It's Been Such a Long Time
... Since the Sox Had Power We Could Call Our Own
BDD's exclusive excerpt of the Maple Street Press 2009 Red Sox Annual
Power Trip: The Search for Homegrown Middle-of-the-Order Bats, by Chris Paddock
"No big news flash here. It’s been a bit of problem.”
So began a thread on the Sons of Sam Horn message board this past October titled “Red Sox and developing power hitters.” Not a historical problem, of course. Boston’s storied past is flush with homegrown sluggers, from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Jim Ed Rice to Mo Vaughn. And Boston’s Fenway Park has long held a reputation as a hitter’s haven, which served as a potential obstacle in the famed Thanksgiving negotiations with Curt Schilling, and probably contributed to Rice’s long wait for the Hall of Fame.
What people were getting at in the thread is that it’s been some time since a bona fide power hitter made his way through the system. Since 1990, only three players drafted by the Sox have hit more than 25 home runs in a major league season: Trot Nixon, Nomar Garciaparra, and Kevin Youkilis. You can add Hanley Ramirez when international signings are included. That’s a total of four “power hitters” in just shy of 20 years of amateur drafts and international signing periods, and only three total seasons of over 30 home runs (one by Ramirez, two by Garciaparra).
Given that Boston’s current general manager, Theo Epstein, has all but finished construction on his “$100 million player-development machine,” you have to wonder if this is not an accident, as plenty of observers do. His minor league staff has done an incredible job of producing top-level, homegrown talent, but, stars that they are, you’re not going to see Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, or Jon Lester hitting cleanup very often.
And when, in this past year’s draft, Boston gave out their highest draft bonus ever to a legitimate two-way high school player, Casey Kelly, who they coveted much more as a pitcher, and also offered what would have been their second-highest bonus ever to towering, young hurler Alex Meyer (who turned it down), you have to start wondering about it your-self. Add in recent big-ticket picks that the Red Sox have not signed, such as mashers Pedro Alvarez, Matt LaPorta, and Hunter Morris, and you can see where this theory might have some legs to it.
No one in the Red Sox organization will say there is an overt strategy to draft and develop pitching, and to find power via free agency and trade. When it comes to amateur talent, they’ll say they’re looking for the best players avail-able, just like any other organization.
But even with the obvious lack of middle-of-the-order, farm-fed bats at the Fens, and regardless of Boston’s recent draft history, and despite the fact that Director of Amateur Scouting Jason McLeod himself will admit, if pressed, that he thinks pitching may ultimately be a more valuable equity than hitting—that “the value of pitching in baseball right now is incredibly high”—it’s very difficult to say, when you look a bit deeper, that the Red Sox have intentionally shied away from amateur power hitters.
Sound bites like “can’t have enough pitching” and “best player available” may come across as company lines, but there is a lot of evidence to support that Boston’s recent homegrown power outage really has been, by and large, dictated by circumstances, not strategy. When you start looking into each draft under Epstein, one by one, and hone in on the indi-vidual context of every high-level pick, scrutinize who the Sox could have selected instead (admittedly, a slippery slope), and try to understand why certain kids weren’t signed, it becomes difficult to substantiate the argument that Boston deval-ues amateur power hitters in favor of pitching.
To investigate further, we’ll go through each draft, starting with the first one under Epstein in 2003.
In the 2003 draft, Boston’s first selection was pick 17 in the first round, and they received extra first- and second-round picks thanks to the departure of Cliff Floyd in the offseason. There was no shortage of hitters available for the Red Sox in that slot, and they took one, outfielder David Murphy of Baylor University. Murphy’s bat was plenty polished, as was his glove, which projected well in center field. He was viewed as a legitimate five-tool talent. And though he hadn’t flashed much power during his college career, Boston knew it was there.
“It had nothing to do with his ability to hit it far,” said area scout Jim Robinson, who signed Murphy. “He could hit them as far as anybody. For whatever reason, game time, it didn’t translate into productivity. I think that’s probably why we took him where we took him, because we believed it would.”
The Sox selected another college outfielder, Matt Murton of Georgia Tech, just two picks into the supplemental first round at 32. According to the area scout who signed him, Rob English, his line-drive stroke wasn’t all that conducive to hitting a lot of home runs, but, Murton, too, demonstrated solid raw power (he won the Cape Cod League home run derby that summer), and his strength and mature approach were enough to project him as a corner outfielder.
This coming spring, both players will compete for starting jobs on other teams, and their upsides are now as solid regulars or fourth outfielders. What kind of power did the Sox leave on the board? College hitters Carlos Quentin and Conor Jackson were both taken after Murphy, as were high-schoolers Brandon Wood and Eric Duncan. Another pair of high-schoolers, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Adam Jones, went just a few picks after Murton.
Quentin’s breakout year this past season, in particular, doesn’t make these selections look as good in hindsight, but these picks were viewed as perfectly reasonable at the time, and the Sox weren’t the only team that viewed the players they picked as the best available. Just think of the Cubs, who took perhaps the best high school power bat in the draft, outfielder Ryan Harvey, with the sixth selection. Looking back, that’s so far off it’s hardly worth dwelling on. But as Cubs fans frown on that pick now, many probably would have questioned their team’s vision in 2003 if they let a talent like Har-vey slip by.
“Getting into this type of exercise is going to induce some wrist-slitting situations,” said Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, who’s been covering minor league baseball since 2001. “Oh, the Red Sox passed on Player X. But you know what? So did 18 other teams.”
The 2004 draft was a somewhat weak crop for power bats, if not in general, so we won’t spend much time here. Boston forfeited their first-round pick by signing closer Keith Foulke in the offseason, and thus did not pick until late in the second round at 64, where they selected a diminutive college shortstop named Dustin Pedroia.
Clearly, this one worked out pretty well, but there weren’t many worthy sluggers available in this slot anyway. The only viable power options were mercurial college outfielder Eddy Martinez-Esteve and raw high school third baseman Eric Campbell. A few other notable high school big bats went undrafted altogether, including Michael Taylor, Chris Davis, and Lucas Duda. The Sox did end up selecting college first baseman Steve Pearce in the 10th round, who hit 31 homers across three minor league levels in 2007 for the Pirates, but failed to sign him. Pearce, however, wasn’t considered that type of prospect by scouts three years prior, in part due to injuries and performance.
2005—FOOL ME ONCE
This draft was the first one lead by McLeod, who had the good fortune of having a few extra bullets to make his mark. The departures of Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, and Orlando Cabrera left Boston with 5 of the first 45 picks.
But the first pick wouldn’t come until 23, where the Sox selected speedy college outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. After leading Oregon State to their first College World Series in 53 years, Ellsbury’s stock as a plus center fielder and pro-totypical lead-off man drew comparisons to Johnny Damon. And, like Damon, Ellsbury didn’t project to hit for a ton of power.
Boston followed by taking Craig Hansen with their second first-round selection three picks later. Hansen was rumored as a potential top five pick, but fell due to what were assumed to be excessive bonus demands by his advisor, the notori-ous Scott Boras.
No position players were taken in between these two picks, and hitters left on the board after Hansen included high-schoolers Colby Rasmus, John Drennen, and Henry Sanchez. Rasmus is the most intriguing name of the bunch, as he’s turned into one of the better prospects in baseball, but at the time he was akin to a more raw version of the polished Ells-bury, albeit with a better arm and average power at best, not the plus power he shows today.
Sanchez, however, may have had the best power in the entire draft, though he was not without his warts. According to Baseball America, he had checked in at close to 300 pounds in the past, and didn’t offer much more than the strength and bat speed that created such prodigious raw power. Probably not the kind of player you want to take a chance on with the first of your five picks, and certainly not the player you’re going to take when a talent like Craig Hansen is still avail-able. Next up were the Sox’ supplemental first-round picks at 42, 45, and 47. Rasmus, Drennen, and Sanchez were all off the board at this point, as was Eli Iorg, a college senior that presented a nice combination of speed and power.
The Red Sox selected, in order, community college pitcher Clay Buchholz, college shortstop Jed Lowrie, and high school righthander Michael Bowden. Starting with Buchholz, no position player was even selected until the second round, at pick 50. Several big bats were taken in the second round, starting with Cape League star Daniel Carte at 52, followed soon after by high school catcher Jon Egan, selected by Boston at 57, the first of two second-round picks for them. After Sanchez, Egan had as much raw power as any high school player in the draft. The biggest concern with him was his abil-ity to stay behind the plate. A parade of college sluggers were taken after him in this round, including Nolan Reimold, Kris Harvey, Mike Costanzo, and Chase Headley, in that order.
What you may not know is that, according to Jim Callis of Baseball America and past conversations with the organi-zation, Boston looked into taking a trio of high school power bats within the span of these five picks, but instead chose to heed to slotting guidelines laid out by the commissioner’s office. Callis said that the Sox wanted to take high-schooler Reese Havens with their first pick at 23, but he wanted almost $400,000 over slot. The Sox considered fellow high school bats Justin Smoak and Pedro Alvarez in the sandwich round, but they were asking for $1 million and $850,000 respec-tively, more than what Major League Baseball was suggesting to be paid in the area of Boston’s supplemental first-round picks.
The Sox finally took Alvarez in the 14th round, as slotting guidelines only apply to the first 10 rounds, and they figured they had a good handle on his asking price. McLeod said that things were “in place to sign Pedro Alvarez… we did every-thing we could.” Despite attempts to get a bonus number from him after he was selected, according to Callis, “By the end of the summer, [Alvarez] had been re-recruited so hard by Vanderbilt [University] that the family was intent that he would go there.”
Obviously, all three players made good choices, as each of them were first-round picks in last year’s draft. Alvarez was arguably the best player available in 2008 and bagged a $6 million bonus. Smoak cleared $3.5 million himself, and Havens, selected at 22, got almost exactly the same bonus as he would have if he signed for slot with the Red Sox in 2005.
Being good boys and losing great players served as motivation for the Red Sox’ brass, to say the least, as evidenced by the two drafts that followed.
It’d be hard to complain about power bats in this draft, even though, in any given prospect chat, you’ll hear almost as much about the one who got away as those that didn’t.
McLeod picked up three extra first-round picks and a third-rounder thanks to the departures of Damon and Bill Muel-ler, and with the very first of those slots, he took the raw but toolsy high-schooler Jason Place. Blessed with rare physical ability, Place was, according to English, one of those rare high school bats whose power was as plain as day.
“Place was very unusual,” said English. “You didn’t have to project anything. He was a bona fide five-tool guy. He was a high school kid that could show you just the most outstanding raw power you’ve ever seen on a young man that age. Now the question is: Will he make enough contact for the power to be a factor?”
He hasn’t made much contact so far in his career, but he’s still young, and plays stellar defense with a plus arm in center field. Regardless, you can’t say the Red Sox didn’t take a chance on power in this draft, not just because of Place, but because of all the “over-slot” selections they made after the 10th round. That effort, which was spurred on by the 2005 draft, was well-documented in this publication two years ago, but it bears repeating that Boston paid out for multiple play-ers with above-average raw power, including wiry community college bat Josh Reddick, mashing high school catcher Ty Weeden, and the ever-popular Lars Anderson, whose “easy power,” as McLeod refers to it, has helped him become the consensus top prospect in the system.
Anderson, in particular, has helped cement a trend of the Red Sox taking multiple high-end talents that slipped in the draft due to signability issues, then following them throughout the summer so the organization can assess their value ex-clusively. This notion picked up steam after the 2003 draft, when the Dodgers signed 39th round pick Andy LaRoche for $1 million after a brilliant season on the Cape. Teams gradually began to embrace that strategy, but never to the extent that the Red Sox, as well as the Yankees, Angels, and Cubs, did in this draft.
But since teams like Boston were now consciously deciding to ignore the guidelines from the commissioner’s office, why not take a player like Anderson with one of your sandwich picks? Or even in the second round, and pay him more than slot money there? Slotting system aside, there was an abundance of signable, high-end talent available at that point in the draft. It’s a concept that teams like the Washington Nationals have yet to grasp, having failed to sign pitcher Sean Black in 2006, then first-rounder Aaron Crow in 2008. Generally speaking, plenty of comparable, signable players would be available in these slots, too, so you let the expensive ones fall to a round where the talent is less comparable. Even if the slotting system didn’t exist, that’s just good business.
Regardless of the strong effort made in this draft, there are those who are still lamenting the fact that Boston did not sign college slugger Matt LaPorta, taken a few rounds before Anderson and Weeden. Like Alvarez, he went to school, or back to school in LaPorta’s case, had a stand-out year that landed him a windfall of cash in the 2007 draft, and was then used as primary fodder in the blockbuster CC Sabathia trade last year. The parallels with Alvarez are clear, but the cir-cumstances are much different.
LaPorta was considered as perhaps the best power hitter in college baseball as a sophomore, but an injury in his jun-ior year hurt his stock significantly. Plenty of teams probably would have been willing to take a chance that he’d bounce back given the potential reward, but LaPorta’s advisor was Boras, who often uses past players to establish value for cur-rent players he’s representing. In this case, said Callis, Boras used Jeff Clement, the former University of Southern Cali-fornia catcher who signed for $3.4 million as the third overall pick in the 2005 draft. “It’s not like LaPorta didn’t sign because of some grave error by the Red Sox,” added Goldstein. “At the time, their valuation didn’t match his demand. They were willing to make a pretty hefty offer.”
The Sox obviously proved willing to pay for potential in this draft, but even if McLeod was willing to ante up $1 million for LaPorta, the sides would still have been millions of dollars apart.
By this draft, a clear strategy had evolved, and the Red Sox and other organizations began taking the over-slot method to another level. Instead of waiting until after the 10th round to take Will Middlebrooks, a superior high school athlete with lofty bonus demands, the Sox took him in the fifth round and paid him first-round money. They proceeded to take high school power bats in the next two rounds as well, paying Anthony Rizzo and David Mailman as if they were drafted in much higher rounds.
Boston did not, however, overpay for their second second-round pick, high school bopper Hunter Morris. When you look at Morris together with Alvarez and LaPorta, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that the Red Sox do not value power. But once again, the circumstances are unique here, and there’s little reason to believe the Sox were indifferent to signing Morris.
There was certainly an element of he-said, she-said in this drama, but what’s clear is that, at the end of the day, there was a misperception before the draft regarding what Morris might sign for. The Sox presumed to have had his bonus number before selecting him, only to have Morris change it. According to Callis, Morris’s advisor said the number never changed. Regardless of who was to blame, this basically boils down to a communication issue.
“Yes, Hunter Morris is a big, bulky, power-hitting first baseman,” added Goldstein. “But his not signing has nothing to do with the Red Sox philosophy on power. He could have been a slick-fielding, 150-pound shortstop and it would have been the same situation.”
But, again, this isn’t a slot you want to gamble with when so much signable talent is still left on the board. Further, the Red Sox, like most teams, make it a priority to sign picks in the top 10 rounds. “In those top 10 rounds, you really want to make sure you can sign the player,” said McLeod. “It is certainly our inten-tion to sign players we take up there. For various reasons, that may not always happen.”
Boston continued their aggressive draft strategy this past year, and were, in fact, more aggressive than they’ve ever been before. Outside of the massive $3 million bonus they gave to two-way high-schooler Casey Kelly in the first round, the Sox again took pricey, over-slot players in higher rounds, this time even earlier in the draft. High school outfielders Pete Hissey and Ryan Westmoreland were drafted in the fourth and fifth round respectively, and pulled in $1 million and $2 million dollar signing bonuses, giving Boston the equivalent of two extra first-round draft picks before they entered the sixth round.
In Westmoreland, Boston got a top talent with true above-average raw power, but you could argue they could have had more. With the sandwich pick received for losing pitcher Eric Gagne, the Sox selected that rare high-risk college arm in Bryan Price. Price’s arm is a live one, but he didn’t find a lot of success in his career at Rice University, and was never particularly healthy. Many strong bats were on the board at the time, including Dennis Raben, Roger Kieschnick, Destin Hood, Zack Cox, and Adrian Nieto.
With plenty of pitching already in the system, wasn’t a big bat a better option?
“It’s not like the Red Sox were on an island saying they don’t like those guys,” said Goldstein. “They went about where you thought they’d go. But with those first 100 picks of the draft, nobody drafts for need. Nobody. It’s just a stupid thing to do. You take the best player on your board.” “Simple answer is,” added McLeod, “we liked Price better than all the other guys. He was kind of an under-the-radar type of guy. He sort of goes against the grain, but, all of us who saw him thought he had the potential to make a greater impact than [Raben, Kieschnick, Hood, Cox, or Nieto].”
The Sox did take one of the best high school power bats in the 24th round, but Ricky Oropesa didn’t seem inclined to sign, as his bonus demands were excessive, yet he wasn’t willing to play much during the summer to prove he warranted the money. He ended up honoring his commitment to the University of Southern California.
“I think that if Ricky Oropesa had gone out in summer ball and had a good summer like Lars Anderson did two years ago,” said Callis, “the Red Sox would have aggressively gone after him.” When looking back through all of these drafts, there are many cases where the Red Sox got it right, regardless of the position of any given player. In 2005, for example, even though Boston had to pass on power bats they actually wanted, all of their first five picks have already played in the big leagues. It’s also pretty clear that they’ve been aggressive picking power in recent drafts, with selections like Place, Anderson, Middlebrooks, and 2008 draftee Ryan Westmoreland. But then there are instances, such as with Matt LaPorta, where the difference in perceived value was simply irreconcilable. There are also those cases where the Sox simply missed, hoping a player like David Murphy could take his batting-practice swing into games. It’s important to remember, though, that like the players they evaluate every day, scouts are going to miss most of the time, too. It’s simply the nature of the game.
It’s hard not to second-guess the organization when there’s been such a dearth of homegrown power hitters over the past couple decades. Of course, good or bad, it wouldn’t be prudent to connect Epstein to his predecessor, Dan Duquette, nor Duquette to his, Lou Gorman. Every general manager brings with him different draft strategies and scouting method-ologies, and Epstein was ushered in with an entirely new ownership team. But Boston has been more than successful in recent years, even if power hitters haven’t been among the first wave of major league-ready prospects.
One thing has run constant through these administrations, though. Through all the hits and misses, no one dwells on what could have been more than the scouts themselves.
“We’re our own worst critics,” said McLeod of his scouting department. “As much as fans sound like the Monday Morning Quarterback, believe me, they don’t do it as much as we do it ourselves.” MSP
Chris Paddock is a columnist for Diehard Magazine and a contributor to Scout.com. He lives in San Francisco.