Monday, August 10, 2009

Asked and answered: Ben Cherington

To go along with today's Union Leader story about Kendal Volz and the approach of the Red Sox to signing draft picks, here's a full "Asked and Answered" with Red Sox assistant general manager Ben Cherington.

The deadline to sign draft picks -- Volz was a ninth-round pick of the Red Sox in June and is the lone college player drafted by the Red Sox in the top 15 rounds who has not yet signed -- is Aug. 17.

With the negotiations with Volz, because he wanted to work on his mechanics and also because he wasn't drafted as highly as he expected, did you expect all along that it would take until August until he signed (if at all)?
We knew when we drafted him that he was coming off a year that was probably a little less than what his expectations were. He was a high-profile guy coming off last summer and his first two years at Baylor, and, in the spring, he was one of the higher-profile college pitchers. He didn’t have the spring I’m sure he wanted to have. When we drafted him, we knew he wanted to go out and pitch this summer and regain his form if he could and show people what he could do. It wasn’t about knowing that negotiations would take a certain amount of time. We knew he wanted to pitch, and we knew we’d get a chance to get to see him more.

How common is it for teams and players to do that, to just shelve negotiations until the last couple of weeks before the deadline?
I don’t think it’s uncommon. There are college players every year that use the summer leagues as a forum to show what they can do or to try to get back to form. The two months or however long it is from the draft to Aug. 16 is valuable time. Sometimes teams use it to gather more information and evaluation and to keep talking, and sometimes the player wants to use it to show what he can do and to work on things. Sometimes both the team and player want to use it.

What are the factors that determine whether a player signs quickly and easily or a player either doesn't sign or takes all summer to sign? Is it mostly a matter of money, or is it usually similar to what Volz is doing now?
It can be all of the above. There are times in the draft when, on the day of the draft, you feel like your evaluation of the player is complete and you’ve got all the information you need to make that evaluation and the player is very clear about what he’ll sign for and you value him at a spot in the draft that’s consistent with that kind of signing bonus. Those are the ones that are taken and sign quickly. With the other scenario, there’s a variety of other types of cases. Generally, they all lead toward needing more time for the team to continue the evaluation – maybe they didn’t see enough of the player in the spring or have information missing or the player was hurt a little bit and needs to get healthy. Sometimes the player isn’t sure whether he wants to sign or go to college and needs more time to consider that option.

From our perspective, certainly, there are players that we feel like are good candidates to sign right away because our evaluation is done, it’s clear what the asking price is, and it matches up with the evaluation. Those are the guys who are out playing now. But there also are times when using the rest of the summer makes sense.

Is it easier or harder to place a specific value on a draft pick than on a major-league free agent?
It’s really a very similar exercise as in the major leagues. The big difference is that it’s not a free-agent market – there’s only one team negotiating with the player. You evaluate the talent and you evaluate and identify what you think is the upside and what the potential is down the road, and then you compare that to the rest of the draft class and where that player’s talent matches up relative to his draft class. You can go back in time and look at other players in similar situations in the last two or three years and build a case for why a player fits into a certain category in terms of his signing bonus by comparing a player to a similar pick in years past or a player with a similar profile or ability in years past. That process is fairly similar to what we do with big-league free agents except, again, there’s only one team involved in the negotiation.

How do you deal with the temptation to go a little bit further with a guy so you don't let him go and get burned later the way, say, not signing someone like Matt LaPorta probably hurts a little bit now?
That temptation can be there, and that’s similar with any personnel decision we make whether it’s a trade or a major-league free agent. Anytime you’re evaluating a player, you have to place a value on that player and an evaluation of what you’re willing to pay. Sometimes it’s in the form of players that you’re paying in a trade, and sometimes it’s in the form of a contract or a signing bonus. You’ve got to evaluate what that is and place a value on it. Sometimes you do go a little bit past what is the point of pain to get a deal done, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be true to your evaluation, and you’ve got to be true to how you evaluated the player at that time. If not, we inevitably will start to become inefficient with our money.

You can always look back in hindsight – you bring up LaPorta, and I don’t know what it would have taken because we never got that close – but had we gone further, depending how much further, one might say that would have been a good decision. But we have hundreds of players that we negotiate with every year – be it in the draft or international free agency or whatever the market is – and if we live by that principle that, with every single one, we’re always tempted to go further and get a deal done, we’re going to be spending a lot of money and not getting much for it. It’s hard to evaluate in retrospect. We do look back, and we look back at cases that we didn’t get right. But we have to try to stay disciplined to what the evaluation is at the time. ...

When you’re trying to buy a house, you start with a number that you feel really good getting a house for. We all know how often you usually get to that number. You generally have to compromise in some way, and you bump up at a point where it starts to feel painful.

Do you have any fun stories or anecdotes about negotiations with some of the players who have come up through the system in recent years, what those negotiations were like?
No, nothing that comes to mind right away. Looking back, it’s always very easy to see the truth more clearly. Pedroia signed for whatever he signed for – I wasn’t involved personally, but, at the time, I’m sure he was asking for more money. I’m sure we said, at the time, ‘This is our offer, and we believe it’s fair because of X, Y and Z. We compare you to this player and that player.’ Well, fast-forward five years, and he was probably right. He was probably worth more money. But there are just as many examples of the opposite where, in retrospect, it wasn’t worth it. That kind of thing happens all the time.

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