Ray Fagnant understood the deal every time he jumped in his car to drive the six hours to the Jersey Shore this season.
In lefthander Jason Groome, the Red Sox’ Northeast area scouting supervisor would have a chance to watch one of the best amateur talents in the country entering the 2016 draft, perhaps the best.
But uncertainty loomed about whether he was watching a pitcher who would ever be a realistic consideration for his team, which owned the No. 12 pick in the 2016 draft — a pick low enough that the Sox couldn’t dismiss the possibility of Groome getting to them, resulting in a scouting commitment to see every pitch he threw as a senior, but a pick high enough that there were no guarantees.
“It was 12. We weren’t picking 26. We weren’t picking 30. Twelve, a lot can happen. . . . [But] every single time I got in the car, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, going on the road again — is he going to be there [at 12]?’” said Fagnant. “People I learned from always said, ‘You never, ever, ever know. You never know. Anything can happen. I’ve seen so many experiences of players sliding, injuries. It’s cliché-ish, but you can never anticipate the draft.”
Even so, that Groome landed with the Sox represented something of a shock. He’s a pitcher with jaw-dropping ability, a 17-year-old whose size and polish made him a consideration for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Yet the opportunity to select Groome at 12 — particularly in a draft that was considered short on high-ceiling talent — is so unusual that it comes with looming questions. Why did Groome fall to No. 12? Are there legitimate concerns about his off-the-field maturity? And, in a draft system that affords teams only limited financial flexibility, will the Red Sox be able to sign him?
Those who have known Groome for years are aware of the questions, and are puzzled by them.
“I’ve had some kids that had true character issues. He wasn’t one of them,” said Bob Barth, Groome’s summer coach with the Tri-State Arsenal over the last three summers. “The makeup questions to me are a little weird. He showed nothing but great makeup. I personally didn’t see the flaws in his makeup that I’ve been hearing about recently. I think a lot of that is rumor-based, started by jealous peers, and it gets rolling and running. You can’t stop it once it starts rolling down the hill. I think [Thursday] he paid the price for that a little bit, and he didn’t pay a price for it, because he just got drafted by the Boston Red Sox.
“The signability thing, the guy is a 6-6 lefthanded pitcher who throws 97 and wants to be paid like he’s a 6-6 lefthander who throws 97,” added Barth. “I’m sure the Red Sox said, ‘Yeah, no problem, because we’ll see you in the All-Star Game in three years.’”
That would represent a best-case scenario for both the Red Sox and Groome. The lefthander expressed elation that the Red Sox had taken him, describing it to reporters in New Jersey as a “dream come true” to have been taken by his favorite childhood team.
“Money doesn’t really matter to me,” Groome told reporters on Thursday night. “I’m just happy to start the next chapter of my life, and that’s playing professional baseball.”
Such sentiments suggest Groome’s entry into pro ball shouldn’t be complicated. Yet it remains to be seen whether that proves the case, or whether he does indeed sign at all with the Red Sox.
Makeup questions and answers
No one disputes the assessment of Groome on the field. Away from it, however, questions among talent evaluators started to form this year as a 17-year-old high school senior’s behavior was placed under a microscope, starting with suggestions of some off-field trouble at the IMG Academy in Florida, where Groome enrolled in the spring of his junior year prior to transferring back to Barnegat (N.J.) High School for his senior year.
Some evaluators wonder whether the questions represented an unfair form of scrutiny related to what might be viewed as typical high school behavior. Others may have taken a more skeptical view, wondering whether off-field behavior might get in the way of Groome’s realization of his potential.
For those who have known the pitcher the longest, the constant inquiries of scouts and scouting directors didn’t align with their experiences.
“I’ve never seen him get in trouble,” said Dan McCoy, Groome’s coach at Barnegat. “He’s a quiet kid. He loves sitting around with his friends. He likes to fish. He’s part of the fishing club. . . . I told Jay at the beginning that once you get put up on that platform, it’s human nature. People try to take potshots at you, try to knock you down off the ladder. At the end of the day, he’s still just a 17-year-old high school kid who does 17-year-old high school things, but he’s in the spotlight.”
Added Barth: “I’ve known the kid for the last three years. I’ve heard so many rumors about character flaws in the kid that are totally fact-less. They’re just not true. But when that starts happening, that’s when you see pitchers start to drop.”
Fagnant, the Red Sox’ Northeast scouting supervisor, was able to make his own assessment of Groome when he got to know him over the course of several days at the East Coast Pro Showcase in Florida last summer, an annual scouting showcase for which Fagnant and other scouts serve as the coaches of the team from the Northeast.
Fagnant had a chance to play long toss with Groome (“He wore me out,” Fagnant chuckled of the effort necessary to exchange throws across the outfield) and to catch him in the bullpen for a first-hand view of his stuff. He also got to spend time with the player in the clubhouse and observe his interactions with teammates and other coaches on and off the field.
When Sox scouts congregated in Boston in January to prepare for their spring draft coverage, Fagnant offered an assessment.
“He loves to compete, I think he likes to work hard, his teammates like him, and he wants to win. Those are the qualities we’re looking at when we’re looking at [makeup],” Fagnant said.
Fagnant further observed how Groome handled himself throughout his senior year. Despite the attention and scrutiny, he remained poised on the mound and seemed comfortable off of it.
“We always have to do our homework,” Fagnant said. “Every experience I had with Jason was positive. He treated the staff and me with complete respect in Florida. He was open, he loved talking to us, and I saw how he got along well with his teammates and his teammates liked him.”
Still, questions formed even into the week of the draft. Groome had committed to pitch at Vanderbilt, one of the top programs for developing college pitchers. But in the days before the draft, he de-committed from David Price’s alma mater and instead committed to Chipola Junior College in Florida. The Boston Herald, citing a source familiar with the situation, reported that Vanderbilt “was no longer interested in having Groome attend” due to a non-talent-based issue.
Yet two industry sources disputed that account, suggesting that Groome had elected to change his commitment from Vanderbilt to Chipola in order to improve his financial leverage just prior to the draft. At a four-year program like Vanderbilt, Groome — if unable to reach an agreement with the team that drafted him — would not be draft-eligible again until after his junior year in 2019.
If he instead enrolls in a junior college program, Groome would have a chance to re-enter the draft next summer. In some ways, the change of commitment came as something of a statement of purpose for teams wondering whether they’d have the financial flexibility to meet the asking price of Groome, who is advised by Jeff Randazzo.
If a team isn’t willing to pay the pitcher what he believes he’s worth as one of the top talents — if not the top talent — in this year’s draft, he’s willing to go to school for a year and return to the draft in 2017.
“Jay’s decision to go to Chipola had nothing to do with Vanderbilt,” said one major league source. “It was Jay understanding that the draft is an inexact system, flawed in some ways. He felt like, ‘Hey, I need a backup plan, because I don’t know if I want to go for three years.’ It wasn’t because he didn’t have the Vanderbilt option.”
To multiple industry sources, that approach was at the heart of Groome’s slide. Teams didn’t know whether they’d be able to fit the lefty into their draft signing budget.
Signability questions and answers
Since 2012, Major League Baseball has assigned bonus pools for each team based on their picks in the top 10 rounds. The higher the pick, the higher the allotted slot bonus. Teams with multiple first-round picks possess enormous bonus pools. .
The Phillies, for instance, with the No. 1 overall pick, had an available bonus pool just north of $9 million for that pick and of $13,405,200 through 10 rounds. The Red Sox, who picked 12th, had a total of just under $7 million, with a slot of roughly $3.2 million for their first-round pick.
There is some flexibility to be creative with how money is allocated to picks in the first 10 rounds, but not much. The penalties for exceeding a recommended slot bonus pool by more than 5 percent are sufficiently draconian — loss of multiple future first-round picks — that no team has ever been willing to incur them.
The Sox aren’t about to be the first team to alter course on that front. Groome likely had his sights set on a bonus commensurate with no worse than a top three or five pick, which would mean between $6,510,800 (No. 3 pick) or $4,382,200.
It remains to be seen how close to either of those figures the Red Sox can or will stretch. According to multiple major league sources, as of Friday evening, there hadn’t been any significant dialogue yet between the Red Sox and Groome about a signing bonus. One source characterized the sides’ likely positions, at least initially, as “far apart,” to the point where Groome (through his representative) declined a request by the Red Sox that he take part in a standard post-draft conference call with reporters who cover the Red Sox.
The Sox made the decision to draft the best player remaining. That said, both sides have an incentive to find common ground. By his own description, Groome doesn’t want to bother with school and, in a vacuum, couldn’t imagine a much more exciting scenario than being taken by the team he loves.
Unless they go in the tank, the Sox are unlikely to find a pitcher with Groome’s ceiling again anytime soon through the draft. Yet both sides can also play chicken, in a way. Groome has the fallback of enrolling at Chipola, seeing if he could extract additional millions – much as Mark Appel did when he spurned a $3.8 million offer from the Pirates as the eighth pick in the 2012 draft and then made $6.35 million from the Astros as the top pick in the 2013 draft.
There’s risk in the play – he would miss the chance to sign with the Red Sox, and he could see his bonus slip like Brady Aiken, who was drafted No. 1 by the Astros in 2014, didn’t sign, then blew out his elbow and lost millions when he slid in the 2015 draft.
But there’s also potential reward, as Appel demonstrated. For the Sox, they recognize the distinctiveness of Groome’s talent. If he enters their system, they’d be thrilled. However, if he doesn’t sign, they could live with the idea of knowing they made their best play for the best available player — especially since they’d receive as compensation if unable to sign Groome the No. 13 pick in next year’s draft, which is expected to be considerably deeper in impact talent than this year’s.
But foremost, the Red Sox just hope they get Groome. Is there risk? Yes, but risk is an inherent part of the draft process. Every pick represents a potential swing-and-miss, so the Sox decided they’d try to swing for the fences.
“Somebody texted me after we took him, ‘All those long drives were rewarded.’ My wife said the same thing,” said Fagnant. “It absolutely was worth it.”