Restocking a Rivalry (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 25, 2008 1:44PM; Updated: Tuesday March 25, 2008 11:00PM
Henry has yet to make it out of A ball, hitting .222 with 15 home runs over three seasons. But Oppenheimer fared better in later rounds, getting speedy outfielder Austin Jackson in the eighth and hard-throwing pitcher Alan Horne in the 11th, both of whom are considered top prospects. Jackson's signing also reflected New York's determination to leverage its resources in the draft; the Yankees gave the eighth-rounder $800,000 to forget about his basketball scholarship offer from Georgia Tech.
A year later the Yankees' new emphasis on the draft would have an even bigger payoff. Cashman and Oppenheimer landed a slew of promising pitchers, including Ian Kennedy (first round) from USC, Joba Chamberlain (first-round sandwich pick) from the University of Nebraska, Brooklyn high schooler Dellin Betances (eighth) and Mark Melancon (ninth) from the University of Arizona.
"We missed on Joba, like a lot of teams," says Epstein, whose team used three picks in 2006 before the Yankees took Chamberlain. Likewise, the Yankees had missed on Buchholz in '05. New York was turned off by an January '04 incident in which Buchholz and a McNeese State schoolmate were arrested for stealing 29 laptops from a school where Buchholz's mother worked. (Buchholz was eventually given probation.) He soon transferred to Angelina College, a junior college in Lufkin, Texas, where he was 12-1 with a 1.05 ERA.
"He was a guy you had some questions about," Oppenheimer says. "The incident with the computers, pitching at a junior college, his command wasn't great . . . it just didn't add up for us. When we saw him pitch he wasn't that extreme a talent that leads you to overlook what were real off-field issues."
Epstein had his doubts too. Scouting director Jason McLeod thought that Boston should take Buchholz with an early pick, but Epstein, worried about the baggage, would roll his eyes every time McLeod mentioned him. Finally, Epstein told McLeod, "Listen, if you feel that strongly, the only way I'm going to feel comfortable picking him early is if I can meet him. Let's bring him to Fenway, have him throw and then grill him. Let's find out if this is a bad guy who got caught or a good guy who made a bad mistake."
One week before the draft, Buchholz threw in the Fenway Park bullpen for Epstein and McLeod while the Red Sox took batting practice. Says Epstein, "His stuff was ridiculous." Then the three of them left the bullpen and stood in Fenway's centerfield, while David Ortiz whacked balls off the Green Monster, over their heads and at their feet.
Asked about the theft, Buchholz told Epstein that he had been just a lookout and it was a dumb decision he regretted. "Look," Epstein told him, "we're thinking about taking you. But if we do, we're putting our reputations on the line. If you screw up, it'll be on us. We'll have a zero-tolerance policy with you. So tell us right now why we should believe in you."
Replied Buchholz, "Because all I've ever wanted to be is a big league pitcher. This is too important to me."
The kid persuaded Epstein to give him a shot. Epstein's dilemma then became when to pick him. McLeod wanted to take Buchholz with Boston's first pick, the 23rd, but Epstein decided against it. "Taking him with our first pick would have put an even bigger bull's-eye on him," Epstein says. "The Boston media puts so much attention on the first pick, it might have created an albatross for this guy. I said no matter what, we'd wait until the sandwich round."