He was a rawboned fireballer who’d been a reliever at Mississippi State, and it was unclear whether he could be a starter in the major leagues. So 30 teams selected 113 players ahead of him in the 2003 baseball amateur draft before the Red Sox took him in the fourth round, the 49th pitcher chosen.
Four years later, Jonathan Papelbon was a mile high in Denver, having saved the World Series finale. Delmon Young, the first player taken that year, now is Papelbon’s teammate with the Philadelphia Phillies, Young’s fourth club in seven years.
Such are the vagaries involved in scouting, selecting, and developing baseball talent from thousands of prospects each June. Football and hockey need only seven rounds to make their choices and basketball just two. Baseball requires 40 rounds to pick 1,200 hopefuls, most of whom never will make it out of the Double A ranks.
“We belong to the 4-H Club,” said Joe Stephenson, who scouted for the Red Sox for half a century and signed the likes of Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, Rick Burleson, and Bill Lee. “You hope you find a prospect. You hope you get him in the draft. You hope you can sign him. And you hope he can play.”
A decade has passed since Theo Epstein, newly ensconced as Boston general manager, began restocking the farm system as part of what he and then-development director Ben Cherington would call the Red Sox Way. Of the 52 college and high school prospects they took in 2003, only four made it to The Show: David Murphy, Matt Murton, Abe Alvarez, and Papelbon.
Murphy, who was dealt to Texas for ill-starred closer Eric Gagne, is the Rangers’ starting left fielder. Murton, who was shipped to the Cubs with Nomar Garciaparra in the 2004 deal that landed Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz, now plays outfield for the Hanshin Tigers, the Japanese version of the Red Sox. Alvarez, a lefthander who was up for four games in three years, broke his ankle and is out of baseball.
Who knew 10 years ago that Papelbon would be the find?
“At the time, you didn’t know it was Jonathan Papelbon,” said David Chadd, who was Boston’s amateur scouting director that year and now is Detroit’s vice president for amateur scouting. “Looking back 10 years, you can say, ‘Why did we do this and why didn’t we do that?’ But you put yourself back at the time of the draft and it’s, ‘What can you go on?’ ”
Though 27 of the 37 first-round choices from 2003 made it to the majors, only a dozen still are around, and none seem likely to make the Hall of Fame.
“There are no real superstars at all in that group,” assessed Brad Ankrom, Bloomberg Sports’ senior baseball analyst, who studies the draft. “That draft in general doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of oomph to it.”
Though Young was MVP of last year’s American League Championship Series, Detroit let him go. Kyle Sleeth, a hard-throwing righty from Wake Forest who got a $3.35 million signing bonus from the Tigers as the third overall pick in 2003, had Tommy John surgery two years later and never made it to the majors.
Neither did center fielders Chris Lubanski and Ryan Harvey, whom the Royals and Cubs took fifth and sixth overall. Nor did any of the Yankees’ top eight picks.
In all, Boston fared reasonably well with Murphy and Papelbon but did decidedly better in 2005 when all five of its first-round selections — Jacoby Ellsbury, Craig Hansen, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie, and Michael Bowden — would make it to the majors.
But in 2003, the John Henry ownership group, which had finalized its purchase of the club less than 16 months earlier, still was making up for nearly a decade of draft choices gone bust. From 1995 through 2000, just four of the Red Sox’ 11 first-rounders made the majors, and only southpaw Casey Fossum ever wore a Boston jersey.
In 2001 and 2002, the Sox had to give up their first-round picks as compensation for signing free agents Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, as they did again in 2004 for Keith Foulke.
“Their system was so thin at the time,” said Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis. “They’d traded away a number of prospects and they did not draft particularly well.”
In 2002, under interim GM Mike Port, the Sox took seven high schoolers with their first eight picks, including Jon Lester and Brandon Moss. In 2003, they took only one: Georgia outfielder Mickey Hall.
“We were looking at some older players,” recalled Chadd. “We were trying to get an influx of advanced players in the system.”
So they stocked up on collegians. They grabbed Murphy out of Baylor with the 17th overall pick and with the 32d took Murton out of Georgia Tech, which had produced Jason Varitek and Nomar Garciaparra. Then in the second round, they went with Alvarez, from Long Beach State.
Had they been drafting one slot higher, the Sox might well have taken Jeff Allison, the Peabody High School flamethrower who was snapped up by the Marlins.
“I don’t want to sit here and tell you who we would have taken,” Epstein said that day. “But of course we were tempted by Jeff Allison.”
Allison, who soon was bedeviled by drug addiction, never made it past Double A. Murphy, who was in the majors three years later, turned out as Boston had hoped.
“The guy we thought would get there and then stay there the longest was Murphy,” said Chadd. “We all liked him. We thought he would be an everyday outfielder.”
There was no such certainty about Papelbon, who had been recruited by Mississippi State as a hitter. The Bulldogs star that year was lefty ace Paul Maholm, whom the Pirates plucked eighth overall, but area scout Joe Mason sold the Red Sox front office on Papelbon’s upside, especially his fresh arm and competitive makeup.
“We pretty much looked at him as a high school pitcher,” said Chadd.
So the Sox signed him with a $264,500 bonus, a bit more than they gave Beau Vaughan, the Arizona State righthander whom they’d taken in the third round.
Vaughan, who was traded to the Rangers for Wes Littleton in 2008, hasn’t made the majors and now is playing for Southern Maryland in the Atlantic League.
Then, as now, the draft is what Epstein has called “an imperfect pursuit.”
“There’s a lot more information about them than there was 10 years ago and a lot more events where you can watch them,” said Chadd. “But at the end of the day, you have to go back to your evaluation of tools.
“When you leave the park, you still ask yourself, is he or is he not a major league player, and if he is, what kind of major league player is he going to be?”
Nobody thought Daniel Nava, who was an equipment manager in college, would even make a varsity. He went undrafted, and the Red Sox paid the Chico Outlaws $1 for his rights.
Nava hit a grand slam into the bullpen on the first pitch he saw in the major leagues three years ago and still is dressing at Fenway Park next to a bunch of former million-dollar bonus babies.