Though the offices of the Red Sox’ baseball operations department were entirely full as the clock ticked towards midnight, the mood was a boisterous one. It seemed that everywhere that the Sox turned, signs of promise abounded.
On the field at Fenway Park, the Sox were busy handing the Yankees’ lunch to them. The 7-0 win saw the continued dominance of Josh Beckett along with the third home run of the year from a potentially resurgent David Ortiz.
In Triple-A, Clay Buchholz was once again too good for an opponent, allowing one run in five innings to lead the PawSox to a 2-1 win. In Single-A Greenville, pitcher Hunter Strickland was shutting down a Rays affiliate, while a couple of the top power-hitting prospects in the Sox system, Anthony Rizzo and Will Middlebrooks, went deep in a 12-0 win.
It was a good day for the Red Sox as an organization on the field, but the most significant developments were taking place off of it. Hidden in the subterranean recesses of Fenway Park, the baseball operations staff was busy adding to the foundation of the Sox future.
Major League Baseball’s annual amateur draft started on Tuesday. The Sox got to make their first three selections. In doing so, the team believes that it acquired some of the next players who will serve as the oil for the player development machine.
The Sox grabbed high-school outfielder Reymond Fuentes with a first-round pick (28th overall), right-hander Alex Wilson in the second round (No. 77) and multi-talented prep star David Renfroe in the third (No. 107).
“It’s about as good a day as we can have,” said Sox G.M. Theo Epstein (for audio, click here). “Now we’ll just cross our fingers and hope we’re saying the same thing about three years from now.”
While it is difficult for the Sox or anyone else to project what might be happening a few years ago, there were quite a few insights that could be gleaned from the Sox’ first three selections of the 2009 draft. Among them:
THE RED SOX BELIEVE THEY ACQUIRED A LOT OF IMPACT TALENT
Fuentes, the first player taken in the first round out of Puerto Rico since 2000, was one of the fastest players in the draft. The 18-year-old confirmed the relevance of speed to his game.
“My strength is my legs,” Fuentes said shortly after the Sox selected him with the 28th pick of the first round of the 2009 draft. “My game is slap the ball and start running… On defense, I have good range, and cover a lot of space and ground in the outfield.”
Amateur scouting director Jason McLeod said that he has plus-plus speed, and was a sprinting champion in Puerto Rico. Fuentes received comparisons to a pair of Sox (current and past) centerfielders: Jacoby Ellsbury and Johnny Damon.
Former Red Sox infielder Alex Cora – now teammates with Carlos Beltran, Fuentes’ cousin – offered the following assessment via text message:
“Beltran’s cousin, Jacoby’s clone,” wrote Cora. “Saw him. He flies. Good level swing. Hard worker.”
As they followed the 18-year-old, particularly this spring, the Sox began to see something more. Physically, the outfielder – who is a cousin of Carlos Beltran – began to develop this year. McLeod and G.M. Theo Epstein went to scout Fuentes in Puerto Rico in May, and at that time, his bat had advanced in noteworthy fashion.
“I thought his bat speed had improved from where he was at the beginning of the spring,” said Epstein. “The ball was coming off his bat much better. He started to really interest us as a guy who was not just going to disrupt on the bases, who was not just going to flash a plus-plus run tool in centerfield, but who could really hit as well. For us, that pushed him up into the first round.”
Perhaps it is a commentary on the anticipated success of pitchers coming off of Tommy John surgery that the Red Sox thought about selecting Alex Wilson in the 2008 draft. At that time, the right-hander was less than a year after he had undergone the procedure, and roughly a year removed from the last pitch he had thrown.
Wilson was instead taken in the 10th round by the Cubs, from whom he turned down a reported $600,000 signing bonus (second-round money in last year’s draft) to pitch in the Cape League and to return to Texas A&M. Wilson, who moved from the rotation to the bullpen during the season, finished 6-6 with a 4.22 ERA. More impressively, he fanned 120 and walked 25 in 90 innings.
“At times, his fastball (a mid-90s offering) and curveball can be really overpowering,” said McLeod. “He’s a real bulldog competitor on the mound. We really like the repertoire that he brings.”
Though Wilson finished the year as a reliever for the Aggies, the Sox will have him begin his pro career as a starter, as they have done with other top picks such as Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price in recent years. There, he will work on refining a changeup that will likely determine whether he can stay in the rotation or whether he will ultimately head to the bullpen.
The Sox said that Wilson received the blessing of their medical staff. Wilson seemed to have no concerns about his health for the long haul.
“I've got a new arm,” he told the Charlestown (WV) Daily Mail. “You can't ask for much more than that. I'm completely healthy and I've felt that way the majority of the year.”
The storyline might sound familiar: talented, multi-sport player who is a) a gifted pitcher and shortstop with b) pro baseball bloodlines and c) a scholarship offer to an SEC school gets selected by the Red Sox.
In 2008, it was first-rounder Casey Kelly, a pitcher/shortstop/quarterback whom the Sox gave $3 million to convince him to begin his professional career rather than go to college at Tennessee.
In 2009, it is Red Sox third-round pick David Renfroe, a quarterback, pitcher and shortstop at South Panola High School in Mississippi (just south of Memphis) with a scholarship offer to Ole Miss.
Like Kelly, the Sox will probably have to pay a hefty premium to convince Renfroe to forego college. Unlike Kelly, the Sox would like to see Renfroe develop as a shortstop and third baseman, rather than a pitcher.
McLeod and assistant scouting director Amiel Sawdaye encountered Renfroe at last summer’s Under Armour/Baseball Factory All-American Game at Wrigley Field. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder struck out five hitters in two innings in the showcase game, but he also put on a show in batting practice and hit a homer in the game.
“We liked him, at that time as a pitcher. After watching him take (batting practice) that day, we were like, ‘Wow, this guy swings the bat pretty good,’” said McLeod. “So this spring, we got to see him both pitch and hit. He did well at both.”
“We fell in love with his athleticism,” said Epstein. “Our scouts did a really thorough job with him as a position player and pitcher and really fell in love with the kid…There’s a lot to like with this prospect. We see, as of right now, as we sit here today, his highest upside as a position player and potential impact bat.”
The Sox had plenty of contact with and looks at Renfroe -- an 18-year-old whose father, Laddie, played four games for the Cubs -- including a workout at Fenway Park just last week. Renfroe fell in the draft due to signability concerns (the New York Post suggested that he might seek as much as a $3 million bonus), but the Sox likely would not have taken him if they didn’t think they could come to terms with him.
THE SOX DO NOT MIND STOCKPILING AT CERTAIN POSITIONS
Over the past couple of drafts, the Red Sox have loaded their system with young centerfielders and shortstops. And so, naturally, the team drafted a centerfielder and a shortstop with two of its first three picks.
In doing so, the team remained true to its mantra of taking the best player available. But the notion of stockpiling also represents another conviction of the Sox, namely that the club should take young, middle-of-the-field position players at every opportunity with the idea that they can always move them elsewhere at a later date.
“You can never have enough centerfielders and you can never have too many shortstops in the system,” said Epstein. “If you’re going to have a lot of players at a position, you want it to be in the middle of the field. These are young players we’re talking about.
“As centerfielders mature, a lot of them move off and become right-fielders or if their bat comes into play, they play left-field as well. Whereas if you have a surplus on the corners, those guys can’t really go anywhere.”
In the lower levels of the Red Sox system, Fuentes joins the likes of Che-Hsuan Lin and Jason Place (Salem), as well as Greenville’s Pete Hissey, as an athletic centerfielder.
“At the end of the day, we still line up our board by talent,” said McLeod. “We never draft for need or on a position basis. (Fuentes) was the guy we really wanted.”
Renfroe – whose size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) raises some questions about his ability to stay at short for the long term – joins a group at short that features Derrik Gibson (likely to be assigned to Lowell), Oscar Tejeda in Greenville and Yamaico Navarro (currently injured) in Salem.
NEW ENGLAND IS NOT THE ONLY REGION THAT WILL FOLLOW FUENTES CLOSELY
It was not long ago that Puerto Rico was a hotbed of baseball talent along the lines of the Dominican Republic. Roberto and Sandy Alomar, Carlos Delgrado, Carlos Beltran, Jorge Posada…
But in recent years, the talent pool coming from the island has been decidedly shallow. The development has been the subject of concern to players from Puerto Rico, and some befuddlement in scouting circles.
"We've discussed it on a couple of occasions at our Scouting Director meetings (of all 30 clubs) and it's (a situation) we can't really put our finger on," McLeod said. "Some say the Amateur Draft has hindered the talent pool some how and the kids there should be back in the International market but I find that hard to believe.
The challenges of scouting (Puerto Rico) are that they don't play a regular high school season. It's more like legion baseball down there so you're usually flying in for a workout and maybe one game on the weekend," he continued. "Needless to say, our area scout in Puerto Rico did a great job putting us in position to see Reymond play a lot and ultimately our evaluations and background on him gave us the comfort level to take him with our first pick."
In being selected first, Fuentes represents a milestone for Puerto Rico. Fuentes is the first first-rounder out of Puerto Rico since 2000, when the Jays took Miguel Negron with the 18th overall selection.
“Being in the first round from Puerto Rico is amazing. I’m very excited,” said Fuentes. “I thank God everyday for giving me the tools to be a first rounder.”
Puerto Rico has become a challenging scouting environment. There are few organized opportunities for high-school play (Fuentes played just 13 high-school games as a senior), and so teams must identify showcase events to monitor players in whom they are interested.
That being the case, it took a long commitment to Fuentes to get to the point where the Sox were comfortable taking him first. The Sox’ area scout in Puerto Rico did just that, putting Fuentes on the team’s radar two years ago. All spring, top Sox evaluators traveled to and from Puerto Rico to monitor Fuentes, until the club reached the point where it was not merely comfortable but thrilled to tab the centerfielder.
This marks the third straight year that the Sox have taken a player in the draft out of Puerto Rico, following shortstop Kenneth Roque (20th round, 2007) and Christian Vazquez (9th round, 2008). Prior to Roque’s selection, the Sox hadn’t taken a player out of Puerto Rico since 1997.
BASEBALL BLOOD LINES ARE A GOOD THING
Fuentes is the cousin of Beltran, one of the great five-tool talents in the game. Renfroe is the son of a former major leaguer. Casey Kelly, taken in the first round last year, is the son of a former major leaguer with two family members (a father and brother) who work in pro ball. Daniel Bard, taken in the first round in 2006, has a father and uncle who played pro ball.
It should come as little surprise that those who grow up in and around the game have an advantage when it comes to cultivating their own playing skills. The Sox suggest that they do not value a baseball upbringing in its own right, but that it can serve as a favorable checkmark in player evaluation.
“Blood lines are always nice, but I think we try to assess makeup,” said Epstein. “We try to assess the prospect for who he is as a person, try to get a feel for his personality and background, make sure there are no red flags…If you have blood lines as well (as sound makeup), that’s always a leading indicator for success.”
THE PLAYER MOST COMMONLY LINKED TO THE SOX BEFORE THE DRAFT REMAINS ON THE BOARD
For weeks, many have suggested that high-school catcher Max Stassi seemed like a good fit for the Red Sox in the first round. The Sox certainly scouted him as if they agreed.
Stassi worked out at Fenway Park on Monday, and has been followed closely by the Sox for some time. But though he was available at the time that the Sox made each of their three selections, the team did not take him.
Signability was a major factor in Stassi’s slide. According to the Appeal-Democrat (Yuba City, Calif.), Stassi’s father Jim, a former pro catcher, said that it would take “top 20 money” to convince the catcher not to go to UCLA. Teams balked at that price.
"He would have gone in the (compensation round) if we had settled for (a) slot (value bonus)," Jim Stassi told the paper after he was contacted by the Rockies, Tigers, Cardinals and Rangers during the course of the draft. "(They asked) if slot was going to get it done, and we said no, he's going to school.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Sox won’t make a late bid to convince him to forego that commitment. A year ago, the Sox spent $2 million on fifth-rounder Ryan Westmoreland to buy him out of a commitment to Vanderbilt. So the possibility remains that the Sox could try to acquire a talent who was projected by many as a first rounder on day two of the draft.
“We spent plenty of time with him. At the end of the day, you still have to line up your board as you see it,” said McLeod. “Max is someone that we think highly of. He’s still out there. We’ll see what the draft holds tomorrow. We did pay a lot of attention to him.”
Rob Bradford contributed to this report.