Scouts are on the clock. Thursday marks four months until the start of the Major League Baseball Draft, with the Red Sox — in possession of the fourth pick, their highest spot since 1967 — positioned to have rare access to a franchise-changing talent.
Impact can come from any spot in the draft. The six drafted Red Sox players who have won the MVP award went anywhere from No. 15 overall (Jim Rice in 1971) to 172nd (Mookie Betts in 2011).
Still, the talent pool at the top of the first round as opposed to the bottom is different. While MVPs or Hall of Famers can come from anywhere, it requires less imagination to see players at the top as future aces (Kevin Brown and Kerry Wood went No. 4), middle-of-the-field stars (Barry Larkin, Thurman Munson), or elite sluggers (Dave Winfield).
“The more you get to pick these players apart and dive more into who they are as a player and person, the more you realize how elite these guys are,” said Devin Pearson, the Red Sox assistant director of amateur scouting. “It gets you even more fired up.
“It’s definitely fun to see the best of the best. In years past, we’ve been able to do that, and in a lot of cases we’ve gotten guys we’ve really liked at our pick, but it’s a lot different this year not assuming that they won’t be there when we pick.”
By this point in a typical draft year, the Red Sox would have crossed several names off their board. Early in 2020 — before the COVID-19 shutdown of the college season — the Sox understood that they wouldn’t have a shot at Arizona State corner infielder Spencer Torkelson, whom the Tigers eventually picked No. 1 overall. The Sox scouts looked elsewhere, yet had to cover a broad swath of players given the uncertainty about who would and would not be available with the No. 17 pick.
This year is different. Anyone mentioned as one of the top talents in the draft — a group that includes Vanderbilt starting pitchers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker, as well as high school shortstops Jordan Lawlar and Marcelo Mayer, among others — is not merely a possibility for the Red Sox but a priority player to scout.
“You don’t have control over who’s picked ahead of you at 17,” said Red Sox amateur scouting director Paul Toboni. “You’ve got to cover a wider pool of players.
“This year, we get to make the decision: Let’s figure out who is in our top five, six, seven, eight — whatever number you want to throw out — and scout those players really, really hard.
“Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, I won’t be at every game but I will watch every one of their starts [on video]. We’ll probably have a scout at close to every one of their starts.
“That’s partly because they’re really good players and it’s also partly because Vanderbilt is only allowing one scout from each club at every game. In order to have seven or eight evaluations, we sort of have to.”
Some aspects of the talent pool that will be considered at No. 4 are clear.
It’s unlikely that a high school player can drastically elevate his standing — partly because the pool was well-scouted at showcase events last summer, and partly because the quality of in-season competition likely isn’t good enough.
College players, on the other hand, could see their stock move significantly. Because of the cancellation of wood-bat showcases such as the Cape Cod League and Team USA’s international competition, scouts are getting their first sustained looks at many top college players in more than 18 months.
That gap creates the possibility of significant jumps and crashes. The Red Sox, mindful of how Andrew Benintendi rocketed as a draft-eligible sophomore from Day 2 consideration (Rounds 3-10) to the No. 7 overall pick in 2015, have to spread their coverage to anticipate the possibility of breakout players in this year’s class.
“I do think there are going to be guys who, as the spring progresses, really pop up out of nowhere,” said Pearson. “A lot of that is maybe the guys who didn’t play much in 2019 as a freshman, had a limited season last year, then come on really strong in their junior year.
“So many schools we weren’t able to see in the fall. There are going to be popup guys all over the country.”
That task is made somewhat more difficult by the still-limited access afforded scouts amid the pandemic. Vanderbilt is one of several Division 1 programs restricting the number of scouts at games.
Social distancing protocols have introduced fierce competition for real estate behind home plate at college games where scouts stake out positions on a first-come-first-served basis. As a result, scouting responsibilities have expanded to include line standing — with area scouts sometimes showing up hours before gates open to ensure a favored spot or to serve as a placeholder for a regional or national cross-checker.
Even so, “normal enough” has arrived for scouts who are resuming their residences in the stands.
“I’m a duck in water again,” said Red Sox area scout Danny Watkins, who has driven roughly 9,000 miles across Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, with an expectation of another 30,000-35,000. “I get to do all these things that kind of get me going.”
The position occupied by the Red Sox in this draft — which is scheduled to start July 11, roughly a month later than in a typical year so that potential picks can be seen against other top competition in summer leagues — only adds to that sense of purpose.
After all, the Sox aren’t just laying the groundwork for their selection at No. 4. Their second-round selection will be 39th overall — four picks ahead of where they made their initial pick in 2019.
The process of identifying targets for the draft is well underway.
“It’s exciting,” said Watkins, the area scout who signed Betts in 2011 and whose region includes the Vanderbilt pitchers. “You really get to kind of shoot for the moon a little bit.”