Heading into the start of Sunday night’s first round of the draft, I, like a lot of other people, was expecting the Red Sox to go with Henry Davis at number four overall. It wouldn’t have been a bad outcome, as Davis has the potential for an elite bat, but it also wasn’t the most exciting possibility. When Davis was taken number one, my thought process shifted to Leiter, who could now fall to four with the Pirates surprising everyone at the top of the draft. Then, when Leiter was taken second by the Rangers, I assumed Marcelo Mayer would go three to Detroit, and I started to believe Boston would go underslot, perhaps with Matt McLain, when their pick came up. That was a brief moment, but it was a feeling of disappointment, and felt like a worst-case scenario for the draft.
As we know, that’s not what happened. Instead, the Tigers stuck with Jackson Jobe with the third pick, allowing Mayer to fall to Boston at number four. Suddenly, the potential worst-case scenario turned into what seems like the best-case scenario. Not only did the Red Sox not go underslot, but they grabbed arguably the top overall talent in the entire class, adding a huge ceiling to their farm system.
You’ll often hear people say that MLB teams don’t draft for need, and that is largely true. The Red Sox weren’t worried about Xander Bogaerts when picking a shortstop, because no one knows what the roster will look like when Mayer is ready. Worst case, they have a great shortstop prospect with a great major-league shortstop and moves need to be made. It could be much worse.
However, I think it is worth considering the overall state of the farm system when a team makes their decisions in the draft, particularly in the early rounds. The underslot strategy that the Red Sox employed in 2020 to get Nick Yorke and Blaze Jordan is not inherently a bad one. People instinctively get mad about the team being cheap, but since the money is still being spent later, that criticism is off-base. The issue at hand really comes down to top-end talent versus a larger class of solid talents. Chad Jennings at The Athletic used the analogy of having four candy bars, with one expensive one you love, two solid ones at an average price in the middle, and one not as great one that is cheap. Going underslot would be grabbing the two in the middle, while a more traditional approach would entail getting that great one and also the cheap one.
All of that is to say that it is a valid strategy in certain circumstances for certain teams, and I think this is where paying attention to the shape of your farm system matters. There are scenarios where it makes sense to grab the two B candies. For the Red Sox, I didn’t really like the underslot strategy last year (though Nick Yorke’s development is certainly making me feel better about it), and I really would have hated it for this year. Boston’s minor-league system was begging for the top candy bar, not two pretty good ones.
For evidence of that, look no further than the FanGraphs pre-draft farm system rankings that we highlighted the other day. Boston came in right in the middle of the pack at number 15. Putting aside that is a nice rise from where they were just a year ago when the system was pretty much unanimously in the bottom third of the league, and for some in the bottom five, the more interesting thing to me is how they got to 15. As we noted in the link above, they got here on the back of quantity rather than quality. They didn’t have as many top-end talents as some of the other teams around them, but their 50 prospects with a Future Value of at least 35+ was the fourth-most in baseball. The bulk of those prospects were in the 40 FV tier, which is the second-lowest tier in FanGraphs’ rankings.
To put it another way, the Red Sox already had their fair share of mid-tier candy bars. What they were missing was that top-tier bar, which we’ll call Snickers because they are the best candy bars. Boston has a handful of top 100 prospects, with Triston Casas, Jarren Duran, and Jeter Downs each finding themselves on a handful of lists. However, none of them are really in that group of elite prospects. Looking at the Red Sox system, to me the biggest, clearest weakness is that lack of a Snickers.
Mayer isn’t that guy just yet. As we talked about this morning, he’s right in the middle of that top tier of Red Sox prospects, which in turn is in that second or third tier of prospects around the league. But Mayer is not in the upper minors like the other three mentioned above. Instead, he has a lot of time to develop, and hopefully continue to take steps forward. Boston has generally done a good job of getting the most out of their position player prospects, and if they continue that with Mayer he could eventually find himself in the top 10 in all of baseball once he gets up to those upper levels.
Nothing is a guarantee with anything in the draft, which is the best argument for going underslot. Giving yourself more chances for talent in a crapshoot makes plenty of sense in a vacuum. But the Red Sox have a system that is just screaming for a top-end talent, and they were picking as high as they had in over 50 years. This wasn’t a time to settle for solid candy bars. They needed that top-end Snickers, and they were even lucky enough to get the ice cream version of a Snickers to fall to them, giving them the absolute best-case scenario.