Paul Toboni confronts plenty of spilled milk as he prepares to oversee his first draft as the Red Sox amateur scouting director.
On one hand, the mediocre performance by the Red Sox in 2019 left them in possession of the No. 17 pick in next month’s draft, one of their highest positions this century. On the other, beyond that pick, he has seen a steady drip coming from what once seemed like a full carton.
Last month, MLB stripped the Sox of their second-round pick as punishment for the illegal use of a live video replay feed to steal signs in 2018. In most years, a scouting department might have a chance to make up for such a penalty with shrewd late-round picks, but this year, the draft will be limited to five rounds, with teams restricted to bonuses of $20,000 for undrafted players — cost-saving measures in deference to baseball’s loss of revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The result? Toboni and the Sox have just four picks with which to work — at least 36 fewer than in a typical draft.
This is a notable contrast to the opportunities that greeted Toboni’s predecessors in their first drafts.
In 2005, Jason McLeod had five of the first 47 picks and used them to land three future All-Stars (Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie).
When Amiel Sawdaye helmed his first draft in 2010, the Red Sox had three of the first 39 selections. That prime position, however, yielded a disappointing return — and a fascinating what-could-have-been thanks to the much-debated decision to choose Kolbrin Vitek over Christian Yelich with the team’s top pick.
When Mike Rikard (now a Red Sox vice president of scouting) directed his first draft in 2015, the Red Sox had the No. 7 overall pick, which they used to take Andrew Benintendi.
“Funny you mention that,” Toboni noted. “People forget that [Rikard’s] first draft didn’t have a second-rounder [as a result of the free agent signings of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez].
“We can sit here and feel sorry for ourselves for not having a second-round pick and feel like we got the short end of the stick on MLB’s ruling, but at the end of the day, the Red Sox fan base, the industry, all of our peers, they’re going to remember who we ended up drafting in Rounds 1, 3, 4, and 5.
“Is there going to be a giant missed opportunity of who we could have signed in the second round? Of course. But I think if we operate that way, feeling sorry for ourselves, thinking about what could have been, we’re not getting anywhere.”
Nonetheless, the absence of 36 picks represents just part of a very atypical preparation process. Not only are the Sox short on picks, they also had little by way of a 2020 season to scout as a result of the shutdown of virtually all sports activities in the country in mid-March.
That means they must line up their draft board based on a significantly diminished sample.
“There’s going to be wider error bars,” said Toboni. “There’s going to be more risk associated with taking a lot of these players. At the same time, there’s going to be greater potential to come onto a really good player that the industry might not view the same.”
Scouting departments have remained busy supplementing reports they started producing last summer, through fall workouts, and into the start of the spring season. Departments are poring over video (in addition to video gathered by team scouts before mid-March, MLB has a centralized video database available for players it identified as top-300 prospects), crunching performance data, and contacting players and their family members, coaches, and teachers for makeup information.
That effort is now funneling toward the selection of just four players — a process that could yield unusually in-depth conversations about a relatively small pool of players. The restrictions on selections and signing bonuses likely will cut sharply into the number of high school players who are drafted and elect to turn pro, meaning teams will have a large number of apples-to-apples conversations involving college players.
Moreover, because the Sox don’t have a second-round pick, they can rule out a large number of players who likely won’t remain on the board by the time they make their third-round pick (No. 89 overall).
At the same time, Toboni, who spent the last three years as assistant director of amateur scouting working alongside Rikard, recognizes that the Red Sox don’t want to take too narrow an approach. It remains possible that potentially impactful but undrafted players will prove willing to sign for $20,000 or less.
In recent years, the Sox saw lower-round picks such as outfielder Jarren Duran (2018, seventh round) and lefthander Chris Murphy (2019, sixth round) emerge among their top prospects, so they do not want to look beyond such talented players who in the recent past received bonuses in the low six figures.
“We want to identify the guys that we think want to go out and play professional baseball,” said Toboni. “[But] if we didn’t vet [Murphy] out properly and he makes himself signable for $20K, signs with another club, that would obviously be really upsetting. It’s a delicate balance.”
The same term can be applied to the entirety of the draft — one that is without precedent in baseball history. While Toboni and the Red Sox face a dramatically altered landscape, the Zoom conversations occurring among scouts in the department focus on possibility rather than restrictions. This is a precious annual opportunity to put the team in a better position for the future.
“We didn’t really get to scout these guys for an extended period. We didn’t get to have our second-round pick,” said Toboni. “Those things we didn’t dwell on for hardly any time.
"What we’re focused on is locking in with those other picks, and we’re really confident that we’re going to really do well with those picks. In a weird way, it’s almost more exciting than in traditional years.”