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July 1, 2020 at 12:30 PM

Revisiting the 2003 draft: Epstein era dawns

Thank you for checking out the second part of our 2003 draft retrospective. Yesterday was a pick-by-pick rundown, while today we will dig a little deeper into a few of the more interesting and prominent draftees. For a quick list and links to player pages, check out our Draft History page.

2003 MLB Draft 

As mentioned in yesterday's introduction, the 2003 draft is an interesting place to start not just because the hiring of Theo Epstein marks the unofficial start of the modern Red Sox era, but also because the Red Sox were slotted 17th, the same position they were in when they drafted Nick Yorke two weeks ago. 2003 was also the year that statistical analysis really seemed to get a lot of press around draft time. Sabermetrics, rather than analytics, was the buzzword of the day, and Moneyball’s release was nigh. Organizations, at least the smart ones, were approaching the draft very differently than they were just a couple years earlier. The misinterpretation of the Michael Lewis bestseller that OBP-equals-good and high school pitchers-equals-bad seemed to play out—lots of college bats got priority, while Peabody High School phenom Jeff Allison, with a profile that would have made him a certain top-ten pick in the past, fell all the way to 16th.

One of Epstein's most clear charges when he got the general manager gig was to correct the team's abysmal record of drafting and developing amateur talent during the Dan Duquette era. Of the Red Sox' 12 first-round picks between 1994 and 2001, only five ever reached the majors. Two of those five (Nomar Garciaparra and Casey Fossum) did so with the Red Sox; and just two (Garciaparra and Adam Everett) compiled so much as 1.0 bWAR. With the farm system in shambles (despite what would prove to be a very solid 2002 draft in David Chadd's first year as scouting director under interim GM Mike Port), Epstein and Chadd needed to bring in a lot of talent. The result was a draft in which the organization signed 33 players in addition to five undrafted free agents, including the first 21 selections. The draft had a decided lean toward college players, with Mickey Hall the only one of the team's first 18 picks to come out of high school. 

The vitals: 
General Manager: Theo Epstein
Director of Amateur Scouting: David Chadd

Major Leaguers drafted and signed
Jonathan Papelbon (4th round, 23.3 bWAR)
David Murphy (1st round, 9.9 bWAR)
Matt Murton (1st supplemental round, 3.3 bWAR)
Abe Alvarez (2nd round, -0.4 bWAR)
Tom Cochran (18th round, Added to 25-man roster but did not appear in a game)

Unsigned players who reached major leagues
Chris Johnson (Redrafted by HOU in 2006, 0.6 bWAR)

Compensation considerations
Received supplemental first-round pick (Murton) and second-round pick (Alvarez) for the loss of free agent Cliff Floyd.

It is what you want, even if you don't know it
It was probably fortunate that, in his first draft, Epstein did not have to make the choice whether or not to draft Allison, the local hero who may not quite have fit with the direction he wanted to take the organization. Instead, he was able to grab a polished college bat in David Murphy out of Baylor. 

Starting this exercise with the Murphy pick is nice, because it is a surprisingly straightforward example of the gap between most fans' expectations versus the realities of the draft. No fan dreams of their team taking the next David Murphy with the 17th pick in the draft. If you were to interview the person on the street for their goal of what they want Nick Yorke's career arc to be, nobody would volunteer “serviceable player who tops out with a pair of above-average seasons eight years later for another franchise after getting swapped for a relief pitcher rental.” Yet in the inexact and frustrating world of amateur scouting, getting a good ballplayer like David Murphy at number 17 is a very good outcome.

Of the 37 players drafted in the first (including supplemental) round of the 2003 draft, Murphy ranks ninth in career bWAR. He ranks 20th in career bWAR among all players drafted and signed that year. Of the 55 players to be picked 17th overall in the June draft, Murphy ranks 10th; and that is no function of those older, less-sophisticated organizations missing more often, as only AJ Pollock (2009 draft) ranks higher among those taken since. Between 1995 and 2004, the Red Sox had only two first-round picks compile more than 4.0 bWAR: Murphy and Adam Everett. 

Players make strategies look good
A common misreading of Moneyball, sadly propagated by some prominent talking heads, was mentioned above. In reality, the lesson of Moneyball was to find a type of player that was undervalued. The Red Sox thought they found their undervalued asset class in college relievers, a demographic they would return to often in the mid-aughts. The theory went that college relievers had succeeded at a high level but also had less stress on their arms. The problem with that theory was the same as the frustration some have with MLB All-Star teams taking as many relievers as starters – most pitchers end up in the bullpen simply because they’re incapable of starting or less good than the starters, and that’s true across all levels. The strategy was maligned, as the Red Sox drafted several players who washed out in the mid-minors, but their one hit on the strategy arguably justified the entire scheme: in the fourth round, the team selected hard-throwing Jonathan Papelbon out of Mississippi State. The team moved him to the rotation, and he excelled in 2004 with an aggressive placement in High A Sarasota, posting a 2.64 ERA in 129 2/3 innings, striking out 153 against only 43 walks. 

The following spring training, Papelbon learned a split-fingered fastball from a rehabbing Curt Schilling, the perfect complement to his 98 mile-per-hour heater. He made his major league debut that July, moved to the bullpen in September, and was the closer by the start of the next season. Papelbon’s story needs little retelling—most of those reading this probably remember him dancing a jig to celebrate the 2007 World Series title—but some numbers remind us of how good he was in a Boston uniform. By the time he left after the 2011 season as a free agent, he’d amassed 219 saves, obliterating Bob Stanley’s Red Sox record. His 16.1 bWAR over seven seasons ranks 31st all-time among Boston pitchers. 

Into the history books
With one compensation pick the team got from losing Cliff Floyd in free agency, the Sox grabbed another polished college outfielder. Matt Murton never reached Boston, but was part of an important moment in the team’s history as the second piece sent to Chicago in the 2004 deadline deal that included Nomar Garciaparra. (Side note: a weird sub-plot of that wild four-team deal is that the Minnesota Twins thought they, and not the Cubs, would be getting Murton.) He reached the majors the following year and had a solid first two seasons with the Cubs, hitting .303/.370/.462 in 2005 and 2006 and taking over as the team’s starting left fielder. Murton’s tweener profile relegated him to a backup role the rest of his time stateside, as his power stagnated, leaving his bat light for the corner outfield spot he was suited for defensively. 

Murton signed with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan before the 2010 season, a move that worked out for both parties. In his first season with Hanshin, he broke the NPB single-season hits record, tallying 214 to best Ichiro Suzuki’s previous mark of 210. Murton’s .349/.395/.499 line that year kicked off a productive six-year stint with the Tigers in which he appeared in 832 games, totaling over 1000 hits and 77 homers. He returned stateside in 2016 but did not reach the majors again before retiring in 2018 to take a job in the Cubs organization... working for Theo Epstein. 

The rest of the story
The rest of the draft class proved underwhelming. The name most familiar to Red Sox fans will be Abe Alvarez, who sped through the lower minors despite pedestrian stuff due to strong secondaries and a good feel for pitching. He was called straight from Double-A to make his major league debut and only major league start during a doubleheader in July 2004, just a year after his pro debut. Alvarez and his trademark tilted cap—done to balance the effects of lighting, being legally blind in his left eye—spent four more years in the Red Sox system, mostly struggling to a 5.15 ERA with Pawtucket. He made three more appearances in the majors. 

Chris Johnson, son of then-Portland manager Ron Johnson, was picked in the 37th round but did not sign, instead going on to play for Stetson University. The Astros grabbed in him the fourth round three years later, and he played in the majors for parts of eight seasons. His best season came with the Braves in 2013 as their starting third baseman. 

Lefty Tom Cochran, taken in the 18th round, took a roundabout route to the majors that included a four-year stint in the independent leagues. While life was a highway that took Cochran to the Reds' major league roster for a week in 2011, he never got the chance to appear in the majors.

Beau Vaughan and Brian Marshall were two of the more prominent players taken as part of the college reliever strategy. Vaughan reached Triple-A, spending parts of three seasons there, but never got the call.  Marshall is the twin brother of longtime Cubs pitcher Sean Marshall.

Missed opportunities
In yesterday's piece, we listed players the Red Sox passed on. In general, the 2003 draft class was on the weaker side. A couple players drafted after Murphy ended up posting a higher career WAR, but there was nobody within the next several picks who felt like a true miss. Adam Jones proved to be the best player the Red Sox passed on, but the future All-Star was considered raw out of high school, and questions remained for several years what position he would play—he was initially a shortstop and pitcher, and it was speculated that the Mariners preferred him on the mound. He would later move to the outfield in deference to Yuniesky Betancourt. It is unsurprising that the Red Sox, looking to restock their system with polished bats with a high probability of reaching the majors, looked in a different direction.

Conor Jackson was heavily linked to the Red Sox in the time leading up to the draft. The Cal product went with the 19th overall selection to Arizona. Jackson's bat made him a hot prospect, but Murphy's overall game proved to make him the better overall pro. With the 29th pick, the Diamondbacks nabbed another player that Boston was said to be considering, outfielder Carlos Quentin.

Passing twice in the second round on Arizona State outfielder Andre Ethier proved to be less forgivable. The Red Sox scouted the Sun Devils heavily, taking Vaughan (3rd round) and Jeremy West (7th) in 2003 and of course selected Dustin Pedroia in the second round in 2004. Perhaps with Murphy and Murton already in the fold, the team was disinclined to select another college outfielder. However, given a) their likely familiarity with Ethier, b) the lack of production Boston got from its two second-round selections, and c) the fact that Ethier turned into a productive and occasionally great player, it seems fair to consider passing on him a miss.

Final thoughts
This is a draft that produced a very solid top two but was quite weak in terms of depth. Even mediocre drafts, such as 2012, produced several players who got a cup of coffee. The 2016 draft should have six major leaguers by the end of this year. Still, a draft that produces the best reliever in team history, a solid major league starting outfielder, and the NPB single-season hits leader is a lot of value. The Red Sox also did well given the consideration that it was a relatively weak draft: Nick Markakis ranks first among all 2003 first-round picks in bWAR, slightly ahead of Adam Jones. 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Papelbon, in his MLB debut; David Murphy, September 2006; both by Kelly O'Connor

James Dunne is Managing Editor of SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesDunneSP.