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August 13, 2020 at 12:30 PM

Revisiting the 2012 draft: MLB talent but not impact talent

Thank you for checking in on the newest entry in our draft retrospective series. Yesterday was a pick-by-pick rundown of 2012, 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.

2012 MLB Draft

The Red Sox were coming off an awful September, one that saw the team go 7-20 in September and miss the playoffs. Two-time World Series-winning manager Terry Francona lost his job as a result, and if that was not bad enough, word came down that longtime GM Theo Epstein was in discussions with the Cubs to become their team President. 

The 2011 draft was a key to the Red Sox future success and, despite some big changes, 2012 was shaping up to be able to provide a similar impact. The Red Sox decided to let Jonathan Papelbon, one of the best closers in the game at the time, leave in free agency, they were certainly placing value on the two picks they would gain as compensation. It seemed as if those would be all the more important in 2012 with the changes in draft rules limiting the advantage of large market teams with equally large pockets to overspend in the draft as the Red Sox did in 2011. The club now possessed three of the top 37 picks and had a bonus pool that was the 10th largest.

While there was certainly some good talent in the draft such as Carlos Correa, David Dahl, Corey Seager, Jose Berrios, Joey Gallo, and Matt Olsen, the quality was a clear step down from the previous year. While the Red Sox ended up splitting up their selections roughly equally between high schoolers (15) and four-year college players (22), with 5 junior college draftees for good measure, they spent eight of their first 10 picks on college players. 2012 was a tough year to be a first-time GM with the draft formatting so dramatically changed, even with a returning amateur scouting director in Amiel Sawdaye, and while Ben Cherington's first go yielded nine players who signed and made the majors, none has had a career WAR higher than 1.3, and as of Monday, none are still in the organization.

The Vitals
General Manager: Ben Cherington
Scouting Director: Amiel Sawdaye

Major Leaguers drafted and signed
Brian Johnson (1st round, 1.3 bWAR)
Ty Buttrey (4th round, 1.0 bWAR)
JB Wendelken (13th round, 1.0 bWAR)
Austin Maddox (3rd round, 0.7 bWAR)
Jamie Callahan (2nd round, 0.0 bWAR)
Mike Miller (9th round, 0.0 bWAR) Only received one at-bat
Justin Haley (6th round, -0.1 bWAR)
Deven Marrero (1st round, -0.4 bWAR)
Pat Light (1st supplemental round, -0.7 bWAR)

Unsigned players who reached the major leagues
Alex Bregman (29th round, 22.4 bWAR)
Hunter Wood (32nd round, 0.7 bWAR)
Carson Fulmer (15th round, -1.2 bWAR)

Compensation considerations
Received a first-round pick from Phillies and supplemental pick for loss of free agent Jonathan Papelbon

Being a first-time GM is never easy, and the difficulty goes through the roof when you are taking over from the man who built the first World Series-winning team in Boston in 86 years. Theo Epstein was already out the door once, back in 2005 disguised in a gorilla suit, but the Red Sox managed to reign him in for six more years and one more World Series win. But Theo would not be coming back this time, replaced by a local kid from New Hampshire. Cherington had grown up in the organization, serving as an area scout, operating assistant, international scouting coordinator, director of player development, briefly co-GM in 2005, vice president of player personnel, and, finally, senior vice president and assistant GM. He had been Epstein's lieutenant for several years, and his scouting background seemed ideally fit to lead the team through the draft.

But the draft had changed too. Now there were strict slot values, meaning the Red Sox had to do two things: (1) sign all of their picks in the first 10 rounds or lose that pick's slot value, and (2) do so without exceeding their bonus pool by more than 5 percent, or else face harsh penalties in future drafts. Gone were the days where the Red Sox could simply select the best talent available and then work towards signing them for whatever value they deemed appropriate. 

Just because the draft changed did not mean that there were no longer players that were tough to sign or would require large bonuses. College baseball was still an appealing path for high school players willing to bet on increasing their value, so there would be new strategies necessary to be able to afford them. The Red Sox were one of the teams to implement in this draft a strategy still used today in varying degrees by drafting and signing college seniors in rounds 5 and 7-10 for bonuses under $25,000. This allowed the Red Sox to reallocate the slot bonus money saved to other players. In this draft, the Red Sox saved just over $700,000 on those five picks, enabling them to sign fourth-rounder Ty Buttrey (pictured, above right) for just over a million dollars over slot. Buttrey was selected with the 151st pick but ranked 38th by Baseball America, and without the large bonus, he very likely would have honored his commitment to Arkansas.

The new draft format also had the Red Sox exploring non-traditional athletes, and in some cases, not even players with much of a baseball background. 

Two-way athletes
It was not that strange for baseball teams would draft players who both pitched and played the field or hit for their team. If anything, it has become more commonplace with well known two-way players such as Shohei Ohtani and Tampa Bay Rays prospect Brendan McKay. MLB even had to recently institute a rule regarding two-way players.

The Red Sox took two, two-way players from the University of Florida in this class: first baseman and left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson with the 31st-overall pick and catcher/reliever Austin Maddox at pick 118. Those were certainly the most high profile and successful, but there was also Kurt Schluter taken in the 39th round but did not sign. Neither player presented a Casey Kelly-like scenario in which the team let them try out both sides of the ball, as they both headed straight to the mound, but it was clear the Red Sox liked the athleticism required to do both.

The Red Sox also took that a step further in this draft, going beyond two-way baseball players to go after two-sport athletes. Brandon Magee only dabbled in baseball in college, but having played at all made him the least shocking selection of the bunch. He signed and would appear at minor league spring training, extended spring training, and the Fall Instructional league, eventually making his minor league debut in 2015, but his focus was clearly on the NFL, where he played for the Cowboys, Browns, and Buccaneers and appeared in 17 regular season games.

Making it to the majors is difficult enough when it is your sole focus, and taking any time away only makes it that much harder, so taking years away from the game makes it nearly impossible. That is something 18th-round pick Shaq Thompson (pictured, above left) knows all about. The Red Sox selected him despite his being one of the top college football recruits in the nation, and he played with the GCL Red Sox the summer before his freshman year at Washington. Despite his incredible athleticism, he did not record a hit in any of his 39 at-bats, striking out in 37 of them. I'm sure he looks back and laughs about it now after recently signing a $54 million deal with the Carolina Panthers. 

McGee and Thompson were not the only late-round gambles the Red Sox took on football players. 25th-round pick Khiry Cooper signed after playing both football and baseball at Nebraska, but never played for the Red Sox, instead opting to go to Tulsa to play football whit his remaining year of eligibility. 26th-rounder Jacob Nelson chose not to sign and instead played football at Central Washington University, eventually returning to the mound later in college. Finally, Austin Davis, selected in the 31st round, was a standout quarterback for Southern Miss and then played in the NFL, where he now coaches—the Red Sox signed him only to retain his rights if that path didn't work out, a strategy they have employed several times since with players like Jeff Driskel and Feleipe Franks.

Overall, the new draft format saw some teams think outside the box. The Red Sox tried to do that by taking elite athletes who were not focused on baseball at the time, hoping to retain their baseball rights for short money in case football did not work out. The success rate of first-round college picks is already lower than in every other sport. For these football players, you add on the significant risk that they don't sign, or never play for the organization, or never can turn their elite athleticism into baseball skills. They were always hail mary picks, and it is unsurprising that none worked out.

Relief pitching trade fodder
When the draft class fell short of expectations, the Red Sox tried to use the pieces they had to get what they could for their major league team. In 2012, the best they could do happened to be to move five of their picks as part of packages to acquire other role-playing, major league talent to help aid future success. 

The one member of this draft class who was moved who was not a reliever was their first pick, shortstop Deven Marrero. He was traded in March 2018 to the Arizona Diamondbacks for cash or a player to be named later. That player to be named later ended up being Josh Taylor. Then 25 years old, he had come off of a couple of seasons struggling in the advanced minors for Arizona, but he had just moved to the bullpen full-time and showed promise after the deal with eight saves and a 10.1 strikeouts-per-nine rate. Last year, he made his major league debut in May and had a breakout year, ending the year with a 3.04 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 11.8 strikeouts per 9 over 47 1/3 innings.

Three of the next four picks, all of whom had been developed as relievers by the Red Sox, were also dealt. Supplemental first-rounder Pat Light (pictured, above right), moved to the bullpen in 2015 and then broke out in 2016 pitching for Pawtucket and the major league team. The Red Sox wisely traded Light near the peak of his value, moving him in August 2016 for major leaguer Fernando Abad. Unfortunately, Abad was a bad pitcher for Boston for the remainder in 2016, but recovered in 2017 with a 3.30 ERA in 43 2/3 innings before becoming a free agent.

Also converted from a starter to a reliever by the Red Sox in 2015 with a 2016 breakout, Jamie Callahan was traded to the Mets with Stephen Nogosek and Gerson Bautista for Addison Reed. Reed was a pending free agent and pitched well for the Red Sox with a sub-1 WHIP, and saw action in the playoffs but the team lost to the Houston Astros. Reed Signed with the Twins during the off-season.

Ty Buttrey was the highest over-slot deal of this draft class, and like Light and Callahan, he too was forced to move to the bullpen. In a similar fashion, once Buttrey succeeded in 2017 at Double-A and then dominated in 2018 at Pawtucket with a 2.25 ERA and 13.09 K/9, they decided to sell high and moved him to the Angels along with fellow reliever Williams Jerez for infielder Ian Kinsler. The move didn't work out, as Kinsler produced only a .604 OPS in his half-season with the Red Sox, while Buttrey has gone on to be a solid bullpen piece for the Angels. 

The final deal was from 2013, when then-20-year-old JB Wendelken (pictured, left) was traded as a secondary piece along with righty Frank Montas and shortstop Cleuluis Rondon to Chicago, with shortstop Jose Iglesias going to Detroit, in return for righty Jake Peavy and reliever Brayan Villarreal. Peavy had only a 4.48 ERA over his two partial seasons in Boston and was even worse (7.11 ERA over three starts) on their run to the 2013 World Series title, and Villarreal only pitched in one game for Boston. Meanwhile, Montas seems to have broken out for Oakland, following up last year's 2.62 ERA in a suspension-shortened season with a 1.57 ERA in the early going in 2020. Wendelken has joined him in Oakland as a solid piece of their bullpen, and Iglesias continues to be a defensive star in the majors who takes at-bats, while chronic injuries have limited him significantly.

Overall, the idea to sell high on players is a good one, but the talent they had only netted short term rentals. Overall, the players they sent out as parts of these five deals have since been worth 10.7 bWAR, while the players they got back only produced 2.4 bWAR during their time in Boston.

What it means to have a successful draft
There is no set formula on how to have a successful draft, and scouting is a very imprecise skill. Misses are not only accepted but expected. Volatility is part of the game.

However, when you have three picks in the top 37 picks and a top 10 bonus pool, the expectation is that you need to hit somewhere with those assets. The Red Sox are accustomed to some level of success, and therefore picking early in the draft where you can achieve high bonus pools is uncommon.

It is hard enough turning draft picks into well-regarded prospects, let alone well-regarded major leaguers. The Red Sox managed to do neither of these things, really, in this class, producing just one player who made Baseball America's top 100 prospects list at any point when Johnson made the list in 2015. 

However, in part, the new draft system forced a step back. No more could the Red Sox give over-slot bonuses whenever they wished—strategy had to play into the team's selections, particularly in the first 10 rounds. From 2012 onward, one's definition of a successful draft probably needs to be different than for drafts prior to that date because of the limits on spending, which in turn limits how a team like Boston can wield its financial resources to buy players out of college commitments. 

One might look at this draft class and see the glass half full, that the organization ended up signing nine major leaguers, including with five of its first six picks. However, the glass could also be half empty, as those nine players produced only 2.8 WAR over their whole careers, much of that for other teams, and trades involving those players did not bring any significant return. 

The final piece that must be considered, and perhaps where this class can be most fairly graded as subpar, is in the missed opportunities...

Missed opportunities
While it may not be fair to compare the 2012 class to, say, the standout 2011 class due to the different spending rules, it certainly is fair to look at what players the team could have selected and could have signed, and on that score, particularly the organization's use of its three picks in the first and first supplemental rounds, the class was a miss. While Marrero, Johnson, and Light have failed to attain their draft-time ceilings, a number of players were available for at least one, if not all three of those picks. A few that stand out are right-hander Jose Berrios (32nd pick, career 6.8 WAR), outfielders Stephen Piscotty (36th pick, 7.9), Mitch Haniger (38th pick, 10.5) and Joey Gallo (39th pick, 8.8), first baseman Matt Olsen (47th pick, 12.8), and outfielder Jesse Winker (49th pick, 1.4 WAR and three years of being a consensus top-100 prospect). All of these players except Gallo signed for close to slot, meaning the Red Sox could have had them at any of their first 2 or 3 picks without having to alter their strategy for the rest of their draft, especially seeing as they went over-slot to sign Marrero in the first round. Alex Speier of the Boston Globe noted just Tuesday that the Red Sox were considering Piscotty, Haniger, and Olsen with their three top-37 picks, and all are now difference-making positional players.

In that same article, Speier mentions the over-slot signing of Buttrey. His selection in the first 10 rounds made him Plan A, but had Buttrey not signed, his money would likely have been offered to 15th-rounder Carson Fulmer or 29th-rounder Alex Bregman. It is not clear whether the $1,000,000 or so, subtracting the lost slot value for Buttrey's pick, would have been enough to sign either—it almost certainly would not have convinced Bregman to turn pro—but given that both went on to become early first-round picks in three years, it's an interesting what-if. And now, as Speier reports, we know that the Red Sox considered Dodgers ace Walker Buehler as an overslot high school signing, but felt he had too much physical development to justify his price tag. Buehler was selected in the 14th round by the Pirates but did not sign and went on to be selected 24th overall in 2015 by the Dodgers after a great college career at Vanderbilt. Buttrey recently has taken over closer duties for the Angels, but the only value provided the Red Sox was part of a half-season of Ian Kinsler with a negative WAR. Meanwhile, Buehler has developed into one of the best pitchers in the game with a 3.17 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over 343 1/3 career innings. Getting a front-end starter out of a draft can completely alter the entire perception of a draft class.

Final thoughts
This series goes back to 2003, and over those other nine years, the organization's average bWAR of their draft classes has been 34. It's obvious that this class had missed opportunities and produced little value in comparison. Ranking it among the 10 classes covered thus far, it is in the bottom three with 2010 (1.7 WAR) and 2008 (-1.2 WAR), ironically two other classes that had extra first-round picks. However, those two classes at least had one player with higher production than the whole 2012 class—2010 draftee Brandon Workman with 3.2 WAR and 2008 draftee Christian Vazquez with 2.9 WAR—and both are still contributing to the organization. Therefore, it isn't unfair to rank this draft as the worst of the period we've covered here.

Photo Credit:  Ty Buttrey, Shaq Thompson, Pat Light, and JB Wendelken by Kelly O'Connor

Will Woodward is a Senior Staff Writer for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @SPWill.