Restocking a Rivalry
The Red Sox and Yankees made a major strategic shift in 2005, battling in a new arena: the draft. Now their moves are paying off
Tuesday March 25, 2008 11:00PM
The Yankees and the Red Sox had engaged in two consecutive seven-game American League Championship Series, splitting the Game 7s, when in 2005 they took their rivalry to a new battlefront: the draft room. Until that point both teams had relied on trades and free agency to acquire impact players. But with aging rosters, bloated payrolls and almost no elite players in the pipeline, the superpowers realized they had to change.
The Red Sox had been victorious in the 2004 World Series, but they resisted the temptation to keep the team intact and cut loose free agents Orlando Cabrera, Derek Lowe and staff ace Pedro Martinez. As compensation, the Sox picked up first-round picks from the Angels and the Dodgers andthree so-called sandwich picks -- supplemental choices between the first and second rounds -- which gave them five choices between 23 and 47. "[Letting those veterans go] was the right thing to do," says Boston general manager Theo Epstein, "because of their age, but part of it was to get those draft picks and rebuild our system.
"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but we feel like our first five [picks] all have a chance of being big league players. And if two or three of those guys reach their ceiling, it has a chance to be a franchise-changing draft."
The Yankees' future, meanwhile, looked even more dire in 2005. After New York blew a three-games-to-none lead to Boston in the 2004 ALCS, G.M. Brian Cashman tried to fortify his pitching by acquiring Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. None would be as good as advertised. "We had a chance to really go into an abyss," Cashman said earlier this year.
Cashman, who often clashed with owner George Steinbrenner's Tampa-based brain trust, persuaded the Boss to give him more control of baseball operations, a change he would get in writing in his new contract after the season. He promoted prospects Chien-Ming Wang and Robinson Cano to the majors in May and gave responsibility for the draft to scouting director Damon Oppenheimer.
"[Cashman] knew my passion was on the amateur side," Oppenheimer says. "He gave us a little more specific thinking on the draft, and we started looking for high-impact talent, premier players at premier positions."
That meant occasionally taking risks. The Yankees had only one first-round pick in the 2005 draft -- the 17th overall -- and when it rolled around, several future big leaguers were still available: outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Travis Buck, relievers Craig Hansen and Joey Devine, and starting pitchers Matt Garza and Clay Buchholz. But Oppenheimer's ideal was a player who could hit in the middle of the lineup and play in the middle of the field or be a front-of-the-rotation starter. So he took C.J. Henry, a 6' 3", 205-pound high school shortstop from Oklahoma City. "He fit exactly what we were looking for," Oppenheimer says. "Obviously, it hasn't worked out the way we wanted."
Henry has yet to make it out of A ball, hitting .222 with 15 home runs over three seasons. But Oppenheimer fared better in later rounds, getting speedy outfielder Austin Jackson in the eighth and hard-throwing pitcher Alan Horne in the 11th, both of whom are considered top prospects. Jackson's signing also reflected New York's determination to leverage its resources in the draft; the Yankees gave the eighth-rounder $800,000 to forget about his basketball scholarship offer from Georgia Tech.
A year later the Yankees' new emphasis on the draft would have an even bigger payoff. Cashman and Oppenheimer landed a slew of promising pitchers, including Ian Kennedy (first round) from USC, Joba Chamberlain (first-round sandwich pick) from the University of Nebraska, Brooklyn high schooler Dellin Betances (eighth) and Mark Melancon (ninth) from the University of Arizona.
"We missed on Joba, like a lot of teams," says Epstein, whose team used three picks in 2006 before the Yankees took Chamberlain. Likewise, the Yankees had missed on Buchholz in '05. New York was turned off by an January '04 incident in which Buchholz and a McNeese State schoolmate were arrested for stealing 29 laptops from a school where Buchholz's mother worked. (Buchholz was eventually given probation.) He soon transferred to Angelina College, a junior college in Lufkin, Texas, where he was 12-1 with a 1.05 ERA.
"He was a guy you had some questions about," Oppenheimer says. "The incident with the computers, pitching at a junior college, his command wasn't great . . . it just didn't add up for us. When we saw him pitch he wasn't that extreme a talent that leads you to overlook what were real off-field issues."
Epstein had his doubts too. Scouting director Jason McLeod thought that Boston should take Buchholz with an early pick, but Epstein, worried about the baggage, would roll his eyes every time McLeod mentioned him. Finally, Epstein told McLeod, "Listen, if you feel that strongly, the only way I'm going to feel comfortable picking him early is if I can meet him. Let's bring him to Fenway, have him throw and then grill him. Let's find out if this is a bad guy who got caught or a good guy who made a bad mistake."
One week before the draft, Buchholz threw in the Fenway Park bullpen for Epstein and McLeod while the Red Sox took batting practice. Says Epstein, "His stuff was ridiculous." Then the three of them left the bullpen and stood in Fenway's centerfield, while David Ortiz whacked balls off the Green Monster, over their heads and at their feet.
Asked about the theft, Buchholz told Epstein that he had been just a lookout and it was a dumb decision he regretted. "Look," Epstein told him, "we're thinking about taking you. But if we do, we're putting our reputations on the line. If you screw up, it'll be on us. We'll have a zero-tolerance policy with you. So tell us right now why we should believe in you."
Replied Buchholz, "Because all I've ever wanted to be is a big league pitcher. This is too important to me."
The kid persuaded Epstein to give him a shot. Epstein's dilemma then became when to pick him. McLeod wanted to take Buchholz with Boston's first pick, the 23rd, but Epstein decided against it. "Taking him with our first pick would have put an even bigger bull's-eye on him," Epstein says. "The Boston media puts so much attention on the first pick, it might have created an albatross for this guy. I said no matter what, we'd wait until the sandwich round."
Epstein knew this was an enormously important draft for Boston. The Red Sox had spent the previous few seasons making "safe" picks -- guys projected to be close to big league ready, though not necessarily with the possibility of being stars -- because the player development system had gone fallow. But holding five picks so high in the draft meant Boston no longer needed to play it safe. "It was time to go for more impact," Epstein says.
After holding a series of exacting mock drafts with his scouts, Epstein decided to take Ellsbury with the Sox' first pick. Scouts John Booher, Dave Finley and Fred Petersen had liked Ellsbury even after a poor performance in the Cape Cod League the summer before his final season at Oregon State. "We thought he was an under-the-radar guy we could get in the second round," Epstein says. "But then he just took off, dominating the Pac-10."
The Red Sox arranged a private workout for Ellsbury in San Diego, but rain forced them into a gym. Ellsbury saw a basketball on the floor, grabbed it and took off, leaping from near the free throw line and throwing down a vicious dunk. The scouts looked at one another in amazement. "This guy is probably the most athletic guy in the country," their report said.
When Ellsbury was still available at 23, the Sox pounced. "Guess my basketball game helped me get drafted," Ellsbury says. Three picks later Boston used its other first-round pick to take St. John's relief pitcher Craig Hansen.
The Sox intended to take Buchholz with their next choice, at No. 42 -- a compensation pick for losing Martinez to the Mets, who also gave up their second-round pick to Boston. But would Buchholz still be there? Epstein knew Florida was interested, but the Marlins passed four times on Buchholz, taking pitchers at 16, 22, 29 and 34. (Three of them were high schoolers.) There was one more team to worry about
: the Dodgers at 40. The Red Sox knew L.A. scouting director Logan White liked Buchholz, but the Dodgers took Tennessee pitcher Luke Hochevar instead. When the Vols pitcher's name was announced, the Boston war room erupted in celebration. The Braves took a high school pitcher with the next pick, and the Sox had their man.
Boston held two more sandwich picks, at 45 and 47. The Red Sox took Stanford infielder Jed Lowrie and Michael Bowden, a righthanded high school pitcher nowhere near big league ready -- and exactly the kind of pick Boston never would have made in its previous play-it-safe mode.
With their five picks, Boston wound up with Ellsbury, who hit .360 in the postseason last year for a world-championship team; Hansen, who had a 2.76 ERA in the minors, though he has struggled in the big leagues; Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second major league start and has been, says Epstein, "a model citizen"; Lowrie, a .291 hitter in the minors now on the cusp of the majors; and Bowden, who is 20-12 in the minors, having reached Double A last year at 22. "We did combination after combination," says Epstein, recalling those mock drafts, "and the haul we wound up getting would have been the best-case scenario."
Since 2005 the Yankees and the Red Sox have continued to sink more money into scouting and the draft. Says one rival AL G.M., "They've become what the U.S. and Russia were during the cold war: There is them, and there's everybody else. My goodness, the Yankees took a guy in the first round [Andrew Brackman in 2007] who needed Tommy John surgery, and they gave him a four-year major league contract. Nobody else can do that."
Now, neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox are staring at an abyss, thanks partly to changes that began with the 2005 draft. Fortified by a wave of homegrown players -- neither team added a major free agent last winter -- their rivalry remains for another generation.