Today is the most important day of the year for the Red Sox.
The Rule 4 Draft starts at 7 p.m. with the first two rounds. The Sox select seventh overall, their highest pick since 1993. This is the reward for all that suffering last season.
Because that reward is not immediate like the NBA or NFL, casual baseball fans often dismiss the draft. Very few amateur baseball players are prominent names on the sports landscape and it often takes three or four years for a player to emerge from the crucible of the minor leagues and impact the major league team. That is if they emerge at all.
But it’s a crucial day for the Red Sox because such a high pick brings with it a better chance to add a player who can impact the franchise for years to come.
“When you look at it historically, the odds of getting a good player are higher the higher you pick,” general manager Ben Cherington said Wednesday. “That’s relative to year and whatnot. We’ll know five years from now how good this draft is. But it’s an opportunity to choose from a different pool than we normally would, and we’ve got to take advantage of that opportunity.”
What adds to the importance of the selection is the trend in baseball of teams signing the stars they draft and develop to long-term contracts before they reach free agency. With a few exceptions, finding an All-Star caliber player below the age of 30 in free agency will be increasingly difficult.
The best route to a talented roster — and the most economical — is to draft a player, develop him, get inexpensive production out of him at a young age and then sign him to a long-term contract. Think Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester.
So who is that player at No. 7?
Unlike other sports, it’s not quite so easy to project. Ideally, the best prospect would go to the team with the first pick. But MLB’s complicated structure assigns each team a pool of money to spend on its picks and places a specific value to each pick in the first 10 rounds.
If a team can sign a player to a bonus below that value, the money saved can be used to sign a player above the slot price in a later round. A significant segment of draft strategy is finding players who will take less. Last year, the Red Sox and other teams selected college seniors with no negotiating leverage in some early rounds to save money for high school players later in the draft.
Scouting director Amiel Sawdaye indicated strongly on Wednesday that he would prefer to take the best talent available regardless of financial concerns.
“That’s the way I’ve been taught. That’s the way we’ve tried to proceed here in the last 10 years, 15 years,” Sawdaye said. “That’s the way we’ll continue to do it. Do the new rules change some things where in the past you were able to spend some money a little bit later? Yeah. But I still think, at the end of the day, you’re going to take the best player on the board.”
It’s hard to imagine the Red Sox gambling on a lesser player at No. 7 to improve the depth of their overall draft. This high pick represents a unique opportunity.
Cherington and other team executives have spent plenty of time in Georgia scouting high school outfielders Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows. Frazier is a talented and confident hitter with advanced skills but a stockier body. Meadows is the better athlete and perhaps has a higher ceiling.
The Sox also have had success in recent drafts with college pitchers. That could lead to them selecting Braden Shipley (Nevada), Ryne Stanek (Arkansas) or Alex Gonzalez (Oral Roberts). All are righthanders.
RHP Kohl Stewart of Houston is a possibility. He has a football scholarship to Texas A&M to play quarterback. But $3.2 million, the slot value of the No. 7 pick, would likely change his commitment to football.
The projection here is that the Sox will take Stewart if he falls to them. If not, then either Frazier or Meadows.
However North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran is a candidate to fall in the draft. His almost freakish plate discipline is a quality the Red Sox value and would find hard to resist.
A prediction? Meadows is their pick.
When Cherington and his staff make that pick tonight, the Red Sox and Rangers will be down on the field at Fenway playing. This is one night when the game won’t be the most important event at Fenway Park.