The Red Sox selected a reliever from Mississippi State named Jonathan Papelbon in the fourth round of the 2003 draft, Theo Epstein’s first as general manager. Epstein, who will be making more picks when this year’s draft begins tonight, considers the Papelbon pick his favorite. Things have obviously worked out, but the process and the fondness of it being his first go-round stick out now.
The Red Sox knew of Papelbon early in the spring, but “he wasn’t high on our radar screen,” Epstein said. An area scout named Joe Mason pounded the table for Papelbon. He told the brass that Papelbon had an explosive fastball. Epstein and company traveled to the SEC Tournament to watch Papelbon. He had the fastball, a strong makeup, and a dominant strikeout-to-walk ratio. The more the Sox learned about Papelbon, they more they liked. They took him.
“And then I remember seeing him a couple months later before a game in Lowell,” Epstein said. “He was out there milking a cow. He had like a 5 ½ ERA, and he was out there doing a ceremonial cow milking, getting way too into it. I was like, ‘What the heck did we draft here?’ ”
As Papelbon recalls, the Spinners were doing a goofy minor league promotion that matched up pitchers on either team. Lowell was playing Staten Island, the Yankees’ affiliate. Papelbon and Jeff Karstens each had a cow, and whomever produced the most milk was the winner. Papelbon won. “Of course,” he said.
In 2004, Papelbon grasped the Red Sox’ development system. He started blowing away hitters with that fastball Epstein saw at the SEC Tournament. He spent 2004 in Sarasota. He spent part of 2005 in Portland, part in Pawtucket, and finished the year with the Red Sox. He saved 35 games in 2006, 37 in 2007, and 41 last year, becoming an All-Star every year.
“I think of him as a nice symbol for good scouting, good use of performance, good makeup work, and then development to help take the player to the next level,” Epstein said.
“We got some free milkage out of it.”