Saturday, July 2, 2011

Summer intrigue

West Coast Bias hesitated to write this story, and not only because it's way too long. It's a story about the grand slam the Padres might have hit this summer in the amateur draft. In other words, blah, blah, blah. "Haven't we heard that before?" a Padres fan might say. Yes we have. And yes, skepticism is in order. Every baseball draft is strewn with monkey wrenches, for starters. Nor is this the first time your little baseball team had several extra picks high in the June draft. So, italics apply here -- potential grand slam.  If a double comes from it, the Padres will not complain.

Another reason WCB hesitated to write this post is because the Red Sox are part of it and WCB has chronic Red Sox fatigue, more so of late as it relates to the Red Sox pedigree within the Padres' baseball front office. No offense to these good folks, but we've been down this road so many times in San Diego, and not just with the Padres. Geniuses arrive here in golden chariots, and we hear ad nauseum how great things were in Boston or New York (remember Joe McIlvaine and his Mets pedigree?) or Oakland (Sandy Alderson, Grady Fuson and Paul DePodesta). Many of these men made smart decisions here, too, but how many World Series winners did they build in San Diego? Point being, each franchise is unique, posing its own challenges (and opportunities). Change is constant not only in life but sports industries. Executives who find value in one place may not find it elsewhere. Some become prisoners of their success, married to methods that rewarded them in the past but dulled in new times and places. This may have happened to some extent to the Alderson Gang (not to mention Bobby Beathard, the former Chargers general manager whose fascination with obscure football players, which had served him well with the Washington Redskins, didn't serve him as well here.) An exception to the above is Larry Lucchino, the former Baltimore Orioles president who came to the Padres in 1994. For this blog's money -- which can be counted in pesos -- The Smartest Man In Baseball goes down as the best executive in San Diego sports history.

What is it about this recent draft that could be a grand slam for the Padres? In a word, timing. Moons aligned to give the Padres a better chance of success. One, the consensus among scouts is that the overall talent pool ran deep this year, college hitters excepted. Two, the Padres had extra picks, in part because Jed Hoyer did what his Red Sox mentors Lucchino and Theo Epstein often did so well  -- he gamed baseball's broken system of free-agent compensation. The system could change next year under new labor terms.

A Red Sox mentality that pervades 19 Tony Gwynn Drive also could work in the Padres' favor. The Red Sox believe it wise to pay a draftee well above his draft position if the scouting evaluation supports it, even if commissioner Bud Selig frowns on such "slot busting." Within the top two rounds of the draft last month, the Padres took four high school players -- two catchers and two pitchers -- who will command more money than recommended for their draft slot. The player drafted last among those four -- Orange County catcher Austin Hedges, taken 82nd -- will cost the most, but it will also take a seven-figure sum to persuade Oakland pitcher Joe Ross (25th), Florida pitcher Michael Kelly (48th) and North Carolina catcher Brett Austin (54th) to forgo college careers. Asked what it would cost to sign all four, a non-Padres scout said it would cost $8 million to $12 million. He said Hedges, a UCLA recruit, may command well above $2 million, even double $2 million.

The Padres have enough scouting reports on these four players to write a novel. After former Red Sox executives Hoyer and Jason McLeod came here in late 2009, they beefed up San Diego's amateur scouting staff, then the majors' smallest. Tracking Hedges and the others for the last year or more, Padres scouts logged reams of updates. One question those scouts explored: will the player sign?

If you're pleased the Padres are trying to make a big play in the draft, send a thank you note to Pedro Alvarez, the young Pirates third baseman. When McLeod ran his first draft for the Red Sox in 2005, Alvarez was a New York prep star whose commitment to Vanderbilt spooked clubs from drafting him. The Red Sox weren't spooked. They took Alvarez in the 14th round, and not on a whim.

"We made a good run at him," McLeod said last summer.

When Alvarez still said no, "it left a bitter taste," McLeod said. "We were like, 'Screw this. We're coming out guns blazing. We're going to be more aggressive deeper in the draft.' "

Alvarez, as the Red Sox expected, went on to shred college pitching and when he returned to the draft three years later, he went second overall and cost the Pirates far more than what Boston tried to get him for.

The Red Sox turned up the heat in the next few drafts.  They signed players who tumbled well past the first few rounds and paid well above the commissioner's slot guidelines to get players taken higher in the draft. This did not make the Sox popular with other clubs. A National League exec, for one, likened the Sox to Al Capone. In the West, meantime, several clubs, notably the big-revenue Dodgers and medium-revenue Rockies, cleaved to Selig's guidelines. By 2010, Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd was saying that approach no longer made sense.

"It does cost a lot of money every year to run a draft," McLeod said, "but the return on investment -- if you really hit on one guy in a draft, it pays for three or four drafts. What would (Red Sox pitcher) Clay Buchholz fetch on the open market now?"

Buchholz, drafted by McLeod 42nd out of a junior college in Texas, signed for $800,000. Now a successful big leaguer, Buchholz agreed to a four-year $30-million deal with Boston this season.

McLeod described current Red Sox prospects such as Ryan Westmoreland, Lars Anderson and Ryan Kalish as "difficult to sign" draftees, but it is Casey Kelly who tops his slot-busting list. The Red Sox signed Kelly for $3 million after taking the Florida two-sport prep star 30th in 2008. The price was nearly three times what other clubs were paying late in the first round. Kelly fell past both the Padres and the Diamondbacks, who each employed evaluators or executives who now work for San Diego. The Padres were set on taking a college player first, either South Carolina infielder Reese Havens or Wake Forest first baseman Allan Dysktra. The Diamondbacks wanted Dykstra, who went to the Padres 23rd, and Arizona ended up taking a college reliever, Daniel Schlereth.

"We liked Kelly," said an evaluator from one of the National League West clubs. "I saw him as a shortstop, but how in the hell would we be in a position to take a football guy with his leverage? That wasn't happening."

Kelly, now projected as a No. 3 starting pitcher, already has returned good value without throwing a pitch in the majors. The Red Sox used him as a trade chip last December to help them get Adrian Gonzalez from Hoyer and the Padres. Busting slot wasn't unique to the Red Sox. The Padres pushed likewise under previous administrations, such as when they signed Xavier Nady to a $2.95-million major league deal in 2000. (Lucchino reveled in that tussle with super-agent Scott Boras, crowing afterward that it was a "mini-Munson deal," referring to the sum more than double that amount which Boras had fetched from the Tigers for Eric Munson). The Diamondbacks made bold plays in the draft too under Jeff Moorad and Josh Byrnes, who now are part of San Diego's front office, but the super-rich Red Sox were doing it more often when it was less prevalent, and they were drawing on reports from one of baseball's better and better-funded scouting staffs.

Big-money draftees can flop, of course. And in its first draft last year, this Padres front office didn't strike deals with two draftees who had fallen for signability reasons. Nor did they sign first-round pick Karsten Whitson despite ranking him a top-3 talent.

Whether the Padres have a Red Sox checkbook this summer to go with a Red Sox mentality remains to be seen, but Moorad's Padres have a near-bottom major league payroll for the third straight year, a much-improved TV deal in the works and, unlike last summer, the chance to shed several million salary dollars before the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline. The Padres aren't playing with house money leading up to the Aug. 15th deadline to sign draftees, but they like how they started off their draft, choosing Florida junior college second baseman Cory Spangenberg 10th and signing him within a week for slot money. Among Spangenberg's backers was Tony Gwynn, who watched video of him before the draft. Also impressed by Spangenberg were the Brewers, who've done a great job of drafting and developing hitters and were considering him for one of their two first-round picks.

Another club within the NL West rated three of the Padres' draftees -- Spangenberg, Ross and Hedges -- among its Top 20 players. "We knew we couldn't sign Hedges or Ross," said a scout from that club. If the Padres are able to sign Hedges, Ross, Austin and Kelly, "they may have had the best draft in baseball," the scout said.

1 comment:

  1. This piece makes me happy - especially now (and yes, I know that it is the hope which kills us, in the end).