There are plenty of terms used to describe the baseball operations offices of the Boston Red Sox. Few are flattering.
“The dungeon” and “the torture room” are a couple of phrases thrown around to depict the offices beneath Fenway where most of the team’s baseball decisions take place. Such phrases are understandable, particularly around the time of the Major League Baseball draft.
For days and even weeks beforehand, several team officials will camp out in this subterranean realm. During that time, the opportunity to see either natural light or family members will prove exceedingly rare.
And yet the time -- during which several members of the baseball ops staff will consume three catered meals together every day -- is not without its appeal.
“I feel like the draft is like the holidays,” said Sox amateur scouting director Jason McLeod. “Every year, all you do is sit around and eat, talk about the game you love and the players. It’s like being with family, and eating every day, all day during the holidays.”
If the preparation process is like the holidays, then there is little question that the first day of the draft is like Christmas Day. Finally, after scouting players for a year and sometimes much more, a team gets to find out what awaits under the tree, and which players are going to be available when their pick finally comes around.
Entering the 2009 draft, the Sox are prepared. The reports on more than 2,000 players from 18 full-time area scouts and six more part-timers, along with four regional cross-checkers, a national cross-checker and several front-office employees have been digested.
In the weeks building to the draft, the Sox have been bringing potential picks to Fenway for workouts. Their last prospect -- catcher Max Stassi, who most publications predict will end up being taken by Boston -- works out in front of team officials on Monday afternoon. In many respects, the most important work has now concluded.
“The draft just kind of happens. It’s all about the preparation,” said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. “Draft day should be simple execution. You make or break your drafts with the scouting process and the preparation of the draft.”
On the eve of the draft, most of the group that will occupy a conference room during the draft -- McLeod and Assistant Director of Amateur Scouting Amiel Sawdaye, GM Theo Epstein, Assistant GMs Ben Cherington and Jed Hoyer, Assistant to the GM Allard Baird, the cross-checkers and a couple of area scouts -- will break up around 6 p.m. McLeod, Cherington and Epstein will stay behind for some final moments of quiet contemplation, interspersed with discussions about scenarios for how the draft might unfold.
This day of this year’s draft offers a new wrinkle. For the first time, it will be televised by the MLB Network.
The development is viewed as a great one in baseball circles, giving prominence to the amateur scouts who serve as the rarely seen backbone of the game. Even so, the primetime event will force a shift from a traditional 1 p.m. start. McLeod and the rest of the group that will oversee the draft still arrive in the morning on the day of the draft.
“We’re used to rolling in, if the draft starts at 1, coming in at 8 or 8:30, jacked up and ready to go,” said McLeod. “(The change) made Tuesday a very long day, sitting around, talking what we thought was going to happen, and making some adjustments a little deeper down in the draft.”
The cross-checkers spend the day on the phone with area scouts to try to get the most updated information available about player signability -- an issue that can create some last-minute shifts in who might be available at a pick. But, for the most part, the pace is calm.
McLeod and Epstein, who have been close friends since their days with the Padres in the Padres front office in the 1990s, will repeat an annual ritual that began in 2005. Several hours before the Sox and Yankees will play, Epstein and McLeod go for an early-afternoon stroll across the outfield.
“The Walk Talk,” as McLeod describes it, is the last time both men will enjoy light of day until after midnight. It commenced in the moments leading up to McLeod’s first year in charge of the Sox’ draft.
“We just did it to kind of get some perspective, get out of the draft room,” said Epstein. “I wanted to tell him that it could be overwhelming with a lot of names. Let’s focus on the guys we like. Let’s just get the guys we like. Don’t worry about if a player who should be gone in the second round is there in the third. If he’s not a guy we like, don’t worry about it.
“It kind of became a tradition. It’s good. It’s hard to keep your perspective when you’re stuck in the draft room for two straight weeks. Getting a little fresh air helps.”
The tradition has evolved over time. Most of the Sox’ operating principles during the draft are now understood, and so the conversation now features more specifics than was initially the case.
True to Epstein’s management style, he tosses questions and scenarios at his amateur scouting director, though the conversation will also veer away, at moments, from work and towards the nuances of parenthood -- a responsibility to which Epstein and McLeod will soon return, following the draft, for the first time in what seems like weeks.
The walk concludes, and the wait resumes. Patience proves especially challenging this year, when the draft board seems particularly volatile to the point where the Sox have little sense of who might be available by the time their pick rolls around. In the past, the Sox ran simulated mock drafts to try to prepare for their selection. This year, the exercise seemed pointless.
“This year seemed to be more of a crapshoot toward the top, especially towards the middle (of the first round) picks,” said McLeod. “We weren’t going to try to decipher it. We just said, ‘These are the guys we like.’”
Before the 2005 draft, Epstein wrote a simple message on the draft board as a reminder of the team’s intentions: Impact. Dominate.
The words were meant to serve as a reminder of a shift in draft philosophy. The Sox had focused in 2003 and 2004 on quickly rebuilding the upper levels of their farm system by drafting college players who were safe bets but who might not have the ceiling of a superstar. But by 2005, the team had accomplished that mission, and so wanted to use its picks -- including five first-round selections -- to find players with elite potential.
This year, however, there was no need to convey a message that is now an accepted component of the organization’s thinking.
“We’ve been together as a group for so long that I think that it’s been absorbed into our culture, how we scout and pick,” said McLeod. “We don’t need to put it up there.”
The Sox have targeted a small group of players for their first-round pick. At the top of that list is Reymond Fuentes, a burner in centerfield whose speed drew comparisons to Jacoby Ellsbury and Johnny Damon, and whose sinewy, quick-twitch wrists have reminded some of Alfonso Soriano.
Edgar Perez, the Sox’ area scout in Puerto Rico, has been following Fuentes for more than two years. No fewer than seven members of the Sox have scouted him, including most of the people in the draft room.
The Sox are prepared for the possibility -- perhaps even the likelihood -- that Fuentes won’t be available. The Sox believe that the Rangers, Diamondbacks and Angels are all candidates to pop the player whom they covet before their first selection -- the 28th overall arrives.
Yet even the start of the draft, at 6 p.m., does not signal the end of a wait that has now reached almost interminable status. In order to make the draft a TV-friendly undertaking, five minutes will elapse between each pick, rather than the traditional 60 seconds. As a result, the Sox’ selection will not occur until more than two hours have elapsed, and 27 other teams have made their picks.
“We’re getting fidgety. It’s a natural reaction,” said McLeod. “You’ve worked all year for this. When you’ve been through the draft as many times as a lot of us in that room, you’re so programmed for the draft starting at, like, 1, it’s that extra five hours, and now they’re adding four minutes between picks, it just seemed painstakingly long.
“[But] we’re still fans. We’re still watching on TV with everyone else,” he added. “The only difference is that we’ve got a speakerphone where we could hear the picks before they were announced on TV. We still get excited -- I do, anyway. It’s still giving attention to Major League Baseball, and specifically our profession as scouts.”
There is plenty of chatter and diagnosis of other teams’ selections. This is a year in which, more than most others, different teams seem to have very different draft boards for the first round. Most mock drafts will take a beating.
Some have suggested that high-school pitcher Jacob Turner will fall to the Sox; he gets taken seventh. Most predict that the Sox will use the 28th pick on Stassi; he does not get taken until the second day of the draft, in the fourth round.
The minutes and hours tick by. Finally, the Rangers take Matt Purke -- a power lefty from Klein High School in Texas -- with their first-round pick, the 14th overall. Arizona quickly follows with high-school third baseman Bobby Borchering (16th) and college outfielder A.J. Pollock (17th).
The Angels seem like the last obstacle standing between the Sox and Fuentes. But the obstacle is a major one.
“Reymond was a kid we really, really wanted,” said McLeod. “The Angels were the [team] I was worried about the most.”
Thanks to the departure of Mark Teixeira in free agency, the Angels have the Yankees’ first-round pick (24th overall) in addition to their own (25th), along with another compensation pick (40th overall) in the sandwich round.
That sandwich pick is the wild card. If they like Fuentes, the Angels are probably aware that they will have only one chance to get him before the Sox jump on him. On the other hand, they might conclude that one of the other players whom they’re eying with those first two picks could still be available when Los Angeles picks again at No. 40.
The Angels use their first pick to take high-school outfielder Randal Grichuck. And then, with their second selection, to the consternation of the Sox, the team takes another high-school outfielder.
But it is not Fuentes. Instead, it is Mike Trout who gets selected. Relief quickly permeates the Sox’ draft room.
“The Angels take their second pick. We’re kind of waiting with bated breath a little bit,” said McLeod. “Once the Angels pass, we’re like, ‘OK, there’s a really good chance we’re getting him.’”
The Brewers follow by taking a college right-hander (Eric Arnett). Then, when the Mariners’ selection of high-school shortstop Nick Franklin is made at No. 27, a brief celebration ensues. The Sox have Fuentes.
Regional cross-checker Mike Rikard will call Perez, the area scout who has followed Fuentes across Puerto Rico for years, to share the news. Perez will reach out to Fuentes to congratulate him, and, at the conclusion of the first round, McLeod and Epstein will call their newest draftee as well.
“For all I know,” joked McLeod, “[Carlos] Beltran might have gotten a hold of him before we did.”
(Beltran, the Mets’ superstar centerfielder, is Fuentes’ cousin. Fuentes revealed in a conference call that Beltran called in the middle of the Mets’ game that night to offer his congratulations on the first-round selection.)
The day has already been long, the wait borderline agonizing. But neither is over.
The Sox will now have to wait through 49 more picks before their next turn, with the No. 77 overall choice, in the second round. Again, more hours will pass, a stark contrast to the normal rapid-fire rhythm in which teams will offer pick after pick in a conference call.
“For me, the draft is like a dance,” said McLeod. “There’s a cadence to it, a pace to it. You don’t want to rush yourself through. But I like to keep things going. It helps your mind to work when you don’t just have to sit there and stare at something for a long time.
“We only did three rounds that night,” he said. “When we got into the next day, there’s a good flow and rhythm to it. You just get going. You line your guys up. You grab your players that you’re targeting in a certain area. You work, and you go.”
Trying to figure out who will be available in the remaining two rounds on that Tuesday borders on a fool’s errand. Again, it is a waiting game for the Sox.
The team is, however, elated to see that some of the players whom it viewed as an alternative to Fuentes with that first-round pick are still available. In particular, college right-hander Alex Wilson -- whom the Sox brought to Fenway for a workout prior to the 2008 draft -- unexpectedly remains on the board for one pick after another.
“Wilson and Fuentes were both in that pocket of five or six players [the team had targeted for the first round], so we were really happy that Alex was there with the second pick,” said McLeod.
(If so, then the Sox got something of a bargain with the pick, since Wilson officially signed on Monday for the recommended second-round slot bonus of roughly $475,000 -- less than half of what he likely would have commanded as a first-round pick.)
Already, the draft -- whose pace is now picking up a bit, with less time between picks -- seems a success. The Sox are confident that they’ve already added two potential impact players to the organization: a high-school outfielder with tremendous tools and baseball acumen, and a college right-hander with a power arsenal who can elicit swings and misses.
Both players are expected to sign relatively quickly, at or near their recommended slot bonuses. Now, the Sox are in a position to take a bit of a gamble that is based upon the possibility of flexing financial muscle.
Some scouts view David Renfroe as a first-round talent. He is viewed as a potentially dominant pitcher, as well as a shortstop/third baseman with a great plate approach and excellent power potential. He has also played at a championship level as a quarterback (his loss in the Mississippi state championship game as a senior was his first in two years), with off-the-charts makeup.
In many ways, Renfroe’s draft status as he comes out of South Panola High School resembles that of Casey Kelly, the shortstop/pitching/quarterback star whom the Sox tabbed with their first-round pick in 2008 and convinced (with a $3 million bonus) to pass on college. Renfroe is aware of the similarities, and so has circulated word in some quarters that he will seek a Kelly-sized bonus to forgo a scholarship at Ole Miss.
The Sox are undeterred. They had scouted Renfroe heavily dating to showcase games the previous summer, and had been impressed after bringing him to Fenway for workouts in late-May, during an East Coast swing when he had also showcased his skills at Yankee Stadium. The Sox take Renfroe with the 107th pick of the draft, and their final pick of day one.
“We know there’s a chance that we don’t get anything done with him,” McLeod acknowledges. “But still, the upside is too high to pass and possibly have another team take him when we spend as much time and resources as we have scouting him.”
Three more teams make selections, and the draft is over for Tuesday night. McLeod and Epstein meet briefly with the media, whose members are escorted down to “the dungeon” where most of the baseball operations staff is finishing up for the night.
The premises will soon clear. It is time for the staff to break up, to go home (McLeod arrives around 12:30 a.m.) and to prepare for the next two days, for the next 47 picks who have a chance to transform the Red Sox for years to come.