It would not be an exaggeration to say that new Red Sox outfielder Jason Bay was the most coveted player on this summer's trade market. Every team, it seemed, wanted to take part in the sweepstakes for the Pirates outfielder that suddenly represented all things to all people.
Small and large-market clubs, teams looking to load up for 2008 or those who were circling 2009, were all drawn like moths to light by the 29-year-old outfielder. Bay is a middle-of-the-order right-handed hitter with good instincts for the game, an impeccable clubhouse reputation and a contract ($5.75 million this year, $7.5 million in 2009) that is typically found in clearance bins.
The development is remarkable to consider, given the inglorious start of Bay's baseball career. No one pursued a player who could now fit into virtually any organization.
THROUGH THE CRACKS
In retrospect, Bay's performance after transferring from North Idaho College to Gonzaga University for his junior year in 1999 should have opened eyes. He hit .360 and splashed his name in the Bulldogs record book with 20 homers (2nd in team history at the time) and 74 RBIs (1st).
Yet that performance proved the equivalent of a tree falling in the forest. Bay was not among nearly 1,500 players drafted in 1999.
“I didn't get too many scouts talking to me. The draft came and went and nothing,” recalled Bay. “It was a little deflating. It was like, 'Wow—what do I have to do to get noticed?'”
Geography and weather had something to do with Bay's anonymity. He grew up in Trail, British Columbia, then was well off the grid at North Idaho. Even the move to Gonzaga did little to put him in the spotlight.
Gonzaga—a school best known as a Goliath-slayer during the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament—resides in Spokane, Wash., roughly 275 miles from Seattle and 350 from Portland. That distance made it an infrequent destination for the area scouts who often cover a region that includes Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Western Canada and sometimes even Northern California.
The miserable weather also yields a short scouting season that makes it difficult to get many looks at players in the region. As is the case in New England, the season in the Northwest is typically short, and scouts must cross their fingers and hope that the game they're trying to attend is not rained out.
Bay tried to improve his profile by playing in the Cape League after his junior year and returned to Gonzaga, where he repeated his performance in the West Coast Conference. But the response from scouts remained tepid.
Bay was not selected on the first day of the 2000 draft (“again, deflating”). Finally, in the 22nd round, on the recommendation of area scout Scott Goldby, the Expos plucked the outfielder with the 645th pick.
Goldby had observed that Bay had legitimate tools and good instincts for the game. Though the West Coast Conference creates a scouting challenge due to the disparate levels of talent among its players, Goldby viewed Bay as a potentially useful player.
“How he got to the 22nd round, I can't explain it, and I don't think anyone else can, either,” said Goldby, who now works as a West Coast cross-checker for the Marlins. “The industry as a whole, I think we can say we all whiffed on him.
My area compadres up here, at the time, they were saying, 'Yeah, Bay's a pretty good pick in the 22nd round.' Then three years later, they're saying, 'How did you get Jason Bay in the 22nd round?' Well, there's a lot of luck involved.”
There certainly wasn't much money involved. Bay had absolutely no negotiating leverage. After watching more than 2,000 players get picked in front of him over two years, Bay was not in a position to take a hard line, particularly since, as a college senior, he did not have the option of returning to school and improving his draft position.
The Expos offered $1,000. Bay signed on the dotted line.
“It was big money,” Bay laughed. “All I was looking for at that point was a chance, basically to prove—not to anyone else, but to myself—if I can't do it, I'm at least going to get out there and try. I would have been devastated if I hadn't gotten that chance.”
He would quickly make the most of his opportunity.
EARLY PRO CAREER
With such modest beginnings, Bay seemed like a player whom Bill Parcells might deem a J.A.G. (Just Another Guy). He had to wait a few weeks for a work visa before he could sign with the Expos in Florida and then report to the Vermont Expos of the New York Penn League.
Bay's brief first foray into pro ball was solid if unspectacular. He hit .304 with a .356 OBP and swiped 17 bases. It was not until the spring of 2001 that the young outfielder opened the eyes of his organization.
“He showed up and the first spring training he went to, we have what we call field day, where you measure tools,” said former Expos farm director Tony LaCava, now the Blue Jays Assistant General Manager. “What a surprise he was—Jason really had tools. He ran a 6.6 in the 60, he had a plus arm from right field, he had raw power and he could hit. In that round, that area of the draft, you usually don't find that complete a player.”
Bay's performance in minor-league camp that spring gave him grounds for optimism. A player who had struggled to be recognized suddenly had a chance to measure his skills against those of other professionals. The view was promising.
“That was the first time,” said Bay, “that I thought, 'Man—if I can keep this up, be this type of player, I have a chance to move on here.'”
The Expos had been planning on sending Bay to low-A ball. But his performance that spring led the club to the conclusion that he should be challenged at a higher level. Bay was sent to Jupiter of the High-A Florida State League.
The results were miserable. The promise of spring training quickly yielded to a bleak forecast.
“It was one-something that I hit, and it was a soft one-something. It wasn't pretty,” said Bay, who hit .195 with just six extra-base hits in 123 at-bats. “They called me in and said they were going to send me down to low-A, which was pretty devastating. I'm thinking, 22nd round draft pick down here. My ticket probably isn't going to last much longer.
“I got to low-A, the first week there I stunk some more. It was almost to the point where I was like, 'I'm just going to quit before they release me,'” he continued. “It was the first time I'd really struggled in my baseball career. It was a really trying time.”
Yet Bay responded exceptionally well to that adversity for Clinton. He ended up raking, and in the waning days of the season, he was in contention for the Midwest League batting title. In order to give him enough at-bats to qualify, Bay displaced teammate Grady Sizemore as the leadoff hitter.
On the final day of the 2001 season, he registered enough plate appearances to win the league's batting crown with a .362 average. He also showed advanced plate discipline, power, good baserunning skills...
“(LaCava) told me, 'Hey—this Bay guy? He's special. The Triple-A guys want him right now,” said Goldby. “'I've got to hold them back, let him feel it out and work his way through the system. But ability-wise, he's ready to go. He's ready to move through the system pretty quick.'”
A HOT POTATO
Yet Bay's movement would not occur in the Expos system. Instead, with rumblings that the franchise might be eliminated by Major League Baseball after the 2002 season, the Expos could be forgiven for stripping their farm system in an effort to contend that season.
The most notable instance of such an effort occurred in the middle of that year, when Montreal traded Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee to the Indians for Bartolo Colon. In March 2002, at the end of that spring training, the Expos traded Bay to the Mets as part of a package that netted fourth outfielder Lou Collier.
That deal ushered in a period in which Bay relocated more frequently than an FBI protected witness. He was gaining value, but rather than continue to enjoy the fruits of his rise, teams started using him as a chip.
“He became like a hot potato for that one year,” said LaCava.
The Mets acquired him, had him split time between their high-A and Double-A affiliates. He then moved again to the Padres as part of a package in a trading deadline deal for middle reliever Steve Reed.
The Mets had given the Padres a list of outfielders whom they were willing to include in the package. It was then-Padres scout Craig Shipley, now the Red Sox Vice-President of International Scouting, who influenced the decision of San Diego G.M. Kevin Towers.
“Ship was the one who said, 'Take Bay,'” said Towers. “He was the guy who pushed the deal.”
It took Bay little time to ratify the decision. Despite the constant changes of venue, he kept elevating his play—perhaps a foreshadowing of his ability to move effortlessly from Pittsburgh to Boston this year.
His average, on-base percentage and slugging averages went up in each of his three stops (Mets high-A, Mets Double-A, San Diego Double-A) that year, and Bay finished the year with a combined .283 average with 17 homers and 85 RBIs.
“It didn't take long to where this guy was on our radar screen for the big leagues,” said Padres general manager Kevin Towers. “We felt we had a guy who was going to be corner-type outfielder who had a chance to be a very good everyday player.”
Bay received that opportunity the following year. He enjoyed a Triple-A breakout, hitting .303 with 20 homers in just over 300 at-bats. The Padres called him up to the bigs in May of that season, and the 24-year-old hit a homer in his first game.
A stray pitch broke his hand in his third game, leading Bay back to the disabled list and then to the minors. While there, the Padres—who were building for playoff contention in 2004, their first season in Petco Park—began looking for a lineup centerpiece who would help to push them towards the postseason.
Brian Giles, a two-time All-Star for the Pirates, seemed a natural fit. The San Diego native was a known commodity, a player who seemed to produce a .300 average, .400 OBP, 35 homers and 100 RBIs every year in Pittsburgh. But he would not come cheaply.
The Pirates insisted on getting starter Oliver Perez and an outfielder in the deal. The Padres then had a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't choice.
“It came down to Bay or (Xavier) Nady,” said Towers. “We didn't want to part ways with either of them. But we were about to move into our new park. We needed kind of a marquee player opening up our new park.
“We liked both players. Ultimately, we decided that maybe Nady would be the better player of the two...If we wouldn't have been going into our new ballpark, we probably never would have made the trade. (But) the way I look at it, Steve Reed turned into Brian Giles, which ends up being a pretty good deal, because of the great job Craig Shipley did.”
Of course, no one could forecast what Bay became in Pittsburgh. Even the player admits his surprise at the career path that he took with the Pirates.
He had shoulder surgery following the 2003 season, and a long recovery process left him on a minor-league rehab assignment the first month of the 2004 campaign. Yet despite obvious physical limitations, Bay received a call-up that caught him off guard.
“I could barely throw the ball to the shortstop,” said Bay. “(The Pirates) were like, 'We don't want you to throw the ball. We want you to hit.' I ended up being Rookie of the Year, and it was just a really weird year.”
He followed that 2004 season with a pair of All-Star campaigns in 2005 and 2006 in which he was one of the best all-around players in the game.
“Everyone thinks you have it in you,” said Bay. “But after three years, to have that, it was unimaginable.”
After struggling last year while battling season-long knee injuries, Bay has now returned to All-Star-caliber performance in 2008. Now in Boston through at least the end of next year, Bay has entered seamlessly into the Red Sox orbit. His career-long capacity to thrive while relocating has remained evident.
Bay's new park and lineup both bode well for his future production. Whether or not he matches the contributions of Manny Ramirez, the man whom he replaced in left field, has quickly become irrelevant.
His skills thus far have withstood the potentially withering scrutiny of his first days in Boston. There is substantial promise to his beginning.
“He's going to go out and perform,” said one talent evaluator. “It's going to be really interesting to see, now that he's in the lineup that he is, what's going to happen to him. He could put up astronomical numbers.”
For a player who once encountered a “No Vacancy” sign from nearly every organization, the development is extraordinary.
“Everyone's got to come from somewhere,” said Bay. “Whether it's the first pick or the last pick, does it matter? Guys are looking for a chance. That's all they're looking for.”
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.