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Why Red Sox's 2011 draft could rank among best ever

From Blake Swihart to Mookie Betts to Jackie Bradley Jr., the Red Sox's 2011 draftees have come to form the backbone of one of the best teams in the American League. Billie Weiss/Getty Images

The high-fives weren't more emphatic and the handshakes were no heartier after the week that transformed the Boston Red Sox.

"I don't think we walked out of that [draft] room and said, 'Man, we killed it!'" Amiel Sawdaye said.

It was too soon for that. This was June 8, 2011, and Sawdaye, the Red Sox's amateur scouting director, had just overseen the club's 53 picks in the three-day draft, an annual exercise in delayed gratification.

In baseball, it's not enough to simply select players. Not every draftee signs a contract, and the ones who do must slog through a half-dozen levels of the minor leagues for little pay and less glory. For those reasons, conventional wisdom within the industry is that a team can generally claim to have drafted well if it unearths four major leaguers, two of whom are impact players.

What, then, do you call a draft that yields four every-day players, including emerging superstar Mookie Betts in the fifth round, and three pitchers who have contributed to varying degrees over the past year?

"Ami and his crew in 2011 put together a list that is right near the top of all-time drafts, in my opinion," said one American League talent evaluator who also spent several years as an amateur scouting director. "I think the Red Sox's 2011 draft makes everybody puff out their chest."

Indeed, at any point this season, at least 20 percent of Boston's active roster has been comprised of players drafted in 2011. The Sox selected hard-throwing right-hander Matt Barnes and high-school catcher Blake Swihart in the first round (19th and 26th overall), lefty Henry Owens and center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. in the supplemental round (36th and 40th), depth reliever Noe Ramirez in the fourth round (142nd), Betts in the fifth (172nd) and third baseman Travis Shaw in the ninth (292nd).

"It's highly unusual to have a draft like that. If the players continue to develop the way they are, it's got a chance to go down as one of the best drafts in baseball history." Dave Dombrowski, Red Sox president of baseball operations

Five years later, this group ranks with the Los Angeles Angels' haul in 2009 (outfielders Randal Grichuk and Mike Trout and pitchers Tyler Skaggs, Garrett Richards and Patrick Corbin) as the best draft classes of the past 10 years. At a time when franchise icon David Ortiz is plotting his retirement at season's end and 32-year-old second baseman Dustin Pedroia is nearer to the end of his prime than the beginning, the Red Sox's 2011 draftees have come to form the backbone of one of the best teams in the American League.

"It's highly unusual to have a draft like that," said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who was running the Detroit Tigers at the time. "If the players continue to develop the way they are, it's got a chance to go down as one of the best drafts in baseball history."

Said Sawdaye: "I'm glad to see these guys are doing really well. They've worked themselves into being really good players. Certainly there's a lot of credit that can be passed around to the player development staff, to the major league staff, and obviously to the kids. It's a total group effort, and I'm glad that they're doing it for us and not for another team like we see a lot of times."

But it all began with sleuth scouting and strategic drafting. And as the Red Sox gear up for the 2016 draft this week, it's worth examining what went so right five years ago and whether it can be copied.

Quantity begets quality

Sawdaye likes to say the Red Sox were successful mostly because they owned four of the first 40 picks, compensation for the previous winter's free-agent defections of third baseman Adrian Beltre to the Texas Rangers and designated hitter Victor Martinez to the Tigers.

But he's just being modest.

No team made more picks in 2011 than the Tampa Bay Rays, who had 10 of the first 60 selections. To date, only their second choice, outfielder Mikie Mahtook, has played more than 50 games in the big leagues -- and with only middling results.

It's clear, then, that having extra picks hardly guaranteed striking gold. It did, however, allow the Red Sox to take a few chances, an approach that was encouraged by then-Sox GM Theo Epstein in his final draft in Boston. Mike Hazen, the farm director at the time, recalls Epstein directing the club's scouts to dream big on talented players who nevertheless didn't project to be the surest things.

"It would've been easy to really play that draft straight or safe, and Theo really pushed everyone to be ultra-aggressive," said Hazen, now the Red Sox general manager. "I think you see that in the Swihart/Owens picks. Even though we had all those picks, it was 'be aggressive' and 'get guys that we really, really like.'"

The 2011 draft featured many appealing options. Of the top 40 picks, 25 have reached the majors. Of those, eight have posted a WAR of at least 5.0. Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon and Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor were drafted in the top 10. Houston Astros outfielder George Springer went 11th overall, and San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik 29th.

More than anything, though, the 2011 draft was loaded with pitching. The college ranks produced Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer (UCLA), Danny Hultzen (Virginia), Taylor Jungmann (Texas), Sonny Gray (Vanderbilt), Barnes (UConn) and Alex Meyer (Kentucky), while Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley and Jose Fernandez were the headliners of the high-school crop.

"After the Brewers made their pick at 15, I thought there was a 100 percent chance I was going to the Red Sox at 19 because I just hadn't heard from any of the other teams at all. I had heard from the Red Sox quite a bit. At 18, the A's took me. I saw my name on the TV, and it was a complete shock because we hadn't heard from the A's at all." Sonny Gray, Oakland A's ace

The Red Sox's first four picks were clustered within a 22-pick span, which Sawdaye said allowed them to hone in on a relatively specific subset of players. Knowing that Cole or Bundy, for instance, wouldn't fall to 19th overall, the Sox could focus on Gray, Barnes and Meyer, pitchers who were more likely to be available when they picked.

According to Sawdaye, the Sox weren't dead set on using their first pick on a pitcher: "If someone like Francisco Lindor had gotten to our pick, it might have been a different story." But given the depth of pitching in the draft, it was a fairly safe bet. And Gray would have wagered his signing bonus that it was going to be him.

"After the Brewers made their pick at 15, I thought there was a 100 percent chance I was going to the Red Sox at 19 because I just hadn't heard from any of the other teams at all," Gray said at the All-Star Game last year. "I had heard from the Red Sox quite a bit. At 18, the A's took me. I saw my name on the TV, and it was a complete shock because we hadn't heard from the A's at all."

At that point, Barnes knew he was about to be fitted for a Red Sox cap.

"I had a sense that I wasn't going to go past the Red Sox," said Barnes, who moved to the bullpen last year and has emerged this season as one of Boston's more reliable relievers with a 2.93 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 23 appearances. "Theo was at probably three or four of my games my junior year. Amiel was there for a bunch. So I had a pretty good idea that I wasn't going to drop past the Red Sox."

From there, the Sox were able to get creative.

Seeing the whole board

Looking back, Sawdaye said the Sox easily could have taken Swihart at No. 19. Their scouts loved his athleticism and believed he would only get better behind the plate considering he didn't start catching until his sophomore year of high school.

Swihart was exactly the sort of high-upside talent Epstein had been talking about.

"We thought there was a chance he could go in the top 10," Sawdaye said. "We certainly couldn't comfortably say he was going to be there at pick 19 or even 26."

But the Sox were willing to risk it. After all, Swihart was from New Mexico, hardly fertile ground for future major leaguers. He also had a scholarship to the University of Texas, and his family made it clear to interested teams that he was going to college unless he received a signing bonus in the $2.5 million range.

"You try to strategize," Hazen said. "If you really want to get a guy at [pick] 26 but you know somebody at 22 or 23 is going to take him, you have a choice to make at 19. Whereas, if you feel really strongly that you can get him at 26, then you might roll the dice. There's a lot of intelligence that's collected. But you just don't know. It could be one scout that you never saw at a game that says, 'Hey, I want to take Blake Swihart right here,' and you could lose out on him. You need to be prepared for all those scenarios."

The Sox guessed right on Swihart. And when the 36th pick rolled around, they took Owens and wagered correctly that Bradley would still be available at 40.

A gifted defensive outfielder at the University of South Carolina, Bradley was considered a top-10 talent after being named Most Outstanding Player of the 2010 College World Series. But he injured his wrist and had a subpar junior season, causing him to slip on many teams' draft boards. There was also the issue of signability. Bradley was represented by aggressive agent Scott Boras, a factor that perhaps dissuaded Texas, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia from taking him at 37, 38 and 39, respectively.

That doesn't mean there weren't tense moments in the draft room for Sawdaye, one of Bradley's biggest boosters.

"It was totally agonizing because as much as you know, you don't really know," Sawdaye said. "We've been bit before. And you sweat it out. But so much of it is trusting the scouts that are out there. Your scout will be like, 'I'm telling you, there are only two teams or three teams that are really on this guy,' and you know which of your scouts would know that and which ones wouldn't."

Ultimately, the Red Sox's ability to anticipate the outcome of the draft was as much a reason for their success in 2011 as anything else.

Stealing the show

The draft turned unforgettable when the Sox scooped up Betts in the fifth round, not that they knew what they had.

"It wasn't like we all turned to each other and said, 'I can't believe we got Mookie Betts in the fifth round!'" Sawdaye said. "If we thought Mookie Betts was going to be what he is, we would've taken him in the first round."

But there is no denying the work that area scout Danny Watkins did in discovering Betts. The 5-foot-9, 155-pound shortstop got as much notoriety at John Overton High (Nashville, Tennessee) for his ridiculous vertical leap on baseline dunks and for bowling near-perfect games. Watkins took note of what Red Sox manager John Farrell now commonly calls Betts' "quick-twitch" athleticism, an explosiveness that was evident when Watkins saw him range for a grounder up the middle and make a behind-the-back flip with his glove for a force play at second.

Intrigued, Watkins looked deeper, noting Betts' ability to repeat swing mechanics that allowed him to crush average fastballs and make consistently solid contact with better pitching. In four high school seasons, Betts struck out 12 times, a rate of contact that spoke to both his superior hand-eye coordination and his recognition of when to swing.

"Whether he was pulling the ball or hitting the ball the other way, he always seemed to find a way to put the barrel on the ball," Watkins said last year. "He rarely offered at pitches that were outside the zone, and when he did, he very seldom swung and missed. And when you see the athleticism, there was a degree of explosiveness to him, whether it was in his hands, in his feet or just his overall actions."

"It wasn't like we all turned to each other and said, 'I can't believe we got Mookie Betts in the fifth round!' If we thought Mookie Betts was going to be what he is, we would've taken him in the first round." Amiel Sawdaye, Red Sox amateur scouting director

How is it possible, then, that Betts was passed over 171 times before the Red Sox finally picked him?

"I don't know," Hazen said. "It happens. He wasn't 6-foot-5. He was what you see. You can break down the mechanics of the swing, but if you've only seen them face 75 mph every day, a scout is being asked to project this guy in the major leagues against 95 mph. To have scouts be able to project some power onto that, again, I think it was a great scouting job by our guys."

There's a better explanation for Shaw's plummet to the ninth round.

The 2011 draft marked the final year for the slot system by which MLB attached a suggested dollar value to each pick but didn't penalize teams for exceeding it. Beginning in 2012, teams would be taxed for going above their allotted bonus pool. Many teams decided to take advantage of their last chance to overspend by drafting hard-to-sign high school players and blowing them away with a big signing bonus.

As a junior at Kent State, Shaw lacked the leverage to hold out for more cash, especially after opting for college instead of signing with the Red Sox when they picked him in the 32nd round in 2008. There was no rush, then, for teams to draft Shaw, the Sox bypassing him in the seventh and eighth rounds to take high school pitcher Cody Kukuk and outfielder Senquez Golson, the latter of whom never signed.

"My agent had an idea of where he thought I was going to go, and it was in the five-to-seven-round range. It didn't happen," said Shaw. After the Sox drafted him in the ninth round, he signed a few days later for $110,000. "Once you get paid, you've got to move past it. Looking back on it now, you see hitters that get drafted, and some of the money they sign for, it sucks."

Said Sawdaye: "Travis Shaw, in any year now, goes way higher."

Instead, Shaw was another steal in a draft that couldn't have turned out much better. Dombrowski, who is reaping the benefits now, said the Red Sox's 2011 draft has the potential to rank with the Tigers' legendary 1976 class that included shortstops Alan Trammel and Ozzie Smith and pitchers Dan Petry and Jack Morris.

Every draft is different, from the depth of the talent pool to where a team is drafting. But the Red Sox have tried to learn from the process that was so effective five years ago.

"There are definitely lessons," Sawdaye said. "I can look back on the lessons I learned from just staying convicted on Jackie Bradley. The thing about almost every one of those players that we took was there was so much conviction for those players. I've always been a firm believer that, if you stay true to your process, yeah, you're going to miss and we've missed plenty, but you're ultimately going to have success."