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MLB Draft

Red Sox fully realize there’s a responsibility that comes with picking No. 4 in the draft

The Red Sox will pick fourth overall in Sunday night's MLB Draft, the first time they’ve held such a high selection since 1967.Alex Trautwig/Associated Press

For the Red Sox, the future is calling.

On Sunday, the first round of the 2021 MLB Draft will provide the Sox with their highest pick in more than half a century. After the Pirates, Rangers, and Tigers make their selections, the Red Sox will be on the board at No. 4 — the first time they’ve held such a high selection since 1967, when the Impossible Dreamers took high school righthander Mike Garman with the third pick.

Such an early choice comes with an air of possibility. A lofty position comes with visions of a franchise-changing player.

“We all view it as a tremendous opportunity,” said Red Sox director of amateur scouting Paul Toboni. “We want to draft a kid that really sets the tone for the rest of the minor leaguers and eventually his fellow teammates in the big leagues. That’s with his work ethic, with his competitiveness, his love for the game, and just his overall character. It’s not every year, not every 10 years for us, where you can access a talent like this in this area of the draft but just as importantly a kid like this. We’re very excited.”

There’s a sense of responsibility that comes with picking that high. Red Sox officials note sheepishly that they hope never again to have the fourth overall selection, as it serves — in a system where the draft order is determined by the reverse order of record — as a monument to the failure of the previous year’s team. Even in a shortened 2020 campaign, the 24-36 season was painful.

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It’s now the job of the scouting department to turn lemons into lemonade. Historically, there are players who were taken fourth who offer visions of possibility. Hall of Famers Dave Winfield (1973) and Barry Larkin (1985) went fourth. So did Yankees icon Thurman Munson (1968).

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But in the last 23 years, just three All-Stars — Kyle Schwarber (2014), Kevin Gausman (2012), and Ryan Zimmerman (2005) — have come from that spot. An equal number of players taken fourth over that span retired without spending a day in the big leagues. Even the fourth pick has no guarantee of success.

But it does guarantee promise. After all, the Royals could have chosen Chris Sale (taken at No. 13) instead of Christian Colón at No. 4 in 2010; the Pirates could have had Mike Trout (No. 25) instead of Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez with the fourth pick in 2009; the Orioles could have taken Derek Jeter (No. 6) instead of Jeffrey Hammonds in 1992.

There is always a future standout available at the fourth pick. Every draft from 1981-2011 featured at least one first-rounder taken fourth or later who has accumulated at least 30 Wins Above Replacement in his career. The challenge, as ever, is finding that standout.

Where to look? Throughout the industry, the only consensus surrounding the No. 4 pick is that Marcelo Mayer — a sweet-swinging high school shortstop from California who could become the first pick and almost certainly won’t last past the third — will be gone.

Even so, the remaining pool available to the Sox will feature the type of player to which the team almost never has access. The candidates include:

Elite college pitchers: There’s a chance Vanderbilt righthander Jack Leiter will be on the board, and his teammate Kumar Rocker is very likely to be there. The Sox haven’t had a chance to draft college pitchers with their résumés and stuff since they took Roger Clemens in the first round of the 1983 draft.

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Leiter’s four-pitch mix (fastball, curveball, slider, changeup) grades out as elite, even if inconsistent command and questions about durability (he’s 6 feet 1 inch) make a mid-rotation projection safer. Still, that’s a valuable pitcher and one who could get to the big leagues quickly.

Rocker’s stock fell in a year when his stuff fluctuated, but at his best he overpowers hitters with a mid- to high-90s fastball and devastating slider. Moreover, the 6-5, 245-pound righthander makes the distance from the mound to home plate appear to shrink. If he can refine a third pitch, he could be a mid-rotation starter or better. If not, he could dominate in the late innings.

That said, all pitchers come with considerable risk and — because of injury or the difficulty of developing pitch mixes — a much higher bust rate than hitters. Even for those pitchers who live up to top-of-the-draft selection such as Gerrit Cole (2011, No. 1 pick) or Gausman (2012, No. 4), it often takes years and in many cases changes of organization.

Ideally, teams would love to have the choice of an elite college position player with a long record of success. That demographic is largely absent this year, with one notable exception.

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College bat: Louisville catcher Henry Davis emerged as the top college position player in the class while hitting .370/.482/.683 with 15 homers this year. His combination of power and plate discipline makes him the safest bet to be a middle-of-the-order contributor. There are questions about his ability to stick behind the plate, but not about the work he’d put into staying at the position or the leadership he could bring to it.

Still, if Davis is unable to stay behind the plate, then even as a productive big league hitter his value would be capped by occupying a position (most likely first base or left field) where offense is bountiful. There are some parallels to Schwarber, who was taken as a college catcher by the Cubs in 2014.

High school shortstops: Few profiles allow teams to dream bigger than elite high school shortstops, players with the athleticism to get to the big leagues at valuable defensive positions (if not short then center field, second, or third) and a strong likelihood of two-way impact.

Beyond Mayer, this year features three other high school shortstops expected to go in the top 8-10 picks: Jordan Lawler, Kahlil Watson, and Brady House. (House was at Fenway Park recently for a pre-draft workout.) The upside of such players (Carlos Correa, 2012, No. 1; Francisco Lindor, 2011, No. 8; Javier Baéz, 2011, No. 9) is immense, but the transition from high school to pro ball is jarring.

Other: The Sox could look beyond these names and take a player who profiles to go later in the first round. Such a player would likely accept a discounted signing bonus, below MLB’s recommended “slot” value of $6.664 million for No. 4, leaving the Sox more money in subsequent rounds. The team employed that strategy with first-round pick Nick Yorke in 2020, which helped them get Blaze Jordan in the third round. But there have been disastrous outcomes for teams that employed this strategy at No. 4, including the Pirates’ selection of Sanchez in a draft featuring Trout and Zack Wheeler, and the Orioles’ selection of Brian Matusz in 2008, one pick before the Giants took Buster Posey.

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Regardless of demographic, none of the players under consideration by the Red Sox comes with guaranteed future impact. But whomever the Sox do take on Sunday night — the first of three days of the 20-round draft — will carry the hopes of an organization looking to add cornerstones of its future.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.