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July 3, 2020 at 10:00 AM

Revisiting the 2004 draft: Pedroia symbolizes Red Sox successes

Thank you for checking in on the newest entry in our draft retrospective series. Yesterday was a pick-by-pick rundown of 2004, 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.

2004 MLB Draft

After a solid 2003 draft, the Red Sox had two consecutive franchise-altering editions in 2004 and 2005. Today we focus on the former, as the Red Sox found a cornerstone who would spend a decade and a half defining Boston's success.

For the third time in four years, the Red Sox were left without a first-round pick because of the signing of a marquee free agent. In each instance, the free agent signee became a key part of the 2004 championship team (Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, and Keith Foulke), while the latter two second-round picks (Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia) proved to be cornerstones for the 2007 and 2013 titles. While the debate over traditional closer usage patterns rages on, the 2003 season clearly displayed the value in having a more traditional bullpen anchor; people may debate how you should use your best reliever, but nobody questions that a team needs relievers who are very good. To fill that role, the team set its sights on Oakland closer Foulke. The system was seen as being on the upswing after getting gutted at the tail end of the Duquette years, with Lester, Hanley Ramirez, and Kevin Youkilis getting attention from national publications. 

The Vitals:
General Manager: Theo Epstein
Scouting Director: David Chadd

Major Leaguers drafted and signed
Dustin Pedroia (2nd round, 51.6 bWAR)
Cla Meredith (6th round, 2.9 bWAR)
Tommy Hottovy (4th round, 0.1 bWAR)
RJ Swindle (24th round, -0.6 bWAR)

Unsigned players who reached the major leagues
Steve Pearce (10th round, 10.0 bWAR)
Steve Edlefsen (41st round, -0.7 bWAR)

Compensation considerations
Lost first-round pick as compensation for signing pitcher Keith Foulke

Face of the franchise
Sacrificing your first-round pick goes over a lot better when you take Dustin Pedroia in the second round. A book could be written about Pedroia and still risk underselling his value.  

Some highlights:
  • Of the 64 players selected ahead of Dustin Pedroia, only Justin Verlander has a higher career bWAR. 
  • Pedroia's 51.6 bWAR ranks 10th in Red Sox franchise history. Only two position players in the draft era (Wade Boggs and Dwight Evans) rank higher. That number also places him 22nd in baseball history among second basemen.
  • He won the Rookie of the Year (2007), Most Valuable Player (2008), three World Series rings, and four gold gloves
  • He has led the league in hits (2008), runs (2008, 2009), doubles (2008) and K/PA (2009), 
The drafting and development of Pedroia remains among the greatest successes of the Epstein years. Much has been written of Epstein’s faith and backing of him, of the in-depth analysis the scouting department did of his swing path, of how the team stuck with him in early 2007 with backup Alex Cora looking over his shoulder. It’s been easy to turn Pedroia’s height into a cliche, with the talk of his overcoming a perceived lack of natural physical gifts, and indeed, he has played in a way that seemed determined to make those who doubted him look as foolish as possible. However, Pedroia is in many ways the perfect avatar of their development philosophy, at least pertaining to offensive players: hand-eye coordination and athleticism are a hell of a lot more important than size. Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley, Daniel Nava, and Michael Chavis all were undervalued for their size, just as Pedroia was. 

“The short guy who can hit” has consistently been a market inefficiency the Red Sox have exploited for 16 years, and they have four World Series titles to show for it. Dustin Pedroia is the walking—often swaggering—personification of that success. 

A World Series hero… eventually
In the tenth round, the team drafted Steve Pearce, a first baseman for the University of South Carolina who had continued to excel with the Gamecocks after his transfer from Indian River Community College. With a chance to up his draft stock with another good showing in a power conference, not to mention the chance to compete for a College World Series title, Pearce opted to return for his senior year. The Pirates nabbed him in the eighth round the following year, and he established himself as a useful part-timer in Pittsburgh before beginning a meandering journey that eventually brought him to every team in the American League East. A 2018 trade for Santiago Espinal finally landed Pearce in Boston, and two-homer game in the Fall Classic clincher earned him World Series MVP honors. 

An overly detailed account of how the Red Sox bungled Cla Meredith
Please excuse a slight tangential regression for these next few paragraphs. Most fans understand that the draft does not occur in a vacuum and that, more than any major sport, player development taking place at the professional level is crucial. Without proper player development procedures, a team will not maximize the value of the players it has drafted and signed, no matter how good the scouting was. So when considering and analyzing a draft, it needs to be done in the context of how it exists within that player development machine, to use Theo Epstein's famous characterization. So begins the cautionary tale of Cla Meredith.

Taken four rounds after such an undeniable success story for the organization, there was arguably no player whose value was more mismanaged than Meredith in the SoxProspects era. One could make the case for Craig Hansen, who will be discussed some in our next entry, and perhaps Blake Swihart, but while there were somewhat extenuating circumstances with those two players, with Meredith, the team just kinda screwed up. 

There is a persistent myth, one that has lived on into the era of Durbin Feltman, that some relief pitchers are close to the majors when they’re drafted. A few first-round picks have made the jump almost directly to the bigs, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule: anyone whose raw stuff is so dominant that they’re taken in the first round despite lacking a starter’s profile is a rare beast. Signability considerations aside, a pitcher who lasts into the third or sixth round probably isn’t that guy. College relievers do generally struggle less in A-ball, where simply having a two-pitch mix that a batter only sees once a night is enough. As it would be with Feltman following the 2018 draft and Bryce Cox after the 2006 draft, Meredith stormed through the low minors, leading to the perception that he was close to ready for the majors. 

Taken out of VCU, Meredith signed quickly and appeared in 29 games in the summer of 2004. Splitting time between Low A Augusta and High A Sarasota, the sidearmer was largely untouchable, giving up four runs on 23 hits in 31 2/3 innings, striking out 34 against just six walks. The beginning of 2005 brought more of the same. Meredith was totally unhittable in Portland, giving up just five hits in 15 innings, striking out 12 and walking three on his way to winning SoxProspects.com Pitcher of the Month recognition. Meredith pitched in one game for Pawtucket following an early-May promotion before the relief-starved major league club purchased his contract. Only 11 months after he was drafted, the team flung him right into the highest-leverage situation possible. In the second game of a doubleheader at Fenway, Meredith entered with a man on second and two outs in a 2-2 tie to face the heart of the Seattle lineup. The rookie promptly walked Randy Winn (.306/.360/.499 that year) and Adrian Beltre (just .255/.303/.413 in '05, but a Hall-of-Famer) before surrendering a grand slam to Richie Sexson (.263/.369/.541 with 36 HR). He would give up two runs apiece in each of his next two outings—one the next day!—before getting optioned back to Pawtucket with the following horror story of a line: 2 1/3 innings pitched, six hits, seven runs, four walks, one HBP, and zero strikeouts. A 5.59 ERA the rest of the year belied solid peripherals, but the team did not add him back when rosters expanded that fall. 

Unfortunately, rushing Meredith to the majors did not end the bungling. Stop if you’ve heard this story: The Red Sox have a backup catcher for several years. Early in the season, they have a new backup catcher. Some mishaps occur, and the struggling team decides that they not only need to switch backup catchers, but need to bring back the exact same backup catcher they previously had. The Blake Swihart/Sandy Leon debacle that nearly gave our poor Chris Hatfield an aneurysm last year was foreshadowed 13 years prior by the Doug Mirabelli reacquisition. To be fair, the circumstances were slightly different. Unlike with Leon, the team hadn’t decided that Mirabelli wasn’t good enough just two weeks earlier before switching course. Indeed, the Padres were interested in Mirabelli as a starter and traded Mark Loretta to get him. The Red Sox brought in Josh Bard in his stead, but to say he struggled in his role as Tim Wakefield’s caddy would be friendly: In five games, Bard had 10 passed balls, including four in his final pairing with the knuckleballer on April 26. Determined to get Wakefield a reliable backstop, Epstein went back to the old reliable, trading Bard and a struggling Meredith, again posting an ERA in the 5’s in Triple-A, to San Diego. Mirabelli’s return was met with great fanfare—indeed, his return game was arguably the highlight of the 2006 season, as SoxProspects.com alum Tim Healey detailed in this glorious oral history.

That was the highpoint of the deal, as everything related seemed to quickly go downhill. Freed from the tyrannical knuckler, Bard turned into a solid major league starting catcher through the rest of 2006 and 2007. Meredith’s career turned around immediately as he excelled for the Padres Triple-A affiliate before getting the call to the majors again and appearing in 233 games over four years and sporting a 3.26 ERA; Mirabelli’s bat had slowed significantly, as his .193/.261/.342 line was exacerbated by a Jason Varitek injury that pressed Mirabelli into a starting role; and even the normally indefatigable Wakefield got hurt, leaving Mirabelli a caddy without the right golfer. 

The moral? That college reliever your favorite team drafted on day two isn’t ready for the majors the spring after the draft. When they rush him and he struggles, they should not just dump him as the second piece for a backup catcher. Remember that if the team nabs a college reliever in the fourth round, and also remember that when you’re wondering why Feltman, a 2018 draftee, met some resistance in Portland. Feltman is still an interesting prospect who has a good chance to provide value, just as Meredith was.

The rest of the story
Beyond Meredith, the team continued its experiment with college relievers. The best of the crew was Tommy Hottovy, an organizational mainstay who overcame numerous injuries and finally reached the majors in June 2011 after dropping his arm slot earlier that season (which began as his sixth pitching for the Portland Sea Dogs). He appeared in eight games with the Red Sox and nine the following season with Kansas City. Hottovy is now the pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs, and has been in the news recently because of his battle with COVID-19.

The only college starter the team took in 2004, Andrew Dobies climbed the ladder steadily and reached the Top 10 in a strong system in 2006 with a good season between High A Wilmington and Double-A Portland. Arm troubles set him back and the lack of a true out pitch left him a poor fit for the bullpen. 

After beginning the draft with 10 consecutive college players, the Red Sox drafted athletic prep lefty Mike Rozier and gave him a $1.575 million bonus to forgo a football scholarship to play quarterback at UNC. He showed flashes in two decent, but uninspiring seasons with Greenville before a very difficult 2007 season struggling in the Lancaster launching pad, as well as recovering from twice being hit in the head by batted balls ended any chance he'd make good on the bonus. Conditioning was also reportedly an issue with Rozier, whose fastball did not have the same juice that it did in the amateur ranks. 

RJ Swindle ranks among the least likely draftees to make it to the majors. Released in Spring Training 2005 despite a ratio of 56 strikeouts to four walks and a 1.94 ERA with Lowell as a piggyback starter for the likes of Dobies and Hottovy the previous summer, Swindle found his way to the independent Northern League, pitching for the Schaumburg Flyers. The Yankees signed him in 2006, again he posted gaudy statistics, and again he was released the following spring training. The Phillies took their shot in 2007, and this time the left-hander stuck around, reaching the majors in 2008. He appeared in three games that summer to earn his World Series ring, then six as a member of the Brewers the following season.

Missed opportunities: 
In a different context, there might be a discussion about whether it is worth it to sign a free agent reliever and surrender compensation, even if he comes as advertised, but separating the 2004 Red Sox from context is like asking a person to consider their grandmother's cooking objectively. After a year of frustrations with the back end of the bullpen, the Red Sox signed one of the best in the game and he was on the mound when they won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.

But... it gets better! The best player on the board with the pick the Red Sox surrendered turned out to be Dustin Pedroia. The cliche "have your cake and eat it too" is overused and often used in a context that doesn't really make sense, but it's a pretty apt description for what went on here. The Red Sox gave up their first-round pick on the free agent pitcher who got them over the hump and still got the guy they should have used their first-round pick on if they'd still had it.

The pick the Red Sox surrendered to the A's to sign Foulke was used on Landon Powell. Outfielder Danny Putnam was taken with the supplemental round pick Oakland received as part of the compensation. 

Final Thoughts:
The Red Sox drafted a franchise cornerstone, one of the 10 greatest players in team history, and they did it with the 65th pick in a draft that was not notably deep. The Keith Foulke signing left them without a first-round pick, but they got the best player that would've been available with that pick anyway. The team got minimal value out of the rest of the players it signed, but (eventually) a World Series MVP out of a player it didn’t.

Photo Credit: Dustin Pedroia, Cla Meredith by Kelly O'Connor

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