In a season when the Red Sox possessed their highest draft pick since 1967, high school shortstop Marcelo Mayer represented a different sort of impossible dream.
The team’s fascination with Mayer dated to the 2019 season, when Southern California area scout J.J. Altobelli regularly made the trek to Eastlake High School to scout third baseman Keoni Cavaco. Cavaco played his way into a mid-first round selection that year, getting taken by the Twins at No. 13 overall — well out of the Red Sox’ reach in a year where the team didn’t have a first-round draft pick.
Whenever Red Sox amateur scouting director Paul Toboni called Altobelli, the conversation drifted away from Cavaco and toward the sophomore shortstop playing alongside him.
“[Altobelli] would glow about him, non-stop. He would tell me how Keoni played, but it felt like the majority of our conversation every single time we talked was about this Marcelo kid,” recalled Toboni. “[Altobelli] just talked about him as, ‘This is one of the best prospects I’ve ever seen.’ ”
Mayer did everything with beautiful fluidity. Even against premium velocity pitches, he barreled the ball with uncanny frequency. Though he’d never lifted a weight, he featured a natural ability to drive the ball, making it easy to project more power to come.
He recognized pitches and didn’t expand the strike zone. He glided at shortstop and showed an outstanding arm. Teammates enjoyed and gravitated toward him. At 16, he showed big league traits.
The hopeless performance of the 2020 Red Sox offered at least one unexpected flicker of hope. The team had the fourth-worst record in the majors, meaning it would have the fourth pick in the draft. As the team accelerated its preparations for the draft last fall, any player emerged as a possibility entering the year, including Mayer.
The Red Sox committed to scouting him heavily. Altobelli spearheaded that process, becoming intimately familiar with the roughly 100-mile, 90-minute drive while attending workouts in the fall and what he estimated at roughly 25 of Mayer’s 34 games as a senior.
“Let’s just say I didn’t have to put it in my GPS when I was going down there,” said Altobelli.
He wasn’t alone. In the fall of 2020 and again throughout the 2021 season, Altobelli was frequently joined at Eastlake by a large contingent of Red Sox scouts who are based in Southern California: Special assistants Chris Becerra and Justin Horowitz, associate scout Mark Sluys, global crosschecker Paul Fryer, and LA-based area scout Todd Gold.
In the scouting spotlight, Mayer put on a show: A three-homer game, another multi-homer game, missiles launched against professional velocity.
Becerra’s five-year-old daughter, Sunni, sometimes accompanied him on the 3½ hour drives from Ventura, Calif., to Eastlake.
“She can break down a swing. I said, ‘Show me the good swing.’ She pointed to Marcelo,” said Chris Becerra. “We got her on the train early on in the year. She was running around yelling, ‘Marcelo at 4! Marcelo at 4!’”
The Sox shared the widely held industry view that the 6-foot-3-inch Mayer harbored similarities to Dodgers star shortstop Corey Seager, with easy defensive actions reminiscent of Giants Gold Glover Brandon Crawford.
As the spring progressed, the idea that Mayer would remain on the board at No. 4 started to feel misguided. The commutes to Chula Vista started to feel longer.
“There’s a period of time from April till honestly [Sunday] where I thought, there’s no shot. There’s no way this kid gets to four,” said Becerra. “But he just keeps you going back because you like him so much.”
“I was trying to prep myself mentally that he wasn’t going to be there,” said Altobelli. “It made the drives a little bit harder sometimes, but at the end of the day, you’ve just got to do your job. My job was to be at his games, let guys know how he was doing, and be there to watch him. I definitely wasn’t going to be the reason that we weren’t in position to select him.”
That outlook wasn’t shared by all teams, particularly those picking later in the first round. The scouting crowds, typically 50 or more deep at the start of Eastlake’s season, thinned. When Gold made the three-hour drive to see Mayer in May, he was puzzled to be one of roughly 10 scouts in attendance.
“Usually when you watch a first rounder, there’s a huge crowd of scouts and several people representing each club,” said Gold. “That’s something I asked J.J. about. He said, ‘About halfway through the season, two-thirds of the league gave up. They kind of knew they didn’t have any shot at him.’ We probably didn’t think he was going to get there, but the fact that there was a chance, it was certainly worth putting the time in.”
The Sox added to their pool of evaluators who visited with Mayer. Toboni, who’d seen him at a workout in the fall and met with him for perhaps 10 minutes, returned in the spring.
“I snuck into his park before a game and I was kind of slyly watching his batting practice on the side of the cage and he takes a swing and looks back at me and I catch his attention and he goes, ‘Paul, what are you doing here?’ ” Toboni laughed. “It hit me like, ‘Oh my God, I spent 10 minutes with this kid. He doesn’t know me from Joe down the street.’ He just has such a natural charisma about him. It’s so evident.”
Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom took a trip to California in early June to meet with Mayer in person. The Red Sox recognized they might not have a crack at the shortstop. The Pirates were widely expected to take him at No. 1, and even if they didn’t, the Tigers — whose special assistant, Hall of Famer Alan Trammell, took up quasi-residence at Eastlake — seemed determined to take him.
Still, the Sox didn’t want to be unprepared.
In 34 games as a senior, Mayer hit .397/.555/.886 with 14 homers, 31 walks, and eight strikeouts. He’d done so amidst the scrutiny of life as a top draft prospect, and came across as more interested in his team’s success than his future opportunities.
The Sox were enchanted, and wanted to stay on him through the end of the process. A variety of scouts and team executives combined to make more than 40 visits to see Mayer after Jan. 1 — likely the most looks the team had of any player this year.
Mayer held a private workout on July 1. Becerra and Altobelli both attended, making the Red Sox one of only a handful of teams present.
“We were joking, because there were some [teams at the workout who were picking] behind us,” said Becerra. “We were like, ‘You ain’t got a chance. He’s not getting by us.’ ”
But would he get to them? Even on Sunday, the Red Sox were skeptical, but mindful that the picks in front of them were as unsettled as any top of the draft in recent memory.
The Pirates, selecting first, passed on Mayer in favor of Louisville catcher Henry Davis — the top college hitter available, and perhaps the safest bet in the draft to emerge as an above-average big league contributor.
“With every pick that went by, my heart started beating a little more. It was, ‘There’s one down…,’ ” said Altobelli. “But I kept saying, ‘There’s still more picks.’ ”
The Rangers, picking second, grabbed Vanderbilt starter Jack Leiter, a pitcher who likewise offered a relatively safe bet to reach the big leagues quickly.
“One more pick – the Tigers,” thought Altobelli. “I knew that they’ve been scouting him extremely hard. They’ve been at a ton of games. I was like, ‘He’s going to go right here.’”
But the Tigers decided instead to take perhaps the most electrifying arm in the draft, albeit one who comes with a lot of risk in high school righty Jackson Jobe.
“When I saw they weren’t going to take him, I was in shock a little bit and excited,” said Altobelli.
Still, as Altobelli watched the draft from home, he sat in suspense for a few moments, unsure whether the Red Sox were about to do what had so often seemed unimaginable. But soon, a FaceTime from Toboni offered an answer.
“He had a huge smile on his face,” said Altobelli. “When I got that call from T-Bone, that’s when I allowed myself to start believing it was real. I couldn’t be happier how it played out. He’s an awesome kid. He’s from an awesome family.
“For him to be part of our organization, for me to get some credit as the area scout, it’s cool, too, but this was an easy one for me. [Mayer] did all the work. He deserves it.”