High-Risk Drafts Create Talent Gap For Red Sox
BOSTON—Everything fell apart for the Red Sox in 2012. The team's third straight year without a postseason appearance represented the most spectacular meltdown recent franchise history.
The roster sank under the weight of highly paid, star-caliber players who struggled with injuries, poor performance or both. Against that backdrop, manager Bobby Valentine's steady stream of head-turning comments created a chaotic year unlike any other in more than a decade.
Ultimately, the team was left to reconfigure in dramatic fashion, trading away players who seemed likely to serve as foundational contributors for years to come in Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. The team completed its effort to leave behind the wreckage of the season by firing Valentine on the first day of the offseason.
Yet the team's 69-93 finish—Boston's first 90-loss season since 1966—reflected on more than simply ill-advised contracts and a misstep in the selection of a manager. Some of the inefficient investments of recent years, after all, reflected directly on diminishing big league yields of the once-vaunted scouting and player-development machinery.
From 2005-09, the Red Sox pipeline nearly burst with talent reaching the major leagues. In those five years, they developed a number of big league regulars, among them Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, Jed Lowrie and Daniel Bard.
But after Bard's emergence in 2009, the homegrown contributions were limited and not sustained in 2010 or 2011. There were players who showed glimpses of promise—notably including outfielders Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick and lefthander Felix Doubront—but none who earned a permanent spot in the majors with the Red Sox during that period.
The obvious question: Why?
Two considerable developments occurred that resulted in talent gaps in the Red Sox organization. First, the team moved from a college-heavy approach that prevailed during the first three years (2003-05) of Theo Epstein's term as general manager to a slot-busting, high-risk/high-reward strategy that leaned more on high school players.
Second, trades took away the team's most big league-ready prospects, resulting in a period during which the Red Sox were left to scramble for solutions rather than possessing homegrown depth.
The 2006 draft came to represent something of a turning point in the shape of the Red Sox player-development system over the last five years. The team started investing heavily in high school players, making calculated bets on upside.
"I think we recognized (a prospect gap) as a risk," current GM Ben Cherington once recalled. "You don't know exactly how it's going to play out, of course, but we knew that was probably a risk as we went from a typically college-oriented draft to a maybe little more risky draft.
"There was a shift and recognition that it may change the landscape in the minor leagues. But we felt like that over the longer horizon, it was the right thing, even if it made it potentially more challenging in a year or two down the road."
Boston's first pick of the 2006 draft came to embody the reality of that process. With the No. 27 overall pick, the team went for a high school outfielder with tremendous raw power as the signature element of a potential five-tool athlete. But he also represented a considerable risk, as the organization recognized that he'd need to alter his swing mechanics in order to hit on his potential.
It didn't happen. Jason Place never got past Double-A before being released in 2011. Other high-risk gambles from the '06 draft that didn't pay off included Ty Weeden, a 16th-round catcher who received $420,000 and was released in 2010; and 18th-round first baseman Lars Anderson, who received a $925,000 bonus, stalled at Triple-A and went to Cleveland in July in exchange for minor league knuckleballer Steve Wright.
The Red Sox did find a potential five-tool outfielder in the ninth round when they selected Kalish (who signed for $600,000), and their 17th-round selection of Reddick after one year of junior college yielded an eventual starting corner outfielder, albeit it now with Oakland.
Still, Reddick's six-year trajectory from the draft to big league regular status represented how the change of draft demographics changed the shape of the Boston farm system. Even successful high school and junior college picks typically need more time before they're ready to make an impact in the majors.
Subsequent drafts continued to feature a high school-heavy flavor. The team found numerous valuable players out of high school, players such as third baseman Will Middlebrooks (2007, fifth round), first baseman Anthony Rizzo (2007, sixth), lefthander Drake Britton (2007, 23rd), righthander Casey Kelly (2008, first), outfielder Brandon Jacobs (2009, 10th), second baseman Sean Coyle (2010, third), third baseman Garin Cecchini (2010, fourth), catcher Blake Swihart (2011, first) and lefty Henry Owens (2011, supplemental first).
But there were also plenty of players who, to date, represent costly misses. They would be Ryan Dent, David Mailman, Pete Hissey, Derrik Gibson, David Renfroe, Madison Younginer, among others.
Trading Away Talent
At the same time they started emphasizing high school talent in the draft, the Red Sox lost some of their top young arms in trades to reinforce the big league club. The team dealt Masterson and lefty Nick Hagadone to the Indians for Victor Martinez in 2009, then shipped Kelly, Rizzo and 2009 first-round center fielder Reymond Fuentes to the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez after the 2010 season.
Of course, part of the calculus in acquiring a player like Martinez was that he would net the team two draft picks if he left via free agency. That's exactly what happened, as the Sox used the two compensation picks they got for him to select righty Matt Barnes and Owens in the 2011 draft, two pitchers who now rank among the top prospects in the system.
Trades and a shift in the team's draft philosophy contributed to the interruption of the flow of homegrown Red Sox contributors. And while the 2012 season largely represented a failure for the Red Sox at the big league level, it also offered a glimpse of a potential reversal that lies ahead.
Middlebrooks ranked among the best American League rookies in the non-Mike Trout category before a broken wrist ended his year in August. Players like catcher Ryan Lavarnway and shortstop Jose Iglesias got their feet wet in the majors.
Meanwhile, the system once again appears well stocked with potential impact players who have reached Double-A. The list includes outfielders Bryce Brentz and Jackie Bradley, righty Brandon Workman, Britton and shortstop Xander Bogaerts.
"We've always believed that we need to develop our own talent," Cherington said.
"In order to have the kind of teams we want to have, to sustain success over time, we have to have impact players coming through the system and be able to integrate those onto the team, much as we did in 2007 and 2008. That's always the best recipe for success."