Sunday, June 7, 2009

Breaking down the draft with Theo Epstein

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein met with the local media on Friday to talk about next week's Major League Baseball Draft, scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Some highlights from that half-hour session:

Executives know fans are paying more attention.
"The advent of online services and stuff," as Red Sox manager Terry Francona put it, has made the draft far more of an event than it used to be. Baseball America has always been an authority, but even has gotten into the act this year with a separate blog and regular columns devoted to draft prospects. By the time a player has spent a year or two in the major leagues, he's as much a household name as major leaguers were a decade or so ago.

(Seriously: Can you even imagine a world in which 99 percent of New Englanders had never heard of Clay Buchholz?)

Red Sox executives have always had to turn out the suggestions of their eager fan base. Heightened interest in the draft just means more suggestions.

"Five or six years ago, the fan on the street wanted to tell you what superstar you should go trade for -- using all your prospects," Epstein said. "A couple of years ago, they started telling you what prospects you should promote from Double-A or Triple-A to the big leagues. Now they want to tell you who to draft.

"It's definitely moving in that direction -- which is great because, for real baseball fans, there's nothing as sweet as following a kid from the day he's drafted, seeing him play at the local minor-league affiliate, being there or watching on TV when he makes his major-league debut, and following his whole career. You feel invested in the player. Winning that way is sweeter for us as people in the front office, and I think it's sweeter for the fans, too."

If Epstein had his way, he'd be able to trade draft picks.
Football teams, basketball teams and hockey teams all trade draft picks. It certainly adds a level of drama to drafts -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a master of moving around in the draft, and the Celtics might not have been able to acquire Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett without being able to throw draft picks into the packages they were offering.

Baseball, though, has been relucant to embrace the idea of trading draft picks. To a degree, it makes sense -- the worst teams should be able to draft the best young players. But as more and more small-market teams pass on high-priced players, some have wondered if those teams ought to be able to trade down and not have to pass on the top players without compensation. The explosion in signing bonuses has only emphasized the point.

Imagine the haul, both in talent and in money saved, the Washington Nationals could get in a deal for Stephen Strasburg. Imagine, too, the discussion that would surround that type of transation. Would the Yankees offer Joba Chamberlain? Would the Dodgers offer Andre Ethier? Would the Red Sox offer Jacoby Ellsbury? It would be fascinating to discuss.

(Think about it: What type of package would you offer for Strasburg if you were Theo Epstein? Buchholz and Josh Reddick? Jacoby Ellsbury and Michael Bowden? Daisuke Matsuzaka straight up? "I haven't thought much about this, but I'd have to imagine Ellsbury and Buchholz might both be required," Baseball America writer Aaron Fitt wrote in an email. "That's how good this guy is.")

"Most people in the game would say it's something they're in favor of, and we agree," Epstein said. "But it seems that there have been other concerns at levels above our pay grade for why it hasn't happened, and we certainly respect those. But perhaps it's something that can be opened up in the future. If they ask us, we will certainly tell them we're in favor of it."

These guys aren't robotic computer nerds who totally ignore traditional scouting methods. Evaluation of players breaks down into four categories -- and there's one that's more important than you might think.
"Information is the currency of the draft," Epstein said. "We put the whole picture of the player together: Who is this person, and what can we expect from him over the next 15 years?"
The four categories:
1. Scouting -- power, speed, explosion of fastball
2. Performance -- batting average, strikeout-to-walk ratio
3. Medical -- arm surgeries, knee injuries, any red flags
4. Makeup -- attitude, work ethic, character

Scouts have to deal with all four of those aspects. They have to watch the player, keep track of his performance, be on top of any medical issues and do all sorts of digging into his background to make sure he has the personality to succeed in the major leagues.

"That was the thing that surprised me most when I first got into a draft room in San Diego, more than a decade ago, was just how much time is spent on a kid's makeup, his background," Epstein said. "Are his parents still together? What do they do for a living? What kind of house do they keep? What kind of handshake does the kid have? Does he look you in the eye? It's all the basics that go into a player's personality.

"For our top picks, we do psychological interviews and standardized testing, and our scouts submit two- or three-page questionnaires -- essays, essentially -- on every player's personality and makeup, what makes him tick, any red flags in their background, and what's going to separate them from their competitors as they embark on the difficult task of becoming a big leaguer. It's more than half of the equation."

Checking into a player's makeup now even includes checking Facebook pages.

"One time, we saw some interesting things on there and called the guy up directly to chat about some of the photos," Epstein said with a chuckle.

"He'll remain nameless," director of amateur scouting Jason McLeod said, laughing, "but he's in our organization right now."

"It didn't scare us away," Epstein said. "If anything, it made him a more attractive guy to draft and sign."

Needless to say, despite the "Moneyball" perception to the contrary, there's plenty of room for subjectivity when the Red Sox are making their picks.

"Every area guy has to get his (preference) list in order," Epstein said. "Every player in his area, he has to put in order -- and he's also asked to name his gut-feel guys, the guys he has the strongest convictions on. It might not be the guys at the very top of the draft. It might be, 'This player, get him in the eighth round. I have a strong gut feeling that this player is going to be a big-leaguer for the following reasons.' We want them to advocate for those players. ...

"Jason has his own gut-feel players from time to time. I've been known to have my own, also. It's just balancing all those interests."

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