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The Setup

Sure, the Boston Red Sox are one of baseball’s Daddy Warbucks teams with a nine-figure payroll that is consistently among the highest in the game. They’re in the running for nearly every top free agent, and they will have six players on their roster this year making more than $10 million. Yet, one look at their depth chart shows a roster filled with home-grown talent. Arguably the best right side of the infield in baseball, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia were both draft steals. Three starting pitchers originally signed with the Red Sox, as did most of the bullpen.

Sure, they have the ability to spend freely in the free agent market but, at the same time, they’ve had the most successful player procurement system of the last decade, and it comes down to focusing on aggression, intelligence and, at times, sheer volume.

The Proof

It’s no surprise to see the Red Sox as one of baseball’s busiest franchises in the international talent market. Be it adding big-league players like Daisuke Matsuzaka, or a slew of million-dollar, high-ceiling talents from Latin America, few teams add more talent from outside the country than the Red Sox, who are under the direction of former big-league infielder, Craig Shipley, an Australian who runs their international scouting program. However, with 50 rounds each year, it’s the draft that provides most of the talent to any team’s player development system, and no team takes advantage of their picks more than Boston.

It seems at times that one of baseball’s great secrets is that the draft represents the biggest bargain in the game. While the industry and especially the people in Major League Baseball’s central office wail and gnash their teeth over draft bonuses that in the grand scheme of things represent pocket change, the Red Sox recognize that the potential payoff for these bonuses eclipses anything in the game by a wide margin. For example, look no further than Stephen Strasburg, the top pick in the 2009 draft. His deal with the Nationals shattered all bonus records, and Washington added arguably the best pitcher in college baseball history. Yet, in pure dollars, his deal is nearly equivalent to what the Cubs will pay run-of-the-mill center fielder Marlon Byrd for three years.

Let’s take a quick step back. It’s important to note that while there is a slotting system for the draft, it’s not etched in stone. It’s merely numbers that are suggested by the powers that be at MLB, and if a team is willing to have some people from central office yell and claim it is ruining the game via a few phone calls, a team can skirt the suggestions whenever it wants. Money, as much as talent, defines the draft order. Can you imagine Kevin Durant or LeBron James dropping to the end of the first round, and therefore to what is already a good team, because those drafting early fear their contract demands? It happens all of the time in baseball, and no team takes advantage of this more-or better-than the Red Sox.

The idea of upgrading picks is nothing new. Some say Pat Gillick was the first to truly utilize it as a strategy while GM of the Toronto Blue Jays in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but the Red Sox have taken it to a new level. Taking a look not at the pick, but just the bonuses, shows how aggressive they’ve been over the last four years:


Year/Bonus $1M+ $750-999K $500-749K
   2009      2      2         1
   2008      3      1         1
   2007      0      1         4
   2006      2      3         2  

So, by taking advantage of the situation presented to them, the Red Sox, who are always drafting towards the end of the first round, and often losing first-round picks due to free-agent compensation, have been able to pick up the equivalent of seven first-rounders in the past four years, while adding 15 second-round talents, if we go purely by bonus. That’s why the system is always so loaded, as this year’s squad at Triple-A Pawtucket will be filled young, big-league ready talents should the need arise via injury, while the lower levels of the system have some of the most intriguing high-ceiling prospects in the game.

And there could be even more, as the Red Sox are by far the most aggressive franchise in this aspect of drafting. They’ve identified numerous future stars/top prospects to make a run at but ultimately fail to sign. It goes back as far as 1998, when they tried to sign third baseman Mark Teixeira in the ninth round from a Maryland high school. Later unsigned picks included Pirates top prospect Pedro Alvarez and young Indians slugger Matt LaPorta. Even as recently as 2007, the club selected first baseman Hunter Morris (third round) and catcher Yasmani Grandal (27th), both of whom will be likely first-round selections come June. The point is that the Red Sox focused not only on talent, but on trying to pull the pick upgrade as often as possible, knowing that just one hit can return, in terms of baseball value, 10-20 times the investment, the kind of multiplication found nowhere else in the game.

Beyond the team’s willingness to spend in the draft, even when they’ve selected round-appropriate talent, the Red Sox’s success rate is nothing short of stunning. One could argue that nobody, including the Red Sox, saw Dustin Pedroia (second round, 2004) or Kevin Youkilis (eighth round, 2001) becoming the stars they’ve developed into, while closer Jonathan Papelbon (fourth round, 2003), was seen as more as a future set-up man than someone capable of delivering 40 saves annually. Great scouting, plus pure aggression, tends to equal a great system.

The Conclusion

While it might be hard to match the Red Sox in pure scouting acumen, when it comes to the practice of pick upgrading, any team can play. Finances might prevent a small-market club from competing with them when it comes to bidding on high-priced free agents, but the relatively paltry amount of dollars that go to even top picks makes exploiting the draft available to all. Some small-budget teams, such as Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Oakland, have already begun to play the game. Those that don’t will fall further behind in each year’s organizational talent rankings. That is, until Major League Baseball comes up with its next provisions to “fix the draft,” which will assuredly create more problems than it solves.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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chabels
1/27
I realize it isn't the point, but there's no way Youklis+Pedroia > Howard+Utley.
DanoooME
1/27
If you consider defense alone, Pedroia=Utley, but Youkilis >>>>> Howard. That evens things out a bit, as offensively Youkilis=Howard, but Pedroia
crperry13
1/27
I'm no Yankee fan, but I could put Teixeira/Cano up there as well.
alskor
1/27
Here are the Yankees left side CHONE projections by WAR: Teixeira: 5.1 Cano: 4.2 Total: 9.3
kerrigrr
1/28
But the point here is to point out scouting acumen. The Philly and Boston pairs are home grown. Texeira was acquired as a free agent so that takes him out of the discussion.
TheBish
1/27
And the Winner is(Ranked by PMLV): NYY 60.7 PHI 55.2 BOS 49.5 I only looked at the three teams mentioned here.
alskor
1/27
Ok. Now include defense. PMLV is a pretty peculiar place to start, never mind declare a "winner."
drewsylvania
1/27
There's no winner. Kevin is "arguably" correct.
alskor
1/27
Well, the man did say "arguably." Here are their WAR by CHONE projections for 2010: Utley: 6.1 Howard: 4.4 Total: 10.5 Pedroia: 4.7 Youkilis: 5.5 Total: 10.2
crperry13
1/27
Personally, I've never found the Chone projections at all accurate. Perhaps somebody can explain to me why they're cited so often?
judyblum
1/28
I think it's mostly because they're available earlier than some of the others. That's not meant to be a jab, anyone else who might still be working on their own projections, feel free to take as much time as you need to do a good job.
TheBish
1/27
PMLV was a metric with positional weighting, I actually just wanted to get some data into the discussions. Obviously there is defense to consider. Also, the fact that Howard almost a platoon player because of his struggles against lefties. Food for thought: Albert Pujols PMLV for '09 was 68.6
BMoreGreen
1/27
Excellent analysis KG - Howard and Utley whiff notwithstanding. While the Sawx are hated in BMore this is the reason they are so much more enjoyable to me than the recent additions of the Yanks. Ignoring Tex, adding LaPorta and Alvarez to that system would exponentially increase the cringe factor for the lower payroll division of the AL East. On a related note, since the depth charts have been updated for 2010 (including Tejada in the O's lineup) will the full PECOTAs be available soon? Just to note, maybe for a pass-along to the techies, the dcs still show a "last update" of 08-09.
philly604
1/27
So, uh, what are those numbers in the depth charts? They kind of look like preliminary PECOTA numbers...
buddons42
1/27
Look a little closer guys, it looks like the players themselves have ben put in the right spots and their playing time updated, however those look an awful lot like last years PECOTA numbers. I think it's just this years lineup with last years PECOTA projections. A step in the right direction nonetheless!
gregorybfoley
1/27
Is it possible that the Red Sox have not been aggressive enough? Seems like it would have been worth it to make LaPorta and Alvarez offers they couldn't refuse but then again they didn't know how those guys would turn out back then.
chico123
1/28
The Sox could have signed LaPorta but Alvarez was going to Van. They cheaped out on the FL product and are void of any power prospects other than Anderson. Tom www.elguaposghost.com
mattymatty2000
1/27
"Finances might prevent a small-market club from competing with them when it comes to bidding on high-priced free agents, but the relatively paltry amount of dollars that go to even top picks makes exploiting the draft available to all." This is so true. It also really points out the ridiculous nature of some contracts like Carlos Guillen, Jason Kendall, or really, anyone the Royals have signed as a free agent over the last decade.
gregorybfoley
1/27
Jose Guillen, right?
hessshaun
1/27
Boy, it sure is shocking that this is a ESPN piece. Interesting none the less.
Richie
1/27
Don't know if I'd much trust those depth charts yet. Garrett Atkins is projected to hit .283 playing in the AL East? Really??
bflaff
1/27
All they've done is move players to their new teams. Those are still last year's PECOTA projections.
BMoreGreen
1/28
Not correct - checked the fantasy homepage and updates mere made as of 1/27 for PFM, dcs and weighted means spreadsheet. Hoo-freakin'-ray!
momansf
1/27
Even though the Red Sox are probably the best team for drafting within the past ten years for hitting (although Jack Z has also done good enough to get consideration), teams like the Giants have landed more pitchers than the Red Sox. What I'm getting at is, besides Lincecum, the Giants' pitchers did not fall and some were even overdrafted. My question is, do you think this strategy of drafting players that fall regardless to slot works better for hitters than pitchers?
gregorybfoley
1/27
Detroit has done pretty well picking up pitchers that drop due to signing demands.
shealy79
1/27
I'm a Yankee fan but I agree with what this says about the Red Sox organization. Though it should be noted, the Yankees have done this for a few yrs now and could turn out some success in the future. Eric Duncan (though a complete flop) was paid higher than slot money in order to get him. Andrew Brackman (Who could be the next coming of Randy Johnson) was drafted above slot and paid above slot in order to get him away from basketball. It is insane that the big money teams are also incorporating sabermetrics and better drafting...some other teams just don't stand a chance!! Also note, the sox also drafted The Freak Tim Lincecum yrs ago as well but weren't able to lock him up. They scout very well I'll give them that.
gregorybfoley
1/27
If you think that Brackman will become a Hall-of-Fame pitcher because he walked a lot of people in the minors when he was 23 just like Randy Johnson did, then I don't know if that logic is sound...
funkland
1/28
Lincecum was drafted 3 times, but never by the Sox. The Cubs & Indians drafted him in '03 & '05.
BMoreGreen
1/27
Definitely incorrect - just looking at the O's dc shows me updated numbers on Jones, Reimold, Weiters, et al.
BMoreGreen
1/27
posted in the wrong spot - apologies folks. bring on the PECOTAs.
joelefkowitz
1/27
I don't see why failing to sign the likes of Teixeira, LaPorta, Alvarez, etc. is viewed as a positive. Unless the players had beyond ridiculous demands/non-financial reasons for not signing, I'd chalk it up as a failure. They might have an eye for good talent, but if they don't value it enough to sign them, then it's very likely they just made a few lucky picks.
mhixpgh
1/27
"I don't see why failing to sign the likes of Teixeira, LaPorta, Alvarez, etc. is viewed as a positive." I agree. Isn't it at least a glass half-empty if they identify talent then fail to sign the talent?
bflaff
1/27
To me, the thing that separates the men from the boys is their reach in int'l scouting. DR and the other usual places in Latin America are thoroughly picked over, but there's a big wide world out there that most teams seem to ignore. I'd love to see where teams differ in this respect. What the Yankees are doing in China, for example, seems like a no-brainer, but there isn't much of a stampede to join them.
Peter7899
1/28
Cubs scout heavily on the Pacific Rim. Hak-Ju Lee, a SS prospect, came out of Korea.
rbrianc
1/27
under "what have you done for me lately?", i looked at the Red Sox box scores from the last 3 games. That team out west doesn't have a bad overall farm/scout system either (the one with the "W" in those last three Boston box scores), and they also have a decent, young homegrown, right side. Let's just check back in a decade - I'm biased but i still like Kendrick/Morales myself. yeah, typical ESPN piece.
rbrianc
1/27
as I'll thrown in the Halos home-gorwn SP too.
moscow25
1/29
Were Youk, Pedroia & Papelbon slot or above slot? I don't disagree with the arguement, but what evidence do we have for Red Sox achievement via over slotting? The Yanks have been paying above slot for a while, and while it hasn't hurt them, those guys haven't been making it to the majors all that often.
gaucho2101
1/29
I'm surprised that the tactic of paying over-slot for prized draftees isn't used more often. An excellent example of this was the drafting & signing of Max Stassi by the A's in the 2009 draft. In this case, it's as if the A's traded a 4th round pick for a 1st round pick (sure, they paid a $1.5M signing bonus--a record for a 4th round selection--but they would have paid that money anyway if they had two 1st round picks). The argument that a team shouldn't spend first-round money on a fourth-round pick is nonsense if the team really believes the player in question has first-round type talent.