With the postseason underway, now is a good time to look at the final four participants and talk about where these players came from on a scouting and player development level. Sometimes we can learn quite a bit about how a team was built, and sometimes all we have are good stories. Since rosters are not due to MLB until the morning before a series’ first game, we’ll go off each team’s divisional series roster, and start with the Red Sox.
Varitek is the starter, and has been for the last ten seasons, spending his entire big league career with the Red Sox after coming over from Seattle in a monumentally bad deal for the Mariners (Heathcliff Slocumb for Varitek and Derek Lowe). The one striking thing about Varitek is how his entry into baseball cost his career some length, as he’s now 35, and while generally seen as one of the better catchers around, his career totals are a pretty modest 1063 hits and 148 home runs. Arguably the best catcher in college baseball history, draft and signing shenanigans–yes, even in the early Nineties, Scott Boras was still at it–prevented Varitek from making his pro debut until he was almost 23 years old, and he wasn’t a full-time big league starter until 27. One wonders what might have been under other circumstances.
A fifth-round pick 15 years ago out of Wichita State, Mirabelli has basically been Varitek’s backup since 2001, other than a short period last year in which Boston was without him, and then had to pay too much (Cla Meredith and Josh Bard) in order to get him back to catch Tim Wakefield‘s knuckler. He’s your classic number two catcher: good defender, low average, and a little bit of pop. That pop came quite suddenly for Mirabelli, who had five home runs in his first four minor league seasons before smacking 21 for Double-A Shreveport in 1996.
Cash is a bit of an anomaly here: almost the 26th man on a 25-man
roster, his background is pretty unique. Undrafted out of college, then-Blue
Jays scouting director Tim Wilken signed him after seeing him serve as an
emergency catcher in the Cape Cod League. He initially put up some decent power numbers in the minors, but he never established himself in the majors.
The Future: The Red Sox haven’t needed to develop a catcher for a while, and that’s a good thing, because they haven’t. With Varitek getting a little long in the tooth, the organization had high hopes for George Kottaras, but he’s looking more and more like a future backup, or maybe a strange utility type in the mold of Eli Marrero. Some have put sleeper status on
Youkilis was a nice scouting find, a player picked in the eighth round as a
college senior. He’s a good on-base guy and a fan favorite, but the dirty
little secret is that as a first baseman, he’s an average performer at best. He’s basically Mark Grace without the defensive skills, and playing in an era where a .453 slugging percentage is well below the standard for the position. At second, Pedroia was a pleasant surprise this year, exceeding both good (PECOTA) and bad (me) expectations by hitting .317/.380/.442. The team’s top pick in 2004 (second round), it’s still hard to put a high ceiling on him, but what he did this year is already star-level; only Placido Polanco and Robinson Cano had better years offensively among AL second basemen.
What do Lowell and Chris Booker–who appeared in three games for the Nationals this season–have in common? They’re the only two players from the 20th round of the 1995 draft to ever make it to the big leagues. People still debate the merits of the trade that brought Josh Beckett to Boston for Hanley Ramirez, but few talk about the fact that beyond Beckett, the club also got Lowell, who was the second-best hitter this year on a team that scored 867 runs.
The worst everyday player was Lugo, and the Red Sox are still left with three years on his contract after making one of their few free-agent mistakes. A draft-and-follow by the Astros who signed in 1995, Lugo always put up very
good numbers in the minors (career .296/.359/.427), but even a return to his
career big league averages of .277/.340/.402 will make it hard to justify what
the Red Sox still owe him.
Cora is the reserve player with up-the-middle defensive skills. He was acquired in 2005 for Ramon Vazquez–basically the same guy, although Cora’s the better glove. A third-round pick in 1996 after starring at the University of Miami, Cora could last another three-to-five years in this role.
A backup at first base and both outfield corners, Hinske was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2002 after powering out 24 home runs and drawing 77 walks. Less than four years later, he was traded to the Red Sox for no more than getting his contract off the Blue Jays‘ books. Hinske was never a good defensive player, and didn’t see any time at third this year, and when pitchers found the holes in his swing and started challenging him more, he simply never adjusted. A 17th-round pick out of the University of Arkansas by the Cubs in 1998, Hinske was traded to the A’s in 2001 for Miguel Cairo, and after putting up a big year in the Pacific Coast League that year, Oakland, already having
The Future: Youkilis is locked in at first base, and the club has no real options to replace him, although recently acquired Triple-A slugger
Ramirez is one of the most consistent performers in the game, but few remember that in 1993, the big debate in prospect land was over who was the best hitter in the minors: Ramirez or Montreal’s Cliff Floyd. Both were first-round picks in 1991 (13th and 14th, respectively) coming off monster seasons in the Double-A Eastern League, with Ramirez hitting .333/.419/.613 for Akron, and Floyd slugging .329/.412/.600 for Harrisburg. Ramirez had more power, but Floyd had the better all-around game, including 33 stolen bases. One stayed healthy and became a star; one didn’t and gave only fleeting glimpses of what could have been.
A seventh-round pick by the Cardinals in 1999, Crisp never gained much traction in the Cardinals system and was basically a throw-in as part of the Chuck Finley deal, but after putting up a .360/.426/.511 line at Triple-A Buffalo, the Indians gave him a chance, and he never looked back, though his production has gone downhill since coming to Boston. After signing a big free-agent deal, Drew hit a career-low 11 home runs, but his 140 games played represented the third-highest total of his career. It’s now 10 years since he came out of college with some of the top scouting reports for any outfielder in college baseball history.
Kielty is the fifth outfielder and bench fodder at this point, but his entry into pro baseball was interesting. Undrafted in 1998, Kielty suddenly exploded with a huge year in the Cape Cod League, and despite the fact that nobody wanted him a month before, he was suddenly the subject of a bidding war that finished with the Twins giving him half a million. He used to walk quite a bit and have a little power, but as his athleticism has slipped, so has his hitting ability.
Ellsbury might be the best bench outfielder on any of the four teams, and is likely a starter next year.
The Future: Ramirez enters 2008 in the final year of his contract, and is owed $20 million for his services. There’s an outside chance the Red Sox will look to unload him, but even if they do, it will be a difficult task. That leaves Ellsbury to take over in center. He provided a significant spark when filling in for an injured Ramirez, but his .298/.360/.380 line at Triple-A Pawtucket is probably more telling as to his talent. In the end, he’s most similar to what the Red Sox thought they were getting from Crisp–an outstanding defender with plus speed who hits for average but doesn’t offer much in terms of power or walks. Drew has four years to go on his deal, and even in a backup role, Crisp will get plenty of playing time with Manny and Drew on the corners. The only other player in the upper minors of note is Brandon Moss, who most scouts project as a good fourth
David Ortiz (Free Agent, 1/03)
Don’t forget that when the Red Sox first signed Ortiz, it wasn’t any kind of huge deal–it was a one-year deal for a little over $1 million after the Twins released him. Needless to say, letting him go was a massive mistake by Minnesota. Ortiz turns 32 this winter, and it’s interesting to wonder what kind of Hall of Fame discussions might revolve around Big Papi when all is said and done. His career number are going to fall well short of merit, as right now he’s only at 1219 hits and 266 home runs. At the same time, however, his peak is going to be pretty incredible, as he’s been a top-five finisher in the MVP voting for four straight years, and this year, which could arguably be described as his best, should make it five out of five.
The Future: Ortiz is signed through 2010, with a 2011 option. He isn’t going anywhere.
Josh Beckett (Trade, 11/05)
Curt Schilling (Trade, 11/03)
Tim Wakefield (Free Agent, 12/00)
Again, we’re still in no position to gauge the Beckett trade yet. He still has at least two and likely three more years with Boston, and while Hanley Ramirez has been great, if you put him on this Boston team and take away Beckett and Lowell, the Red Sox are worse off. Eight years ago, Beckett was considered one of the best high school pitchers of our generation, and his numbers in the minors backed it up, including a 1.75 ERA in 216 1/3 innings and a 295/51 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Matsuzaka failed to live up to expectations, which was probably an impossible task, but he’s young, dominated opposing lineups at times, and most scouts predict that he could take off with improvements to his command, something pitching coach John Farrell is credited with achieving this year in relation to Beckett’s dramatic improvement. Schilling was originally drafted by the Red Sox in the old January draft 21 years ago, but it took him 18 years to suit up for the Red Sox. Unlike the Beckett deal, there is no debating the trade that brought Schilling to Boston, as the Red Sox gave up Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon,
While not on the LDS roster, Wakefield is a Red Sox fixture, and will likely start a game in the LCS. He’s another good story on the player development side, as he started his career as a first baseman, but hit just .189/.328/.308 in the New York-Penn League after signing with Pittsburgh as an eighth-round pick in 1988. It was fairly clear that he wasn’t going to hit enough, so the Pirates let him try out the knuckler, and the rest is history.
The Future: Again, Beckett is locked in through 2009, and his 2010 team option looks like a steal at $12 million and pretty much automatically kicks in anyway if he stays healthy. Matsuzaka is locked up long-term through 2012. Schilling and Wakefield are the old men in the rotation, with Schilling potentially in line to earn some extra cash in what will be the most pitching-thin free agent market in recent memory. At 41, he’s not going to get a long-term package from anyone, but could get a surprisingly high one-year deal. Wakefield has one of the more interesting deals in the game, basically what amounts to a permanent $4 million dollar club option that includes significant incentives for games started (incentives that were worth $1.325 million this year). One of them will have to go in 2008, as the club will likely make room for Jon Lester and über-prospect Clay Buchholz.
Jonathan Papelbon (Draft, 2003)
Hideki Okajima (Free Agent, 11/06)
Mike Timlin (Free Agent, 11/03)
Manny Delcarmen (Draft, 2000)
Eric Gagne (Trade, 7/07)
Jon Lester (Draft, 2002)
Among the homegrown guys, Papelbon was a closer in college at Mississippi State, but he was the best starting pitching prospect in the system until about mid-2005, when necessity moved him back to the bullpen, where he has clearly thrived. Delcarmen is a tribute to both the scouting and the medical staff of the Red Sox. A second-round pick in 2000, he was progressing nicely as a starter but converted to the bullpen one year after 2003 Tommy John surgery. He felt more comfortable letting it fly in shorter stints, and with two power pitches, he was one of the team’s most effective relievers. Lester was also a second-round pick, but in 2002; the quality of his stuff is rarely found in left-handers, and he’s expected to be even stronger as the health scare gets more distant in his rearview mirror.
The two trade pickups are a slightly different story. Gagne came over at the deadline and pretty much stunk up the joint; it may be health-related, or it may be him being unable to make the mental adjustment to pitching in non-save situations. Lester was the feel-good story of the year, returning from cancer to give the team a solid fifth-starter down the stretch. Lopez is a Puerto Rico native who went to the University of Virginia and was a fourth-round pick by the Diamondbacks in 1998. The Red Sox have clearly liked him for a while (selecting him in the 2002 Rule 5 draft; he didn’t stick), but he’s miscast as a situational guy, as lefties have hit him harder than right-handed batters in each of the last two years.
From among the free agents, Okajima turned out to be a massive signing that received 1/100th the attention the Matsuzaka deal got. One of the better short relievers around, some feel his success was due to him being used in the exact same role he was in Japan: as a set-up man. And how long has Mike Timlin been around? He was a fifth-round pick in 1987, taken five picks after
The Future: Papelbon is certainly the closer for the foreseeable future, and with Delcarmen and Okajima (likely staying through ’09) serving as outstanding set-up men, the Red Sox bullpen should be one of the better ones in the game for the next two years. A free agent, Timlin certainly pitched well enough to earn a deal from someone. No matter who it is with, he’ll climb the pitching appearances leaderboard. Currently 10th all-time with 1011 games, just an average year for Timlin in terms of usage would vault him into the top five. Lopez and Gagne are both free agents once the postseason ends; Gagne will almost certainly sign elsewhere, and Lopez is easily replaceable. The wild card for 2008, as he was for this season, is