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November 12, 2020 at 7:00 AM

2019 Draft Retrospective: Creativity nets strong pitching haul

Thank you for checking in on the final entry in our draft retrospective series. We recently featured a pick-by-pick rundown of 2019, 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.

2019 Draft
Coming off a World Series title, nobody was complaining that the Red Sox' first draft pick was moved back 10 slots as a penalty for exceeding the third luxury tax threshold. There was a tangible result that came with that spending money, a trade the team would make every time. But in the draft itself, it did put the organization in a disadvantageous position. Having to wait until the 43rd pick would be the longest the franchise would wait to make its first pick since 2007, when the club forfeited its first pick and made its top selection at pick number 55. In addition, the loss of ten spots also cut almost $500,000 from what was already one of the lowest bonus pools in the league. As a result, the team needed to get creative to continue adding talent to a system decimated by graduations and trades. 

The Vitals
President: Dave Dombrowski
Director of Amateur Scouting: Mike Rikard

Major Leaguers drafted and signed

Unsigned players who reached the major leagues

Top 100 Prospects

Time to get creative
Coming into the draft, the Red Sox knew they had the smallest bonus pool in the league by just under $400,000. As a point of reference, the entire Red Sox pool of $4,788,100 was equivalent to the bonus value of the tenth-overall pick alone. With such a small total bonus pool, the club's brain trust knew they had to get creative in order to find undervalued talent and move money around in order to bring in the best class possible. 

The first way they did this was by moving money around, something the Red Sox have done to some degree almost every year since the draft bonus pool system was introduced. They went under slot with seven of their first ten picks, which allowed them to go well over slot in the second, seventh, 11th, 12th and 32nd rounds. The club signed eight players for at least $200,000, including three after the 10th round. The Red Sox signed three players on day three (rounds 11-40) for more than $100,000 over the $125,000 "slot" value for those picks, something the organization had never done for more than one or two players selected in that range in a given draft year.

What also made this strategy unique is that the organization did not save their money by taking super-cheap ($5,000-$20,000) college seniors on day two. Although the club did select college seniors, both were fairly highly regarded. Noah Song was one of the best players in college baseball and was considered a borderline first-round talent, but he fell due to uncertainty with his commitment to the Navy and resulting potential to miss two full seasons. Lacking a first-round pick, gambling on Song in the fourth round made sense, and only having to give him a $100,000 bonus made the gamble a shrewd one. The club's other senior draftee on day two, tenth-rounder Stephen Scott, was one of the top performers on Vanderbilt’s college world series winning team. While his $50,000 bonus was still under-slot, it signaled that he was not just a typical cap-savings pick.

Second, the Red Sox targeted players that they perceived as undervalued by the industry, which allowed them to spread their cap money around even more by giving these players slot or under bonuses. These players included Cameron Cannon (pictured, above), Ryan Zeferjahn (pictured, left), and Chris Murphy, all players they clearly liked as shown by their selections in the first six rounds. But by then saving just over $500,000 on bonuses between the three players, the team could then spend on over-slot players like Brendan Cellucci, Blake Loubier, and Bradley Blalock on day three without any true sacrifice in talent up front. 

The third way the Red Sox tried to grab undervalued talent was by targeting players who had not been playing baseball at the time of the draft. In the 28th round, they took Daniel Bakst, who was highly regarded coming out of high school but had walked away from the Stanford baseball team due to disagreements with the coach as a junior. He was still working out and hitting, so the Red Sox were willing to take a shot on a player that would have likely been selected far higher had he played his junior year, signing him for only $75,000. Bakst was impressive in the GCL, but decided to retire after the season to pursue other interests. Even though it did not work out, it was still a good risk to take. 

In addition to Bakst, the club went off the grid with another common archetype we've seen in this series: college football players. In the 31st round, they took right-handed pitcher Feleipe Franks, who was the starting quarterback at Florida at the time. In the 33rd round, they took Thayer Thomas, a center fielder and wide receiver from NC State, In the 36th round, they took Caleb Hill, a tight end and left-handed pitcher from Montana. They only signed Franks, who impressed in workouts by touching 94 mph even though he hadn’t pitched since high school. Franks has moved on to Arkansas now, but if football doesn’t work out, he represents an intriguing talent with great size and athleticism and a very strong arm. 

Finding undervalued arms
Though the members of the 2019 class only have less than half a season under their belt, the clearest risers from the class all were on the pitching side. After selecting infielders with their two second-round picks, the organization invested heavily in arms, with six of the seven highest bonuses going to pitchers from the third round on. And that group does not even include the top pitching prospect in the class, fourth-round pick Noah Song, who signed for only $100,000. 

The question of where Song would be drafted was one of the most intriguing questions entering the draft. There had not been a high-end prospect coming out of the service academies in years, probably since Nick Hill in the mid-aughts (see our 2006 Retrospective for more on Hill). Song was coming off a senior season in which he threw 94 innings and put up a 1.44 ERA and 0.92 WHIP with a 15.41 K/9 and 5.19 K/BB for Navy. He was considered one of the top players in college baseball and a borderline first-round talent. However, because the Trump administration repealed an Obama administration rule that would have granted him a waiver to pursue his baseball career, Song potentially would need to fulfill a two-year service commitment before he could request to be moved to the reserves and continue his baseball career. The Trump administration eventually reintroduced that waiver, but it did not apply retroactively given that he had already graduated and been commissioned. In April 2020, Song revoked his request for a waiver and reported to flight school in June, meaning he will miss most of the 2021 season. 

On the mound, Song is a very exciting prospect with legitimate major league potential. He was the best arm in Lowell in 2019, throwing 17 innings during which he only allowed 10 hits and two runs. He struck out 19 and his fastball sat in the mid-90s and routinely hit 99 mph to go along with a potential above-average slider, already improving changeup, and show-me curveball. Song has all the attributes you look for in a starting pitching prospect, but the unknown of what his stuff will look like when he returns to baseball makes it hard to project him long term. He is currently the number five player in our rankings, but a case could easily be made to have him higher or lower given that uncertainty. 

Besides Song, the Red Sox had several other arms pop during their first season, none more so than sixth-round pick Chris Murphy. Murphy is a great example of the importance of having a strong amateur scouting department and trust in those scouts, as his collegiate numbers did not really jump out save for his strikeouts. As a junior, he threw 64 innings with a 3.50 ERA and 1.35 WHIP with 87 strikeouts compared to 43 walks. Those control issues plagued him throughout his collegiate career, but the Red Sox pitching crosschecker at the time, Chris Mears, strongly advocated for him and the Red Sox took him, signing him for under slot. 

After some minor mechanical tweaks, Murphy dominated in Lowell, showing off drastically improved control, walking only seven hitters in 33 1/3 innings. He struck out 34 over that period and had a 1.08 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. Scouting looks at Murphy were also impressive, as he showed off a four-pitch mix with three of the pitches grading at least average. He doesn’t have the highest ceiling, but he has the chance to develop into a back-end starter, which would be a great outcome for a sixth-round pick who signed for only $200,000. Murphy is currently the number 18 prospect in the system and has the chance to rise higher in 2021 if those command and control gains hold against more advanced competition.

Question marks with bats 
While the pitchers got off to strong pro debuts in 2019, the hitters the Red Sox drafted were a little slower out of the gates. From limited looks in 2019, the only trend that really emerged were emerging question marks for the hitters they signed, although the canceled 2020 minor league season took away the opportunity for those players to address those question marks in a larger sample size.

Coming out of college, Cannon was known as an advanced hitter after he hit .397/.427/.651 as a junior at Arizona. The question was more where he would wind up on the defensive side of the ball. He really struggled at the plate with Lowell, however, hitting .200/.284/.324. He didn’t look like a player with the pedigree he entered the organization with in live looks either, but the Red Sox were reportedly working with Cannon to tweak his swing mechanics, which may explain his struggles as he adjusted to both the pro game and a new swing. 

The Red Sox went over slot for only two hitters, with the team's second pick, Matthew Lugo (pictured, right), being the bigger name. Lugo was seen as a raw high schooler with upside coming out of Puerto Rico, and the Red Sox signed him away from a commitment to Miami with a bonus commensurate of an early second-round pick, slightly higher than where they took him. Industry impressions of Lugo were all over the board, with outlets ranking him as high as 38th in the class and as low as 74th. Lugo had a solid but unspectacular debut in the GCL, hitting .257/.342/.331 with one home run and three steals in 136 at-bats. Scouting looks were mixed, as he showed a better batting eye than expected for a prep player, but wasn’t as explosive athletically or projectable as anticipated. Long-term, he still has upside, but he is the type of player for whom this missed year could slow his development. Reports coming out of the Fall Instructional League will be particularly intriguing for him, although his first full season in (hopefully) 2021 may be more instructive. 

After Cannon and Lugo, the Red Sox only gave one hitter more than $175,000, fifth-round pick Jaxx Groshans. Groshans was coming off an excellent season at Kansas, where he hit .340/.475/.604 with 12 home runs. Given the organization's poor minor league catching depth, Grosans had a chance to establish himself as a very intriguing prospect going forward, but he really struggled at Lowell. In 148 at-bats, he hit .216/.314/.345 with four home runs. Groshans's 13.1 percent walk rate is solid on paper, but in-person looks showed a raw approach, and he really struggled to recognize breaking balls. He did show some pop, and his BABIP was a bit low at .246, so there are some signs that he could have some offensive upside long-term. Given the offensive bar for a catcher is so low, Groshans does have a chance to provide some value, but it will likely only matter if Groshans can improve defensively, as he really struggled behind the plate, especially with his receiving and blocking balls in the dirt. 

Final thoughts
It’s far too early to make any judgment of the 2019 class, especially with the 2020 minor league season being canceled. There is promise with this class, although it does not look like there is a true impact talent unless Song comes back from flight school and looks similar to how he did during his debut in Lowell. That said, with such a small bonus pool and without a true first-round pick, the Red Sox very well may have done the most they could with limited resources.

Photo Credit: Cameron Cannon, Ryan Zeferjahn, and Matthew Lugo by Kelly O'Connor.

Ian Cundall is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @IanCundall.