Restocking a Rivalry

March 31, 2008
March 31, 2008

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March 31, 2008

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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

THE YANKEES andthe Red Sox had engaged in two consecutive seven-game American LeagueChampionship Series, splitting the Game 7s, when in 2005 they took theirrivalry to a new battlefront: the draft room. Until that point both teams hadrelied on trades and free agency to acquire impact players. But with agingrosters, bloated payrolls and almost no elite players in the pipeline, thesuperpowers realized they had to change. ¬∂ The Red Sox had been victorious inthe 2004 World Series, but they resisted the temptation to keep the team intactand cut loose free agents Orlando Cabrera, Derek Lowe and staff ace PedroMartinez. As compensation, the Sox picked up first-round picks from the Angelsand the Dodgers and three so-called sandwich picks—supplemental choices betweenthe first and second rounds—which gave them five choices between 23 and 47."[Letting those veterans go] was the right thing to do," says Bostongeneral manager Theo Epstein, "because of their age, but part of it was toget those draft picks and rebuild our system.

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"We don'twant to get ahead of ourselves, but we feel like our first five [picks] allhave a chance of being big league players. And if two or three of those guysreach 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 athree-games-to-none lead to Boston in the 2004 ALCS, G.M. Brian Cashman triedto fortify his pitching by acquiring Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano and JaretWright. None would be as good as advertised. "We had a chance to really gointo an abyss," Cashman said earlier this year.

Cashman, whooften clashed with owner George Steinbrenner's Tampa-based brain trust,persuaded the Boss to give him more control of baseball operations, a change hewould get in writing in his new contract after the season. He promotedprospects Chien-Ming Wang and Robinson Cano to the majors in May and gaveresponsibility for the draft to scouting director Damon Oppenheimer.

"[Cashman]knew my passion was on the amateur side," Oppenheimer says. "He gave usa little more specific thinking on the draft, and we started looking forhigh-impact talent, premier players at premier positions."

That meantoccasionally taking risks. The Yankees had only one first-round pick in the2005 draft—the 17th overall—and when it rolled around, several future bigleaguers were still available: outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Travis Buck,relievers Craig Hansen and Joey Devine, and starting pitchers Matt Garza andClay Buchholz. But Oppenheimer's ideal was a player who could hit in the middleof the lineup and play in the middle of the field or be a front-of-the-rotationstarter. So he took C.J. Henry, a 6'3", 205-pound high school shortstopfrom Oklahoma City. "He fit exactly what we were looking for,"Oppenheimer says. "Obviously, it hasn't worked out the way wewanted."

Henry has yet tomake it out of A ball, hitting .222 with 15 home runs over three seasons. ButOppenheimer fared better in later rounds, getting speedy outfielder AustinJackson in the eighth and hard-throwing pitcher Alan Horne in the 11th, both ofwhom are considered top prospects. Jackson's signing also reflected New York'sdetermination to leverage its resources in the draft; the Yankees gave theeighth-rounder $800,000 to forget about his basketball scholarship offer fromGeorgia Tech.

A year later theYankees' new emphasis on the draft would have an even bigger payoff. Cashmanand Oppenheimer landed a slew of promising pitchers, including Ian Kennedy(first round) from USC, Joba Chamberlain (first-round sandwich pick) from theUniversity of Nebraska, Brooklyn high schooler Dellin Betances (eighth) andMark Melancon (ninth) from the University of Arizona.

"We missed onJoba, like a lot of teams," says Epstein, whose team used three picks in2006 before the Yankees took Chamberlain. Likewise, the Yankees had missed onBuchholz in '05. New York was turned off by an January '04 incident in whichBuchholz and a McNeese State schoolmate were arrested for stealing 29 laptopsfrom a school where Buchholz's mother worked. (Buchholz was eventually givenprobation.) He soon transferred to Angelina College, a junior college inLufkin, Texas, where he was 12--1 with a 1.05 ERA.

"He was a guyyou had some questions about," Oppenheimer says. "The incident with thecomputers, pitching at a junior college, his command wasn't great ... it justdidn't add up for us. When we saw him pitch he wasn't that extreme a talentthat leads you to overlook what were real off-field issues."

Epstein had hisdoubts too. Scouting director Jason McLeod thought that Boston should takeBuchholz with an early pick, but Epstein, worried about the baggage, would rollhis eyes every time McLeod mentioned him. Finally, Epstein told McLeod,"Listen, if you feel that strongly, the only way I'm going to feelcomfortable 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 gotcaught or a good guy who made a bad mistake."

ONE WEEK beforethe draft, Buchholz threw in the Fenway Park bullpen for Epstein and McLeodwhile the Red Sox took batting practice. Says Epstein, "His stuff wasridiculous." Then the three of them left the bullpen and stood in Fenway'scenterfield, while David Ortiz whacked balls off the Green Monster, over theirheads and at their feet.

Asked about thetheft, Buchholz told Epstein that he had been just a lookout and it was a dumbdecision he regretted. "Look," Epstein told him, "we're thinkingabout taking you. But if we do, we're putting our reputations on the line. Ifyou screw up, it'll be on us. We'll have a zero-tolerance policy with you. Sotell 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 tooimportant to me."

The kid persuadedEpstein 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 Epsteindecided against it. "Taking him with our first pick would have put an evenbigger bull's-eye on him," Epstein says. "The Boston media puts so muchattention on the first pick, it might have created an albatross for this guy. Isaid no matter what, we'd wait until the sandwich round."

Epstein knew thiswas an enormously important draft for Boston. The Red Sox had spent theprevious few seasons making "safe" picks—guys projected to be close tobig league ready, though not necessarily with the possibility of beingstars—because the player development system had gone fallow. But holding fivepicks 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 aseries of exacting mock drafts with his scouts, Epstein decided to takeEllsbury with the Sox' first pick. Scouts John Booher, Dave Finley and FredPetersen had liked Ellsbury even after a poor performance in the Cape CodLeague the summer before his final season at Oregon State. "We thought hewas 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 Soxarranged a private workout for Ellsbury in San Diego, but rain forced them intoa gym. Ellsbury saw a basketball on the floor, grabbed it and took off, leapingfrom near the free throw line and throwing down a vicious dunk. The scoutslooked at one another in amazement. "This guy is probably the most athleticguy in the country," their report said.

When Ellsbury wasstill available at 23, the Sox pounced. "Guess my basketball game helped meget drafted," Ellsbury says. Three picks later Boston used its otherfirst-round pick to take St. John's relief pitcher Craig Hansen.

The Sox intendedto take Buchholz with their next choice, at No. 42—a compensation pick forlosing Martinez to the Mets, who also gave up their second-round pick toBoston. But would Buchholz still be there? Epstein knew Florida was interested,but the Marlins passed four times on Buchholz, taking pitchers at 16, 22, 29and 34. (Three of them were high schoolers.) There was one more team to worryabout: the Dodgers at 40. The Red Sox knew L.A. scouting director Logan Whiteliked Buchholz, but the Dodgers took Tennessee pitcher Luke Hochevar instead.When the Vols pitcher's name was announced, the Boston war room erupted incelebration. The Braves took a high school pitcher with the next pick, and theSox had their man.

Boston held twomore sandwich picks, at 45 and 47. The Red Sox took Stanford infielder JedLowrie and Michael Bowden, a righthanded high school pitcher nowhere near bigleague ready—and exactly the kind of pick Boston never would have made in itsprevious play-it-safe mode.

With their fivepicks, Boston wound up with Ellsbury, who hit .360 in the postseason last yearfor a world-championship team; Hansen, who had a 2.76 ERA in the minors, thoughhe has struggled in the big leagues; Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in hissecond major league start and has been, says Epstein, "a modelcitizen"; Lowrie, a .291 hitter in the minors now on the cusp of themajors; and Bowden, who is 20--12 in the minors, having reached Double A lastyear at 22. "We did combination after combination," says Epstein,recalling those mock drafts, "and the haul we wound up getting would havebeen the best-case scenario."

SINCE 2005 theYankees and the Red Sox have continued to sink more money into scouting and thedraft. Says one rival AL G.M., "They've become what the U.S. and Russiawere during the cold war: There is them, and there's everybody else. Mygoodness, 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 leaguecontract. Nobody else can do that."

Now, neither theYankees nor the Red Sox are staring at an abyss, thanks partly to changes thatbegan with the 2005 draft. Fortified by a wave of homegrown players—neitherteam added a major free agent last winter—their rivalry remains for anothergeneration.


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PHOTOPhotograph by Walter Iooss Jr.FUTURES MARKET By cutting loose free agents in '05, Boston was able to draft Buchholz (left) and Ellsbury.PHOTOGEORGE MCNISH/THE STAR-LEDGER VIA US PRESSWIREPLAYING CATCHUP After the Red Sox' strong draft of 2005, the Yanks answered by nabbing Kennedy (left) and Chamberlain in '06.PHOTORICH PILLING/MLB/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONZERO TOLERANCE Buchholz (61) rewarded the Sox' faith in him with a no-hitter, while Ellsbury hit .360 in the 2007 postseason.PHOTOWINSLOW TOWNSON/AP[See caption above]