The Boston Red Sox didn't have a pick in the 2007 Draft until No. 55 overall, but no one can question that they made a splash once it was time to pick.
Boston took a number of "tough signs" and then offered above-slot bonuses to entice the draftees out of strong college commitments. It turned out to be a very successful strategy. Starting in the fifth round with infielder Will Middlebrooks, the sixth (Anthony Rizzo), seventh (David Mailman) and continuing with 16th-rounder Austin Bailey and 23rd-rounder Drake Britton, the Sox used their resources craftily to draft -- and sign -- several amateurs who were thought to have high-round ability.
They also extended their negotiations right up to the new Aug. 15 signing deadline. Including first-round supplemental pick Ryan Dent, the Red Sox signed six high-schoolers -- and all five of the aforementioned above-slot bonus signees -- on deadline day. While the earlier deadline removed any possibility of protracted wintertime negotiations, the late signings of these players precluded most from getting any kind of real introduction to the Red Sox organization. Dent, Rizzo and Mailman are the only three to have played at all, with a grand total of 123 pro at-bats (of which Dent had 80). When this high-upside group headed to Fort Myers for instructional league play, they probably handed nametags out at the door.
"It is a little different -- instructs will very much be a getting-to-know-you period, maybe more so than in the past," Red Sox vice president of player personnel Ben Cherington said. "They didn't play enough for us to get to know them much at all. The program is going to be very much an introduction to the Red Sox routine, our programs, with a pretty heavy emphasis on the physical side -- strength and conditioning. We'll give them each individual plans to head into the offseason so they're ready for Spring Training in 2008."
While it's the first time the Red Sox staff has been able to see some of these players in Sox uniforms, it's not the first time the players have been evaluated. Middlebrooks, Mailman and Rizzo, for instance, all played for their hometown summer league teams, American Legion or whatever program was available. That has carried over to a good start to their pro careers at instructs.
"Early returns have been very good," Cherington said. "They've shown on the field what scouts saw from seeing them as amateurs. They were eager to get going, and there's a camaraderie within that group. In the past, we've seen some healthy competition sprout in terms of players brought in."
The most intriguing player might be Middlebrooks, whose name had been mentioned at times as a possible first-round or first-round supplemental pick. Instead, he slipped to the fifth, perhaps because of a Texas A&M commitment and the fact that the athletic infielder also received college interest in football as a quarterback and punter. In high school, Middlebrooks was a shortstop and right-handed pitcher, with some debate over the direction his future would take. The Sox knew heading into the draft where they thought he should be long-term.
"There was plenty of discussion in the spring, and he was scouted as both," Cherington said. "By the end of the spring, prior to the draft, we had a strong consensus we thought his bigger upside was as a position player. We needed to get to know him more as a position player, and we did that during the summer."
That may not be so surprising, but his position might not be where most expected. Standing 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, almost everyone thought Middlebrooks, if chosen as a hitter, would slide over to third base. But Boston has decided there's no need to move him, at least not yet.
"Middlebrooks is going to play short," Cherington said. "He's going to be a big kid. We'll see what happens down the road, but he's very athletic, with quick feet, good hands and plenty of arm strength, so we'll give him the chance to stay at short."
It's an interesting time in Bradenton, Fla., these days for Pirates Minor Leaguers.
While their daily routines haven't changed much, it's not difficult to imagine that many players at instructs this fall have a keen eye on the personnel changes in the Pirates front office over the past few weeks.
First, there was Frank Coonelly, the new president of the organization. Now there's a new general manager, Neal Huntington. Just what all of this will mean to these young players remains to be seen, with changes to current philosophies sure to come from Huntington in particular. In the short term, though, there is interest in meeting these two new decision makers. It seems that the feeling is mutual.
"I know Neal and Frank have both expressed an interest in going to instructs," said Pirates director of player development Brian Graham, who has been rumored to soon be promoted to assistant general manager. "Neal is planning on having organizational meetings down there, so we can watch games and meet as well.
"It's the right thing to do. To get your face exposed to the Minor League players and staff, it's an important thing to do and it's a good place to do it."
Other than that, it's more or less business as usual for the Pirates this fall, with one small change. In the past, Pittsburgh has used instructs as a time to let a young staff member get a feel for managing. This year, the job has been given to field coordinator Jeff Banister, which should have a direct impact on the overall feel of the games and the time these players spend in Florida.
"It's to be more detail-oriented, and specific to our teaching plan, so we have our top guy running the ballgame every day," Graham explained. "[Triple-A Indianapolis pitching coach] Jeff Andrews is the pitching coordinator. When your field coordinator is manager, it changes the intensity. Players tend to be more focused. I think everyone will benefit from that."
The Pirates are hoping that shortstop prospect Angel Gonzalez will benefit from some time spent at second base. The 21-year-old Dominican split time between Hickory and Lynchburg, playing only shortstop, and hit .268 in 105 games. Now he's working on his second base skills to give him, and the organization, some versatility.
The only other position switch at instructs is Victor Igsema. An outfielder who signed with the Pirates out of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican back in 2002, he has spent just two games at a full-season level and hasn't done much with the bat. He must have some arm strength, though, as the Pirates are experimenting with converting him to the mound this instructs season.
In recent years, any discussions about top Phillies prospects invariably turned to the mound. The depth in the system definitely has been in the pitching talent making its way up the ladder.
Don't look now, but there is movement towards better balance system-wide, especially with some interesting infield prospects coming into their own. And most of them are working on honing their craft at instructs.
From this year's draft, there's second-round pick Travis Mattair, a raw third baseman with strong power potential who was a basketball star in high school and is just now focusing on baseball only. Phillies farm director Steve Noworyta compared him to a young Scott Rolen, someone who "moves well at third and can swing the bat a little."
He's joined by second baseman Tyler Mach, taken in the fourth round out of Oklahoma State, who was a New York-Penn League All-Star this season. Then there's the dynamic duo from the 2006 Draft. Shortstop Jason Donald jumped a level and hit over .300 in his first full season out of Arizona. 2B Adrian Cardenas spent all year in Lakewood, but considering he won't turn 20 until next month, there's nothing wrong with that. He's coming off a season in which he hit .295 and was named a South Atlantic League All-Star.
Then there's a guy who's been around a while. Brad Harman came to the Phillies from Australia in 2004 and impressed immediately. He set the bar very high by hitting .303 in his first taste of full-season ball at age 19. The 2006 season seemed like a step back when he hit just .241 as Clearwater's shortstop. But he went back to Clearwater in 2007, this time to play second, and bounced back by hitting .281 with 13 homers in the pitching-friendly Florida State League. He really turned it on in the second half, batting .321 and slugging .945. He's at instructs adding to his resume by learning how to play third. Next year, the Phillies think, he'll be able to play any of the three infield positions more than capably and he'll still be just 22 years old.
"Physically and mentally, he had a very good year this year," Noworyta said. "Now he'll be very usable and can play anywhere. The thing that's really come along, when he comes to the plate, he's going to hit."
And that means people should start talking about more than arms when it comes to the Phillies system.
"We're always talking about pitchers, it's nice to be talking about position players," Noworyta said. "Our farm system is finally getting back to where it was. Lakewood, Clearwater and Reading will be [filled with] our players, will be competitive and will be young next year."