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June 2, 2009 at 9:45 AM

Red Sox Draft Preview: Recent History & Strategy

In the first three drafts of the John Henry ownership regime (2002-2004), the Red Sox took a somewhat risk-averse approach to player selection, largely focusing their resources on established college talent. Many of the players selected in the early rounds of those drafts were safe bets, but essentially had replacement-level ceilings. Some became just that - replacement level players at the major league level. As is the case with any draft, some of the top picks didn’t even make it that far. All that being said, the Sox did come away with three all-star level players from those drafts in Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, and Dustin Pedroia, while signing seven other players that eventually made it to the majors. David Chadd, Boston’s Director of Amateur Scouting during that time period, should be proud of those drafts based on those selections alone. However, it seems as if the expectations have been raised in Red Sox Nation, as some fans now expect two or three impact players to come out of every draft. The main reason for the bar raising may be the early successes of the present Director of Amateur Scouting, Jason McLeod.

2005-2008 Drafts

Taking over prior to the 2005 Draft, McLeod shifted Boston’s draft strategy to focus more on high-ceiling prospects, with a willingness to take risks on raw projectable talent and players who were considered to be tough to sign away from their college commitments. With six picks in the top fifty-seven picks of the 2005 Draft, the Sox came away with a wealth of talent in Jacoby Ellsbury, Craig Hansen, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie, and Michael Bowden, all of whom have contributed to the big league club or are on the verge of making contributions in the foreseeable future. In addition, several other 2005 Sox draftees are still demonstrating success in the minors potentially on their way to major league careers, including Portland catcher Mark Wagner and PawSox lefty Hunter Jones, who McLeod signed as an undrafted free agent in 2005. Meanwhile, a few early-round gambles such as Jonathan Egan and Scott Blue failed to pay off. The team was also unable to come to terms with Pedro Alvarez, then a highly-regarded prep player, now considered to be one of the top prospects in all of baseball after being selected second overall in the 2009 draft by Pittsburgh.

McLeod continued his search for high-ceiling talent in the 2006 Draft, which has already yielded one impact player in the form of Justin Masterson. With seven of the top 100 picks, Boston appeared willing to take a few more risks, and that has come with mixed results. In addition to Masterson, Daniel Bard seems like a safe bet to become an impact player in the short term. Boston’s other top 100 picks – Jason Place, Kris Johnson, Caleb Clay, Aaron Bates, and Bryce Cox – each of whom could be labeled as “project” type of player with lots of potential – have all shown varied levels of success in their respective developmental tracks. However, the Sox seemed to have hit on some players in the later signability rounds, with Lars Anderson, Josh Reddick, and Ryan Kalish all impressing the Sox brass on the way up the ladder to Fenway. All three players are young talents with the potential to be elite big leaguers, but at the same time each have had their respective struggles in Double-A Portland. Boston also missed out on signing first baseman Matt LaPorta, was considered a signability gamble from the get go. Altogether, three years out, the 2006 Draft still has the potential to be a major success.

The 2007 and 2008 Drafts continued the trend of honing in on high-ceiling impact players and the team’s willingness to draft and sign big bonus players in the later rounds. Boston went so far as to spend in excess of $10-million in bonuses on the 2008 Draft, which by all accounts set a draft record. While it’s too early to tell which players will be major league contributors from these drafts, one common thread has been an unfortunate plague of injuries or health concerns for many of the high-bonus players: Nick Hagadone and Drake Britton both required Tommy John Surgery; Austin Bailey and Ryan Westmoreland both suffered partial labrum tears; Anthony Rizzo missed most of the 2008 season with Hodgkin's Lymphoma; Will Middlebrooks missed time in 2009 with a torn hamstring; Derrik Gibson is struggling through an oblique strain in Fort Myers; Tyler Wilson is rehabbing from problems with his heart; Stephen Fife missed time earlier this season with arm fatigue; and Mike Lee missed time this year with complications from the flu. Here’s hoping that luck has turned around for the younger players in the organization, as many of these players are back on the comeback trail.

2009 Draft

Following the recent trends, look for the Sox to zero in on the best high-ceiling talent available in 2009. By “high ceiling”, we mean the type of player that might have a 25% chance at becoming a dominant major leaguer, even if he only would have a 50% chance of ever making it to the majors if selected by some other team (as opposed to a more-established player that might have a 90% chance of making it to the majors someday but only a 10% change of becoming an all star). Expect the team to continue to focus on attributes such as plate discipline, athleticism, and projectability (for power arms and bats), while maintaining focus on intangibles such as character, maturity, and poise – the types of players that the scouting department anticipates that the player development staff can develop into top notch prospects from the ground up.

If history is any indicator, the Sox will simply take the best impact talent available through the first three rounds, as long as those players aren’t labeled as “unsignable.” In rounds four through seven, expect the team to pick a few projectable players that have fallen due to signability, but whom the organization feels confident that they can lock up prior to the August 15 signing deadline, even if that means paying over slot. Conversely, if recent history rings true, the team will seek to draft signable players in rounds eight through twelve in the hopes of getting some well-regarded players to report to Fort Myers right off the bat. The teens and twenties have generally been reserved for drafting high-end prep prospects with signability issues, with a few signable slot players peppered in the mix. Expect the Sox to even take a few players who are considered to be “unsignable” in those rounds. After the 30th round, a large portion of selections are generally made with the goal of filling out the Lowell and GCL rosters or for selecting project players that the Sox hope to follow over the course of the summer.

Altogether, with the success the team has had in recent years between scouting and player development, don't expect the team to make any major changes in this year’s draft strategy. And for those of you asking - no, the Sox are not going to draft players based on the present needs of the major league team, or even the needs that they anticipate might be there three years down the line. But if they were to even slightly lean in that direction, the left side of the infield and catcher are positions where the team appears to lack a true heir apparent right now.

In the upcoming parts of this eight-part draft preview, we'll bring you some ideas on specific players that the Sox may be looking at in the early rounds.

Is there a logjam in the lower tiers of the system that could affect Boston’s draft options?

In short, the answer is no, at least not yet. However, as the Sox have generally utilized the same draft philosophy since 2005, the lower tiers of the minor league system have begun to fill up with high ceiling talent. This seems particularly true this year after the record-setting 2008 Draft, as a number of roster spots on the short-season affiliates are already filled with high bonus players, a few of which arguably could block the path for potential 2009 Draftees.

As most Sox fans know, nearly all draftees, when signed, are initially slated to begin their minor league careers in short-season ball, meaning they will be tabbed to play for the Lowell Spinners or the GCL Red Sox in Boston’s system. Rarely have draftees begun their pro careers at higher levels, except when those players sign late and don’t debut professionally until the following year. Which is good news, because at the next rung of the ladder, the Low-A Greenville Drive, the 25-man roster is presently overflowing with prospects at nearly every position, and management has even been forced into creative roster management tactics to essentially maintain an eight-man starting rotation and ten position players realistically in need of everyday at bats. As such, all 2009 draftees should initially be assigned to Lowell or the GCL, whose seasons both start in late June.

Rosters in the New York-Penn League, where Lowell plays, are limited to 30 players. Traditionally, Lowell’s roster is comprised of about 15 pitchers and 15 position players that have shown advancement beyond the rudimentary instructional levels. As of today, there are approximately 16 pitchers an 13 position players in Extended Spring Training that would presumably be slated for Lowell, and that’s before the draft (click here for a projected roster). On the one hand, a few of these players may be released, and some may not be ready to take the field when the Spinners start up in late June, due to injuries or otherwise. However, there are also several highly-regarded players that are all-but-guaranteed spots on the Lowell roster, including 2-4 starting pitchers, 4-6 bullpen arms, 3 catchers, and 3-5 outfielders. While there may need to be a few cuts between the Draft and Opening Day to open up some roster space, the only spot that a logjam might exist in Lowell right now is the outfield, with Ryan Westmoreland, Wilfred Pichardo, Bryan Peterson, Ronald Bermudez, and Roberto Feliz penciled in to roam the grass when the New York-Penn League season gets underway. It will certainly be interesting if the Sox use a high pick on a college outfielder and assign him to Lowell out of the gate, but by no means is that out of the question.

Comparably, the GCL Red Sox roster is fairly open, with 35 roster spots and only about 17 players that would presumably be slated to start short-season ball in the Gulf Coast League. The only crunch is at the catcher position, with high bonus players Oscar Perez and Carson Blair ready to set up behind the dish for the GCL Sox. There could be a struggle for playing time if the Sox sign a high school catcher and opt to initially assign him to the GCL.

The place to ultimately watch for potential logjams is next year’s Greenville squad (click here for projected 2010 roster). As previously mentioned, the Drive's roster is presently packed to the brim. If an average number of 2009 Lowell and GCL players graduate to Low-A in 2010, aone or two late signees make their debuts in Greenville in 2010, a couple players come back from injuries, and a few of the younger current Drive players need to repeat the level (a distinct possibility), then the Greenville roster crunch could become a real issue to watch in 2010.