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Red Sox scouts are always on the lookout for talent

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 28, 2008
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NORTHERN CALIFORNIA - Blair Henry sticks his video camera through an opening in the fence along the third base side. He shoos away the players in the dugout who happen to wander into view. He'd like to get this shot; he might need it later.

Three amateur scouts are sitting behind home plate in this anonymous town at this anonymous field near the Bay Area, wondering if the pitcher or the shortstop will ever amount to anything. Henry, the Red Sox' area scout for Northern California and Northern Nevada, had thought he might be alone at this game between junior colleges whose names are unlikely to register much recognition beyond the immediate vicinity.

Still, there isn't much pressure out here on a warm November afternoon. The draft seems ages away, even though these scouts have officially been preparing for the 2009 draft since the day the 2008 draft ended, and casually well before that.

No matter how many times they've driven 200-plus miles to a canceled game, or watched a player they once liked undermine their faith with a disastrous outing, these scouts (and their analysis) remain the basis for the most cost-effective way of bringing talent into an organization. Because it sure isn't signing major league free agents.

With 16 area scouts, four part-timers, four regional cross-checkers, a national cross-checker, not to mention the front-office scouting staff, the Red Sox attempt to blanket the country in order not to overlook that next great prospect. They're not alone; every team does it. But judg ing from the talent that has been making its way up the Baseball America rankings, a sampling of opinions around the game, and from a growing number of homegrown players in the major leagues, the Sox are doing it as well as anybody.

"Ultimately, we're competing," said scouting director Jason McLeod. "You only get one shot around to take a guy. You certainly want to beat the other teams. There's certainly a competitive nature. We make no bones about it: We want to beat the other teams in the draft."

That all starts here, at a field where the number of scouts nearly rivals the number of fans. Henry shoves his camera lens toward a pitcher who, in all likelihood, the Sox won't draft, who won't make an impact in the major leagues, and perhaps not in the minor leagues.

Henry won't stay long, maybe a few hours. There's another field to get to, a Division 1 school with legitimate prospects. There's always more baseball to watch.

"You always wonder, 'Who am I missing?' " Henry said. " 'What am I missing?' "

Hitting on a star?
Henry had barely arrived here from Minnesota when he found all the perils and perks of scouting. It was January 2006, and already Henry was behind. The Sox had had no scout in this territory for a couple of months, and the days were slipping by. Then, along came Lars Anderson, the first player Henry saw.

"Honestly, I saw him take two [at-bats] off his dad in an intersquad scrimmage," Henry said. "I was like, 'Dang, I hope they all look like this.' He hit two rockets, and I was like, 'Wow, this is going to be awesome out in California.'

"Needless to say, I haven't found a high school hitter like that since."

And though Anderson, a 21-year-old first baseman Baseball America ranked the Sox' top prospect for 2009, was ultimately drafted by Boston, it wasn't until the 18th round. He had a commitment to attend the University of California, which he leveraged into high contract demands.

Still, the Sox had seen enough in Anderson - perhaps five games and 20 plate appearances - to select him, though as the rounds passed and Henry saw Anderson's name hadn't been called, he e-mailed then-West (now Central) cross-checker Fred Petersen over and over: "What about Lars?" he wrote. "What about Lars?"

Henry and Anderson had forged a strong enough relationship from the home visits scouts make to get medical information, gauge a player's commitment, and determine his makeup and contract demands that Anderson felt comfortable enough to sign with the Sox.

The question was whether the team would want to sign Anderson. To get to that point, "We saw him probably play 20 games between all of us, maybe 25 games out of 50 that he played," Henry said. "That's a lot of games. They did a good job on him."

Two regional cross-checkers saw him, as did the national cross-checker. So did McLeod.

All were impressed, and Anderson was signed for $825,000, significantly above the signing bonus allotted in his round. With that gamble, on a high school kid with exceptional patience at the plate, the Red Sox might have stolen one.

It's a play the Sox have made common, but one that might become a bit harder, given the renewed financial emphasis over the last couple of drafts from small-market clubs such as Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

"Sitting here today, realizing where we took a Lars Anderson, does he still sit there in the 18th round [now]?" McLeod said. "Probably not."

Rebuilding a farm system
It was Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein's first day on the job, in 2002, and he was quite clear about what he wanted.

"[He said], 'We're going to build a scouting and player development machine,' " said national cross-checker David Finley. "His goal was to develop that. I don't know if we're a machine yet, but we're pretty good."

Of course, that means pretty good in the context of a sport that is rife with failure. In the amateur draft, a team might take 50 players a year. Of those, the team might sign half. And if five players make the major leagues, as they have done so far from the 2005 draft for the Sox, that is considered an outstanding year.

"I think we've made a lot of progress . . . but we still have a ways to go," Epstein wrote in an e-mail. "Baseball is a humbling game in which there's more inherent failure than success. We're just trying to get more systematic and more precise in our approach. As much as the guys we've hit on have helped us sustain success at the big league level, it's the misses that keep us up at night."

Or, as Petersen put it, "We're the Red Sox. We're not just content to get guys to the big leagues. We want special guys in the big leagues."

That reflects the effort, time, and money that goes into each player drafted by Boston, as well as the thousands scouted by other clubs. In building a talent pool that reached its highest Baseball America ranking last season (second, behind the Rays), the Sox have made a dramatic turn from the pre-Epstein regime. Their ranking has risen from No. 23 in 2004 to No. 21 in 2005 to No. 8 in 2006 to No. 9 in 2007 to No. 2.

"Ideally, we'd fill our entire roster through successful drafting, international scouting, and player development," Epstein wrote. "We don't hit at a high enough rate to make that a reality - no team does - but the core of our talent base should always be comprised of homegrown talent. Trades and free agent signings are designed to complement that homegrown core and put us in a position to win 95 games and make the playoffs as often as possible."

That, McLeod said, starts with the area scouts.

"We really like to put the onus on our scouts to tell us how [players are] going to compete, deal with success, failure, with money at the top of the draft," McLeod said. "A lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility that we put on our scouts. We believe in them, we trust them."

And, Henry explains, "We're not just scouts. We're weathermen. We're atlases. We're Rand McNally. There's a lot going on all the time that we're responsible for. We're on the phone all the time. We're customer service people, in a sense."

Oh, and talent evaluators, psychologists, and teachers, too. It's not just an eye for talent that's needed.

"Obviously, you look at tools, you try to get inside their head, what they're thinking, what makes them tick, what type of competitor this person is," Finley said. "Does he perform well in tight situations or late innings? Can he throw a strike when he has to throw a strike? Body type, athleticism, hand-eye coordination.

"There's no prototype. That's why scouting is so hard to do. You make mistakes. You can't hit on every player. You can't find out everything about every person."

Going over and above
Not every organization can afford to spend $825,000 on an 18th-rounder. But more teams have decided they're going to take the most talented player, regardless of signability issues. Rick Porcello might be the prime example. Though Porcello was thought to be the best high school pitcher in the 2007 draft (and perhaps the best pitcher overall), he fell to 27th, where he was taken by the Tigers, because he was considered tough to sign. Or Craig Hansen, who dropped to the Red Sox in 2005 for a similar reason.

As with Anderson, it's unlikely that would happen these days. The Pirates, for example, ultimately shelled out $6.355 million for third baseman and Scott Boras client Pedro Alvarez, the second pick in the 2008 draft (coincidentally, Alvarez was originally selected in the 14th round of the 2005 draft by the Sox, but elected to attend Vanderbilt University). And teams not known for spending are plucking prospects in later rounds and giving them bonuses over their slot.

"The Red Sox have just absolutely taken advantage of the system the last couple of years," said one American League executive. "They're not hiding. They've told all of us, 'We're going to sign over the slot every round, as long as it's like this.' They arguably have the most talent of any organization in the game because of the [recent] drafts."

Other teams can't ignore it. While the commissioner's office discourages "oversigning" players, there's little that can be done. The issue could come up in the next collective bargaining agreement, baseball's executive vice president Rob Manfred said last summer, with a hard cap or an aggregate spending limit as possibilities. But for now, the product of all that scouting is the ability to pay for players.

"I think reality for us is New York and Boston are doing this," Orioles scouting director Joe Jordan said. "They've had a lot of extra picks and they're just budgeting the money to go sign the players and they're not worrying about any constraints maybe from the commissioner's office. They're doing what they have to do. So, we either have to decide, are we going to get into the game or not? We've decided that we're getting in."

These teams are devoting the money both at the ground level and higher. Homegrown players have shot up in value - that much has become obvious. Finding those players and drafting them is key. So, too, is holding on to them, as the Yankees and Red Sox both ultimately did in pulling out of the bidding for Minnesota's star pitcher, Johan Santana, last offseason.

"You even saw arguably the two biggest markets, the teams with 'the most resources,' they even made a big point that we're keeping our own talent, we're building from within," said Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff, who was the team's scouting director from 1993-2007. "They made an emphasis. Five, 10 years before that, it would have been laughable that they would not have given up prospects for a player of that stature."

'The most unexact science'
When Northeast area scout Ray Fagnant headed out to see outfielder Ryan Westmoreland - a $2 million (over five years) oversign the Sox took in the fifth round last June out of Portsmouth, R.I. - it was truly more of a stakeout than a scouting trip.

"You don't want to show your hand to scouts," Fagnant said. "There's a little bit of gamesmanship. There's a couple times when I did go see him play and kind of parked in the center-field parking lot to see what other teams were interested. I did do that once or twice, to see what he did, and secondly the interest level."

Because there's no reason to give away secrets. Especially as scouting talent, which can rarely hide in these days of showcases and tournaments, gets more competitive. But ultimately it comes down to evaluation. And as much as every scout knows that he will fail more than he will succeed, there are tricks. Understanding that comes with experience, with seeing players and watching them and tracking them as they try to make it, and most often don't.

"It's still the most unexact science in the world," said Rob English, who scouted for 18 years in Georgia, including the last eight for the Sox. "If there was a set thing you could do, it would be easy. You're going to make a lot of mistakes. When you get one right, that's what's really gratifying."

Each scout looks for something, whether it's athleticism or body type or energy on and off the field. They cite Dustin Pedroia, as if to say that in baseball a player doesn't have to be 6 feet 2 inches and 220 pounds. He doesn't have to be an Adonis. He has to be a baseball player.

"Not everybody understands that we want to like players," Fagnant said. "I remember when I was playing, I thought all scouts were cynical curmudgeons, waiting to see what he can't do. It's just the opposite. When I like somebody, you've got to prove to me that you're not a professional prospect. I'll always give him the benefit of the doubt and go back and see him. The bottom line is they still have to show something."

So Henry stands, his video camera trained on the pitcher on the mound. He has been at this junior college for a few hours, and watched some bad baseball. It happens far too often for his taste. But here he sees a glimmer from a teenager who likely won't be headed to Boston, or even appear in a major league uniform. And yet, there's something.

"I'm glad I came back today," Henry said. "I might really like this guy."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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