Red Sox use Draft as tool for success
Several players have developed into stars in Boston
BOSTON -- Sometimes the fascination of what goes on in the "war room" during the First-Year Player Draft can't fully be appreciated until five years later.
Take, for example, the Red Sox, and the confluence of events that led to Dustin Pedroia coming into the organization in that 2004 Draft.
The Red Sox, who had signed Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke the previous winter, didn't have any first-round picks. So they had to wait until the 65th overall selection to get on the board.
Pedroia, a star at Arizona State, was a player they respected and admired, but they never much fathomed he would be their property in the days -- let alone hours -- leading into Draft Day.
"In '04, we had both Pedroia and Kurt Suzuki as two players who were definitely going to be gone by the time we picked," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "We had done on our work on them, but they were over on the other side [of our board] so we didn't spend a ton of time getting them in the right order. With two or three picks, we were like, 'Wow, two guys who we thought would be gone for sure could still be there.' We took a quick minute to make sure we all felt the same way about which guy to take. They both turned out to become good players."
Sure, Suzuki has turned into a nice catcher for the Athletics. But Pedroia has turned into a star in Boston. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2007 and was the AL Most Valuable Player last year.
So why Pedroia over Suzuki back in '04?
"Just with Dustin, his performance in college and in the summer for Team USA really stacked right up there against anybody's," said Red Sox amateur scouting director Jason McLeod. "We had seen him a lot that spring. In the years prior, for Team USA, he had performed against top-notch competition.
"That spring, we had seen him quite a few times against Mike Pelfrey and some of those types of players. He hit everybody."
In other words, the more the Red Sox studied Pedroia and watched him, the more they lost hope that he would ever fall to them. Someone must have seen the same thing, right?
Fortunately for the Red Sox, no.
"He hasn't changed much from what you see today," McLeod said. "He was a smaller guy that swung really hard but he never missed. We were just like, 'Man, it's really uncanny how he can swing that hard and never swing and miss.' He had very good hands. Obviously he was playing shortstop at that time in college. He was a gritty gamer. He was going to beat you. Suzuki, playing a premium position, being a catcher, we thought he could be very good and he has been very good. We just ultimately went with Dustin because we thought there would be more offensive impact there."
The Red Sox don't thump their chests over maneuvers like that. They know that every year, and virtually every round, there's a player that slips too far given the benefit of hindsight.
Though the 2009 First-Year Player Draft -- which begins on Tuesday at 6 p.m. ET on MLB Network and MLB.com -- is a far more hyped event now than ever before, it remains an unpredictable science.
"Baseball is a game of failure; failure is inherent in everything in the game," said Epstein. "The Draft probably moreso than any other aspect of our operation is that way. You're going to miss on 38 out of 40 picks most years. So when you find somebody you think is a big leaguer, you should take that player regardless of the position. This year, we pick 28th so we have to be prepared that the best 28 guys on our board -- anyone could slip down at any time."
If Pedroia is one of the most fortuitous picks to come Boston's way, Jonathan Papelbon -- the ace closer -- is an example of pre-Draft preparation paying off.
Recently asked what his "favorite Draft pick" was, Papelbon is the first name Epstein thought of, given all the circumstances that led to the Red Sox taking him in the fourth round in 2003.
"Papelbon kind of stands out a little bit for me because it was my first year as GM," Epstein said. "We had an area scout at the time, Joe Mason, who had done a good job identifying him, but he wasn't sort of high on our radar screen. A bunch of us went down to the SEC Tournament and saw him throw and it was sort of a good combination of all the elements of choosing a player.
"Joe had done a good job on his makeup, we saw the velocity and explosion of his fastball in person, which is hard to miss, putting the performance elements in play too. This is a guy who had a really dominant strikeout to walk ratio in college.
"Then we took him and I remember seeing him a couple of months later, this was before a game in [short-season Class A] Lowell and he was out there milking a cow. He had like a 5-and-a-half ERA and he's out there in the pregame ceremony doing a ceremonial cow milking and getting way too into it. What the heck did we draft here?"
Epstein can find big humor in the cow milking now, considering Papelbon has turned into one of the premier closers in the game.
"Sure enough, the next year, development got a hold of him, he went to a starting role in the Florida State League and was just beating hitters consistently with that explosive fastball up in the zone and just kind of took off from there," Epstein said. "I think of him as a nice symbol for good scouting, good use of performance, good makeup work and letting development sort of take the player to the next level and of course Pap deserves the credit. That was a good one."
So who will it be this time? The Red Sox have developed great momentum as an organization when it comes to using the Draft as a tool to success.
Just look at their current roster. Jon Lester represents 2002. Papelbon came on board in '03, followed by Pedroia. Then, in '05, the Red Sox got Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie and Clay Buchholz. The next year, they drafted Justin Masterson and Daniel Bard.
"With the recent trend of players who have been able to come up and be contributors to the team, yeah, we've noticed that there's been more attention paid to it," said McLeod. "And for all of us, I think it just drives us to want to continue it and make it that much better."
Despite their status as a big market team, the Red Sox have become firm believers that the Draft is one of the biggest elements to building a championship team. They got verification of that in 2007, when Pedroia, Ellsbury, Lester, Papelbon, Kevin Youkilis and Manny Delcarmen were all key members of a team that won it all.
"I think, for real baseball fans, there's nothing as sweet as following a kid from the day he was drafted, maybe seeing him play at the local Minor League affiliates, being there watching on TV when he makes his Major League debut and following his whole career," said Epstein. "You feel invested in the player. Winning that way is sweeter for us as people in the front office and I feel it's sweeter for the fans, too. Not that it's the only way to do it, but it makes business sense, it makes baseball sense and it's pretty sweet for all involved."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.