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July 8, 2020 at 12:30 PM

Revisiting the 2005 draft: Ellsbury, Buchholz, and sustaned success

Thank you for checking in on the newest entry in our draft retrospective series. Yesterday was a pick-by-pick rundown of 2005, 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.

2005 MLB Draft

Coming off the team’s first World Series win in 86 years, the Red Sox were primed to build a foundation that could propel them into the next decade. Maneuvering in free agency set the team up with six of the top 57 picks, a departure for an organization that was without a first-round pick in three of the four previous drafts. While the 2011 draft has become the franchise’s gold standard, the 2005 edition was the precursor, establishing the Red Sox at or near the top of organizational prospect rankings for the next three years and setting the stage for the next two World Series championships.

A front office reshuffle would direct the team’s strategy as David Chadd, the director of amateur scouting since 2002, left to become the scouting director for the Detroit Tigers. Jason McLeod, who had followed Theo Epstein from San Diego to Boston before the 2003 season, was promoted to take Chadd’s place. Beyond the personnel changes, 2005 seemed to mark a turning point in putting the organization’s vast financial resources into signing top amateur talent that might have otherwise been inclined to return to school. 

The Vitals
General Manager: Theo Epstein
Scouting Director: Jason McLeod

Major Leaguers drafted and signed
Jacoby Ellsbury (1st round, 31.0 bWAR)
Jed Lowrie (1st supplemental round, 17.0 bWAR)
Clay Buchholz (1st supplemental round 16.7 bWAR)
Michal Bowden (1st supplemental round, 0.8 bWAR)
Luis Exposito (31st round, -0.2 bWAR)
Craig Hansen (1st round, -1.9 bWAR)

Unsigned players who reached the major leagues
Charlie Blackmon (20th round, 17.1 bWAR)
Jason Castro (43rd round, 12.1 bWAR)
Pedro Alvarez 14th round, 5.1 bWAR)
Kirby Yates (26th round, 4.9 bWAR)
John Hester (33rd round, -0.8 bWAR)
Allan Dykstra (34th round, -0.5 bWAR)

Compensation considerations
Lost first-round pick as compensation for signing shortstop Edgar Renteria
Lost second-round pick as compensation for signing pitcher David Wells
Lost third-round pick as compensation for signing pitcher Matt Clement
Received first-round pick from Angels and supplemental pick for loss of free agent Orlando Cabrera
Received first-round pick from Dodgers and supplemental pick for loss of free agent Derek Lowe
Received second-round pick from Mets and supplemental pick for loss of free agent Pedro Martinez

Free agent musical chairs
If you’re unfamiliar with the free agency compensation rules of this era, then you may be scratching your head and wondering how the Red Sox, fresh off winning a World Series, could possibly have had six of the first 57 picks. Rather than the compensation pick that a team today receives when losing a free agent who turns down a qualifying offer, the team would receive both the comp pick and the top available pick of the team signing the player based on a convoluted rating system that assigned "Type A" or "Type B" status to departing players. The thinking was that this would help picks flow to smaller-market teams as organizations like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers signed higher-priced talent, but the effect was the opposite. By the early 2000’s, the large market teams had realized that the compensation system had created the perverse incentive that it was a net gain to replace your own free agent with a near-equivalent one from another team and were taking advantage of it. Furthermore, it was the richer and more competitive teams that were usually in the best position to see their own players through to free agency, or to even acquire a player who would become a Type A free agent near the trade deadline, deepening their draft pool. It was a strategy that the Red Sox, who had four compensation-attached free agents following their World Series win, were primed to take advantage of.

The rules being what they were, the team had good reason to look at making over its World Series-winning roster. And so they did, allowing Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, and Orlando Cabrera to depart and signing David Wells, Matt Clement, and Edgar Renteria in their stead (they re-signed the fourth potential free agent, Jason Varitek). There was a short-term negative consequence: the former set of players outplayed the latter in 2005, largely based on Pedro Martinez having his final great season in a New York Mets uniform. While WAR doesn’t necessarily translate directly to on-field wins, the 10.5 to 7.8 bWAR advantage from the Martinez/Lowe/Cabrera trio was notable in light of the Red Sox and Yankees both finishing the 2005 campaign with identical 95-67 records and Boston losing the division in a mathematical tiebreaker to their friends in the Bronx. It’s improbable that Martinez’s 2005 season would not have put them over the top. Yet the longer-term advantages of the Red Sox strategy are clear. Beyond Martinez’s injury issues rendering him largely ineffective for the rest of his four-year deal, the team had a draft that was hugely influential in their next two titles. The maneuvering allowed the Red Sox to parlay what became the 28th, 76th, and 108th picks into picks 23, 26, 42, 45, 47, and 57. There is a strong likelihood that Jacoby Ellsbury would not have fallen five more picks, and nearly incomprehensible that Clay Buchholz and Jed Lowrie would have been available at the ends of the second and third rounds, respectively.

According to plan
Who is the best Red Sox first-round pick of the last 25 years? If you did your homework and read yesterday’s pick-by-pick recap, then you already know the answer. Perhaps it is something of a trick question, as Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia were second-round picks while Mookie Betts landed in the fifth round, but Jacoby Ellsbury was an excellent prospect and delivered on that promise.

Several times throughout this series you will read about a player whose development wasn't linear or easy, or quite what was planned. In the rare case of someone like Ellsbury though? Well, once in a while the development path is totally linear and exactly what was planned. The Oregon State star found little resistance in his initial assignment in Lowell after signing, got placed in High A Wilmington out of his first spring training, and was promoted to Portland at midseason where he continued his solid play. Returning to Portland to begin the 2007 season, Ellsbury had a breakout that verged on the sublime, spending three weeks strumming poor Eastern League pitchers to the tune of .452/.518/.644 with 10 doubles and two triples in just 73 at-bats, showing the level was beneath him. Six months later, he was helping the major league team sweep the Rockies while winning everyone in America a free taco.

Just six short years later, Ellsbury was leaving the organization as a World Series champion yet again. Despite missing nearly all of 2010 and half of 2012 with injuries, he found himself third on the franchise’s all-time leaderboard in stolen bases with 241, possessing the single-season record (70, set in 2009), and owning three of the five seasons in Red Sox history with 50 more steals. Amid all of the 2011 Popeye’s-related drama and front office infighting, Ellsbury turned in an extraordinary season where everything seemed to come together for him. He shattered his career high in homers by blasting 32 (he did not have more than 16 in any other campaign), complementing that with 39 steals, 46 doubles, and a league-leading 364 total bases. He rode a .321/.376/.552 line to a second-place finish in the MVP voting, and it’s not hard to imagine that the award would have been his had the pitching staff not undergone such a thorough September collapse that it knocked the team out of the playoff race. His 8.3 bWAR ranks as the 20th best season in team history. As a final gift, the pick the Red Sox received as compensation when losing Ellsbury in free agency to the Yankees was used to select Michael Kopech

A check or ten on the runner
Is there any other sport where a player can be so frustrating while being good as Clay Buchholz could be in baseball? Buchholz never became the ace that the no-hitter in his second career start and consensus top-five rankings entering 2008 portended, but he also forever seemed to be on the cusp of being that player. The righty’s 12-year stint in the organization was marked with maddening inconsistency, ill-timed injuries, throw after throw after throw over to first base even when the baserunner was standing on the bag with no intention of moving, and a sloth-like pace that fit in far too well with his rotationmates at the time.

It was also marked with some truly wonderful pitching. In 2010, despite the weakest strikeout-to-walk ratio of his 20s, Buchholz registered a 2.33 ERA, good for an American League-leading 187 ERA+. In 2013, still only 28, he appeared to finally make that leap to being the frontline starter scouts had envisioned as he posted a 12-1 record and Pedro-esque 1.74 ERA. He also made only 16 starts, shelved on June 8 due to neck soreness that seemed to have him 10 days away from returning for the next three months; he did not pitch again until September 10. In all, the Buchholz pick was an obvious success: The Red Sox have not drafted a pitcher since who has matched his production, and he ranks as the third-best 42nd overall pick ever. In Red Sox franchise history, he ranks 28th in innings pitched, 11th in strikeouts, and 34th in pitcher bWAR. The accomplishments and frustrations went hand in hand. 

The myth of the MLB-ready amateur
The confluence of having several picks and lots of money to spend meant the Red Sox had the chance to take on extra risks that they might have been leery of otherwise. Buchholz’s off-field impropriety certainly scared off some teams, but other opportunities to make safer picks like Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie gave the team leeway to take the chance on the potential high-reward. As a college reliever, Craig Hansen didn’t have that ace upside of Buchholz, but he did carry great potential reward as the consensus top college reliever who was seen as close to the big leagues. The risk? Beyond the usual concern about any player who pitches out of the bullpen in college, Hansen’s bonus demands to get him out of his senior year at St. John’s were significant. He didn’t just have a high asking price in terms of dollar amount, he was also looking for a major league contract, a move that would start his options and, by eventual extension, service time clock counting more quickly. For a team not looking to spend that kind of money on a college reliever or with a roster crunch that would make that 40-man spot hard to surrender, Hansen was out of play. The Red Sox, though, had money, roster space, and draft picks to play with, and nabbed him with the 26th pick.

After the type of high-profile negotiations that often accompany Scott Boras clients, the Red Sox and Hansen agreed to a  four-year major league deal worth $1 million annually. The six-foot-six righty with a high-90s fastball and wipeout slider was suddenly the story of the late summer, with hopes that he could solidify a foundering bullpen. Hansen’s initial minor league performance fed the hype. After getting ramped up in extended spring training, he appeared in two games for the GCL Sox, striking out four of the 11 batters he faced and giving up just two hits in three innings. He faced scant resistance in a more ability-appropriate assignment to Portland, striking out 10 against one walk in 9 2/3 innings across eight outings. With the minor league season over and Hansen on the 40-man roster by virtue of his MLB contract, a callup of Hansen just six weeks after signing seemed almost inevitable.

On September 19, Hansen made his debut with a scoreless fifth inning in a 5-4 loss to Tampa. He faced three batters, striking out two and inducing a pop out. His second outing was less auspicious, surrendering a two-run homer to Melvin Mora of the Orioles and getting tagged with a blown save in a game the Red Sox would rally to win. Hansen made two more outings that fall, both 2/3 of a scoreless inning. The emergence of Jonathan Papelbon helped quell any urge to try to maneuver Hansen onto the playoff roster, but hopes were as high as ever. Headed into 2006, Hansen was linked with Papelbon and Jon Lester as the consensus three best prospects in the organization.

In 2006, things started to go awry, as the Red Sox couldn’t seem to commit to a development path, instead reactively moving Hansen according to the needs of the day. One of the final cuts of spring training, Hansen was ultimately optioned to Portland, still aggressive given his being only one year out of school, but relatively conservative given the team’s high expectations for him in the near term. The team had wanted Hansen to work on his changeup to complement his existing two-pitch mix and make him a more complete pitcher. In order to work on the pitch, he was being used in multi-inning outings, but his performance picked up where he left off: in five outings, he gave up just one run on four hits in 11 innings, striking out 12 and walking four. The Red Sox determined that Triple-A was a more appropriate challenge for Hansen and promoted him there on April 26. Despite the ongoing struggles in the major league bullpen, the Red Sox seemed wisely committed to Hansen’s long-term development. They continued to have him work longer outings in order to work on his pitch mix. In mid-May, the organization announced its intention to continue this development by putting him in a starting role. Hansen made four starts for Pawtucket, allowing just four runs on 14 hits in 15 2/3 innings and reaching the four-inning mark in three of his four outings. However, the results were not entirely positive. His control wobbled in the longer outings, with 13 walks against 10 strikeouts as a starter, and seven of those walks coming in the two final starts. Also troubling was his slider, such a dominant pitch in college, was showing signs of inconsistency.

Despite that mixed bag, desperation at the major league level led to the team pulling the plug on the development plan and calling Hansen to the majors on June 6. He appeared in one game, giving up a run in 2/3 of an inning, before being optioned back to the PawSox, where he would return to working as a more traditional short reliever. Two weeks later, he was back in the majors. The early results were solid, if not dominant, as he gave up five runs on 20 hits in 19 innings over 17 appearances, striking out 15 and walking just five. Then the wheels appeared to fall off. In his next 10 outings, Hansen gave up 16 runs in 10 1/3 innings and failed to have consecutive scoreless outings. He was sent back to Pawtucket on August 21 and was not used in high-leverage situations after he was recalled during the September roster expansion. Hansen spent all of 2007 with Pawtucket, struggling again with his control as he walked 32 in 51 1/3 innings. Late that year, news came out that Hansen had been struggling with sleep apnea. Offseason surgery to correct the issue raised hopes for him anew, with the possibility that a better night’s sleep would translate into better physical results. The early 2008 returns from Pawtucket (as only a fourth-year pro, Hansen was eligible for a fourth option year) were encouraging: In 16 2/3 innings across 11 appearances, he struck out 17, walked just five and surrendered only four runs. Unfortunately, a return to the major leagues brought the return of his control woes. He was dealt in July to the Pirates with Brandon Moss as part of the megadeal that brought Jason Bay to Boston and sent Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles.

While it’s impossible to know how much the inconsistent development plan in 2006 affected the eventual arc of his career, it did mark the second year in a row the Red Sox got impatient with the development of a reliever and undercut the value they may have gotten from him. Surely, Hansen didn’t go from needing to be stretched out and getting inconsistent results developing his three-pitch mix to being an MLB-ready short reliever overnight, but that’s how the team treated him. Only three years after signing, the Red Sox traded Hansen as the third piece of a larger deal.

The rest of the story:
In another draft, Jed Lowrie might be the biggest story. Were it not for the guy in the picture at the top of this post, it would be Lowrie with the best bWAR of any Red Sox first-round pick since 1994, and he is the only member of the class currently signed to a major league contract.  His time in Boston—and indeed, his entire career, including as recently as this week—was met with constant injury struggles. The organization probably sold too low on him to get Mark Melancon, who they turned around and definitely sold too low on the following offseason in the Joel Hanrahan deal.

As was mentioned yesterday, the Pedro Alvarez situation changed the Red Sox approach to signing high school players with big bonus demands. From 2006 through 2011 it would become a key to their approach, with some key successes (as well as some notable misses).

Michael Bowden gave up 37 runs over parts of five seasons in the majors with Boston. 14 of those came in two disastrous appearances. From 2010 to 2013, he had a 3.83 ERA (a 108 ERA+) and a 1.1 bWAR over 112 innings. He didn’t turn into the solid mid-rotation starter he looked like he might become in the high minors, but his career as a reliever was better than most would remember.

Luis Exposito is the only player in Red Sox history who signed as a 31st-round pick and made it to the majors. Three players they drafted in the 31st were redrafted by other teams and reached the big leagues, but Exposito is the only one who did so after signing.

The Red Sox 2011 collapse was karmic retribution for trading Bubba Bell at the end of spring training that year. Bell was a favorite of the SoxProspects.com community who spent six years in the system, including a monster 2007 season for hitter-friendly Lancaster. Bell played 175 games for Pawtucket and 250 Triple-A games in all but did not reach the majors.

Missed opportunities:
In terms of picks, it is hard to really quibble with what they did here. Jonathan Egan in the second round (no. 57 overall) was clearly a miss, but given that the process that landed on him was the process that did so well with the rest of the top picks, it's hard to fault the club for not having a 100 percent hit rate. It’s very possible that they had concerns about Egan’s behavior beforehand, but decided the talent was worth the risk with their sixth pick. The notable slate of drafted players who didn’t sign could be seen as a missed opportunity (although failing to sign Charlie Blackmon is more forgivable given they'd drafted him as a pitcher), but the failure to sign Pedro Alvarez out of his Vanderbilt commitment became key to John Henry loosening the purse strings in 2006 and beyond.

Final thoughts:
Following three straight very good drafts, the Red Sox had a franchise-defining one. The team had six of its picks reach the majors. Three of those turned into good major league regulars, including one who had MVP-quality seasons at his peak.

Photo Credit: Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Craig Hansen by Kelly O'Connor

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