The Red Sox have one of the best farm systems in the game, and Mike Hazen is among the reasons why. The team’s director of player development since February 2006, Hazen has helped to nurture the development of Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, and Jacoby Ellsbury–to name just a few–and more talent remains in the pipeline. A native of Abington, Massachusetts, Hazen was an All-Ivy League outfielder at Princeton University in 1997 and 1998 and played two years in the minors before joining the Indians organization as a scout. David talked to Hazen about the Red Sox player development system and about some of the organization’s best young prospects.

David Laurila: How would you assess the 2007 Red Sox season from a player development perspective?

Mike Hazen: I think that we always assess things in various ways. While overall for the big league club it was a very successful season–and we take pride in that as well–our job isn’t to sit here and look at the major league team winning the World Series and say, “Hey it was a good year.” Our job is more, “How was 2007 when the [minor league] season ended on September 4th, and what are we going to do heading into 2008 to help the major league club stay ready, with enough depth prepared to impact the season?” But I think that overall it was a pretty good year. Watching some of the younger guys move up through the system was definitely encouraging. Having said that, I think there are certainly some things we need to improve upon.

DL: You’ve been in your current position for two years. How has the Red Sox player development system changed since you came on board?

MH: From a philosophical standpoint, I don’t think a lot has changed. It’s a very similar style–and I knew this coming in–from what Ben (Cherington) had operated and developed here with Theo from 2002-2005. So nothing major has changed philosophically. There have been minor tweaks in how we operate on a day-to-day basis, and we’ve had some personnel changes over the last few years.

DL: Have the personnel changes been a case of you trying to tailor the department, or have they been more circumstantial?

MH: I think it’s a mix of both. We’ve had some movement, and whenever we look to hire people we try to match them up with our philosophies–not what their philosophies are coming in here, but what our philosophies are and will they fit within that philosophy; what we’re trying to teach, be it from an on-base percentage standpoint with our offensive approach, or what we feel are the most important aspects of developing a young pitcher.

DL: How has your own development evolved in the two years you’ve been here?

MH: Well, things start to slow down for you a little bit after a couple of years, I can tell you that. But I don’t think we’d have had near the amount the success that we’ve had to date without Ben. Ben is really the guy that drives player development and scouting here in the organization, and his constant guidance and advice is vital to what we’re trying to do.

DL: Do you feel that most teams take a similar approach to player development?

MH: I think that most teams take a similar approach. When you’re talking about player development, you’re not talking about recreating the wheel. This is still baseball at its roots, and I think that what separates player development among different organizations is just the level of detail that you want to pay to what you’re doing in the minor leagues. It’s the amount of detail to the individualization of each player’s plan and his path to the big leagues. And that’s not always easy due to the sheer volume. We have six teams running, the Dominican academy, we have players coming from Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and everywhere in Latin America, so it isn’t easy to individualize that volume for each player, but it’s definitely something we’re charged with doing on a daily basis. But I do think that if we can get the right people in place, with the right staff and personnel that can do that, we’ll be successful.

DL: The Red Sox organization places a lot of importance on statistical analysis. How is it used to evaluate players throughout the minor league system?

MH: It’s a resource that goes into the evaluation. It’s not something that’s a hard and fast guideline for us in terms of player promotion or what we consider to be success or failure for a player. We have a lot of good people who evaluate our minor league teams, and not just player development staff. It’s Ben, Craig Shipley, Allard Baird, and we have people coming through who have tremendous scouting experience like Jason McLeod. They evaluate the players from a scouting standpoint as well. That’s another resource. Those are the tools we put together that we use to justify player promotion and to ensure that we’re not overlooking something. Maybe our eyes tell us one thing and the performance tells us something different.

DL: When you do look at the numbers, are there any specific metrics that you weigh more heavily than others, and do they change from level to level?

MH: I don’t think that the statistics change that much from Triple-A down to the rookie level. There are some clear ones that we use for guidelines. From an offensive standpoint, it’s the hitters’ ability to control the strike zone. I think that’s been shown to translate from the big leagues on down, better than almost anything else. So we use those types of valuations. From a pitching standpoint, we look at ground balls and strikeouts. Those are the things we value in pitchers, and they’re also statistics that we feel translate well from the minors to the big league level. We feel that they translate from level to level throughout the minor leagues as well.

DL: Can you elaborate a little on the importance of strikeout rates and groundball/flyball ratios?

MH: That’s certainly not my area of expertise–it’s just something that I’ve been educated on as I’ve grown into this job. But to me it makes sense that if guys can’t hit the ball out of the ballpark, and if you can get them to swing and miss, you’re going to have a higher probability of success with every hitter that you face. With guys putting the ball into play less, you’re naturally not going to give up as many runs. I know that it’s a lot more complex than that, but that’s how I look at it.

DL: Can you talk a little about the relationship between player development and scouting?

MH: Sure. In my opinion it’s probably one of the most important relationships within our front office. Jason and I, with Ben’s leadership, work really hard at having an open relationship when it comes to how we’re developing the players that we’re drafting. I’ll be the first to tell you that there’s no way to have a successful player development department without good scouting and without talented players coming into the organization. Minor league and major league staff members and coaches can’t make major league players–major league talent is drafted. Having said that, I do think that within the player development chain of things there are pieces to the puzzle that can be added to from a player development standpoint that can help a player become a better player. But I don’t believe that when you look at Dustin Pedroia or Jacoby Ellsbury or Kevin Youkilis or Jonathan Papelbon–you cannot look either at scouting or player development. I believe the departments are inextricably linked and both need to function in conjunction if we are to realize sustained success.

DL: How important is aptitude?

MH: I think aptitude is extremely important, and I think there are different levels of aptitude. It’s not necessarily book aptitude, where a player is extremely bright in a way that we would normally call being intelligent. It’s more a player’s ability to grasp instruction and apply it in a game, no matter how they do that. We see it all the time as players move up from A-ball to Double-A to Triple-A to the major leagues. The game is the same, but there are subtle differences to the game. Those subtle differences require players to make adjustments to their game, their approach, their routine, how they approach every single day, how they handle failure and the distractions. Those things add into a player’s aptitude and ability to make an adjustment. I know that you can’t quantify it all the time, but that’s where I would say that Jonathan Papelbon’s greatest strength probably is. Sure, he has tremendous stuff, but Jonathan Papelbon’s ability to handle the situations, and the pressure, and the moment–that he has to come into the game and get three outs–he does it better than almost anybody. To me, that’s aptitude.

DL: Do you think it’s mostly innate, or do you feel that some of Papelbon’s aptitude came from work he did with guys like Al Nipper and Bob Tewksbury?

MH: I think that a lot of it is innate, but I also think that there are things a player can learn from staff members that will help them in their career–help them in their ability to adjust and to process what’s happening to them during the course of a game or the course of a season. So yes, there are certainly staff members within minor and major league baseball who can have that impact on players, who can help give them the tools or add a piece to the puzzle, but I do think that a lot of what Jonathan Papelbon has–he was born with it.

DL: Your coaching staff at short-season Lowell this past summer included two who were fluent in Spanish. Given the number of Latin American players in the organization, and the importance of communication, do you feel the organization is doing an adequate job in that regard?

MH: That’s a good question, and I don’t think that we’re where we want to be with it yet. I think it’s extremely important. We have a significant population of players from Latin America, some of whom don’t speak a lot of English, and it’s extremely important for us to help these guys, not only to develop true baseball skills, but to help them assimilate into the culture–to help them learn the language, to help them feel the same comfort zone that our American players feel. In our opinion, in order for them to thrive at the minor league level, and ultimately the major league level, it’s another wall that has to be torn down. It’s another distraction that a player doesn’t have to concern himself with when he walks to a field. It’s not, “Am I going to understand what the hitting coach is telling me?” it’s “Alright, this is what the hitting coach told me yesterday, now I need to apply it today.” That’s what their focus should be–it should be shifted to more important things when it comes to baseball. So, yes, it’s something that we definitely strive for, but it’s not that easy.

DL: Do you feel that it’s primarily a staffing issue at the coaching level?

MH: I think there’s more to it than just having a Latin American staff member at each level. The language is one piece to the puzzle, but so are understanding the culture and having their teammates understand their culture. I think that’s another major piece to the assimilation process. That takes time and energy, and it’s a challenge that Ben has charged us with since I’ve been here–specializing in that area; trying to help set these players on equal footing with their American-born teammates. And it’s not just the Latin players. It’s also our Taiwanese players and our players from Japan. The resources we try to put toward these guys are extremely important, and hopefully they’re beneficial.

DL: In a more general sense, how satisfied are you with the progress you’ve made in developing your Latin American and Far East programs?

MH: I think that over the last two years, the stuff that Craig Shipley has done in Latin America, just with the signing of players, there’s been a clear upgrade in talent. Whether it’s in our Dominican Academy or what you see in the lower levels of our system, from (Oscar) Tejeda to (Yamaico) Navarro to (Jose) Capellan–just picking out a few of the players from our lower minors. (Michael) Almanzar. We’ve invested significant resources down there, and we feel that we’ve gotten a tremendous amount of talent. So we feel like we’re making that movement forward, but I still think it will take a few more years for it to completely manifest itself at the upper levels, given the normal level of development. But we’re extremely encouraged by the depth of talent that is now at our Latin American academy. There’s also our Australian academy. There are guys there that are extremely impressive, too.

DL: Oscar Tejeda, a young shortstop, is one of the players you’ve signed out of the Dominican Republic. How does he project?

MH: We’re very impressed with what this guy has been able to do in his first year, especially given his age. At 17, he may well have been the youngest player in the New York-Penn League, so to come up and thrive for the first couple of weeks, and then hold his own the rest of the way… We think he has a chance to have some pretty good power before all is said and done. Physically, we think he’s going to be able to add some weight. He has good speed, he’s got good pop at the plate; he does a lot of everything real well. He’s a good leader, he’s a good student of the game, he works hard. There are nothing but positive things to say about him right now.

DL: Let’s touch briefly on the team’s top draft picks each of the past two seasons. What did you see from Jason Place this year?

MH: What we saw from Jason Place, I think, is what we should have expected to see from Jason Place. We were taking a 19-year-old kid and throwing him into the South Atlantic League for the first time, and we knew that. Jason knew that too. There were things we wanted to work on, fundamentally, with his swing, and those aren’t easy adjustments to make, especially when you’re playing at an advanced level for your age. I think that over time, and especially early in the month in (the Hawaiian Winter League) when he was swinging the bat very well, we’ve started to see some of the smoothing out of his swing. Over time that’s going to allow his power to really play and that’s never been an issue. His power is as good as anyone’s in the system. He played a great defensive center field this year, he has a good arm, and he has good instincts. I think it’s all about him developing that offensive consistency, and we think he will.

DL: This year’s top pick was Nick Hagadone. How do you see him developing?

MH: We see him starting next year, although we haven’t yet determined at which level. We’re very encouraged by his introduction to pro baseball, with the success he had in Lowell and the development of his changeup that we saw in instructional league. He certainly has a powerful two-pitch mix. He’s a left-handed pitcher with a power arm, and they usually end up pitching in the big leagues. We feel like this guy has every bit of that chance. We love his makeup and work ethic–those two things are definitely there, so it’s just a matter of him continuing to develop and improve.

DL: Let’s touch on one more prospect who profiles as having a high ceiling. Give a brief assessment of Lars Anderson.

MH: We’re extremely high on what Lars can do offensively. He’s got a great knowledge of the strike zone, he’s got a good fundamental swing, and he has power to both left and right field. I think that really, for Lars, it becomes a matter of refining his offensive approach to a degree–his two-strike approach and becoming a little more aggressive in certain situations, to maybe learning how to pull the ball a little more effectively on pitches on the inner half of the plate. But that’s not something we want him to focus on now. This guy is very impressive, from his approach to hitting for average to his ability, we think, to get stronger physically and to hit for power. We think he’s going to have a pretty good chance to have a major league career.