’ll take you no matter what.’ I don’t think they counted on (Tim) Lincecum being available. He went there.
“Then, I think my agent kind of manipulated things a little. He wanted me to fall to the Red Sox or Yankees, later in the draft.”
The reason, of course, was that Bard’s agent and the rest of the baseball world were aware that the Sox and Yankees were unafraid to pay for talent. Bard received a $1.55 million bonus, money that was in line with a mid-first-round pick, from the Sox. Lars Anderson received sandwich pick money ($825,000) despite being taken in the 18th round.
In 2008, other teams finally recognized that they couldn’t stick to the MLB recommendations and let baseball’s richest teams load up on all the players considered signability questions. And so, other teams started drafting based on talent rather than bonus demands.
Of course, all of that took place before an economic downturn completely upended the way in which several teams were doing business. It remains a bit of a guessing game to wonder how the economy will impact what teams do this year. With many teams in belt-tightening mode, they may face a diminished budget for signing amateurs.
“It’s hard to tell. I think there’s not as much money floating around there generally,” said Epstein. “Whether that manifests in signing bonuses or not really remains to be seen. Certainly, I think, the economy has filtered down to every industry.”
Of course, the pendulum could swing the other way as well. Some teams may conclude that in a time of economic hardship, they should spend less money on players in free agency (widely described as an inefficient process that overpays players based on past performance rather than rewarding their future work).
If that happens, they might come to the conclusion that they should focus their resources on players who will command bonus money now, but who will earn little more than the major-league minimum in years to come, making them incredibly sound investments for the long term. Certainly, the Sox consider the draft an area of their budget that they would trim under almost no circumstances.
“We’re actually in pretty good shape because of the importance we place and ownership places on the acquisition of amateur talent,” said Epstein. “That will probably be the last thing to go for us if we were ever to get in financial trouble, because we think this is such a fundamental element of building a successful franchise. The only way to sustain success is to draft well, sign international talent well and develop it well.
“We won’t sacrifice that for anything,” he continued. “We’re going to have the resources we need to sign good players.”
Of course, the Sox have long objected to the notion that their recent draft success has been a product of their deep pockets. The team believes that is more a testament to its scouting process than its financial resources, and so regardless of whether other teams decide to pursue players with signability questions or not, the Sox remain confident that they can make an impact through the draft.
“Ultimately, our job is still to go out and evaluate players who we think can make an impact on the organization. That’s how we’ll continue to scout,” said amateur scouting director Jason McLeod. “Really, it’s as simple as that.”
THE SOX WILL LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED
The Sox will have scouting reports on more than 2,000 players when they draft. Their information will attempt to offer a comprehensive analysis of each player from a scouting, personality/makeup (which will include two- to three-page questionnaires from scouts about each player as an individual), medical and statistical/performance perspective.
“Information is the currency of the draft,” said Epstein. “The bottom line is that in all of the areas we mentioned—the makeup, performance, scouting and medical—there’s the ability to drill really deep in all of those, try to get as much information as you can, weight them in a way that makes sense to you in a final evaluation.
“We get as much information in all of those areas as we can and fit the wholepicture of the player together to figure out who is this person, and what can we expect from him over the next 15 years.”
The Sox have mechanisms in place to ensure that they will get every extra piece of information they can:
--The organization was the first to have all of its scouts take video of players and create a sophisticated database of those files so that every player the team selects can be seen by multiple sets of eyes.
--The Sox also broke with the baseball tradition of using three regional cross-checkers around the country, redrawing the country to have four different cross-checkers. Again, the goal was to ensure that as many players as possible get seen in person by multiple sets of eyes.
--The team also will draft players and then scout them closely in summer leagues, particularly in wood-bat leagues, to gain a fuller picture of their abilities. Last year, for instance, the team took high-schooler Ryan Westmoreland out of Rhode Island with its fifth-round selection.
Westmoreland had an impressive high-school season, but it was in a dominating summer for the Bayside Yankees – a high-school, wood-bat traveling team – that he showed that he might be one of the top amateur talents in the country. And so the Sox, who saw everyone one of his games last summer, felt comfortable investing $2 million in the player.
--Finally, the team created what was believed to be a first-of-its-kind event last summer, inviting its draftees to come to Fenway Park to play in an exhibition. In that forum, players could be measured not against overmatched high-school competitors, but instead against fellow professional prospects. Batters could face 90+ mph fastballs, and pitchers could throw against hitters for whom a swing-and-miss was a meaningful outcome.
The Sox have resources, but they do not use them capriciously, instead insisting that they justify their investments based on the maximum amount of information available.
NO ONE KNOWS WHO WILL BE AVAILABLE
The draft is a fascinating exercise in uncertainty. But the reality is, it’s almost impossible to anticipate who will be available which top talent will be the apple of the Sox’ eye when they finally pick with the 28th selection.
Time and again, the Sox have found that a player they expected to be long gone ended up on the board when almost every other team in the game finally got through its selection. That was the case with Dustin Pedroia, a second-rounder in 2004, Nick Hagadone, a sandwich pick in 2007, Craig Hansen, another first-rounder in 2005, and any number of guys.
“We have to be prepared on all the best players, even the ones who we think should go in the top of the first round, so that if a player does slip for whatever reason, if we pass on them at 28, it won’t be because we don’t know enough about the player,” said Epstein. “It may be because we don’t like the player. We might think the player is overhyped, or that the ability doesn’t match what the buzz is, and that we prefer somebody else.”
It is one thing to have a top five pick, when a team can more or less define who it wants and pursue him and a couple of other alternatives with a reasonable degree of certainty. The Sox face the task of identifying six or 10 primary targets whom they assume will be available, and concentrating a greater number of resources on scouting those players. But they must also be prepared for the potential top-10 talents (like Bard) who will suddenly fall (or, in his case, navigate) down the board.
The Sox have been connected to a number of players in the days leading to the draft. (The invaluable SoxProspects.com has done a particularly good job of tracking those players, such as catchers Tony Sanchez of B.C. and California high schooler Max Stassi, who have been connected in rumors with the Sox.) But with files on more than 2,000 players, and the variable of 27 other teams in place, the entertaining exercise of anticipating who the Sox might pick is one of near futility.
Even for the Sox, it is a guessing game at this point, which is part of the reason why the team’s ability to draft successfully from a late first-round position has been such a remarkable accomplishment.