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Restocking a Rivalry (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday March 25, 2008 1:44PM; Updated: Tuesday March 25, 2008 11:00PM
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Buchholz (above) rewarded the Sox' faith in him with a no-hitter, while Ellsbury hit .360 in the 2007 postseason.
Buchholz (above) rewarded the Sox' faith in him with a no-hitter, while Ellsbury hit .360 in the 2007 postseason.
Winslow Townson/AP

Epstein knew this was an enormously important draft for Boston. The Red Sox had spent the previous few seasons making "safe" picks -- guys projected to be close to big league ready, though not necessarily with the possibility of being stars -- because the player development system had gone fallow. But holding five picks so high in the draft meant Boston no longer needed to play it safe. "It was time to go for more impact," Epstein says.

After holding a series of exacting mock drafts with his scouts, Epstein decided to take Ellsbury with the Sox' first pick. Scouts John Booher, Dave Finley and Fred Petersen had liked Ellsbury even after a poor performance in the Cape Cod League the summer before his final season at Oregon State. "We thought he was an under-the-radar guy we could get in the second round," Epstein says. "But then he just took off, dominating the Pac-10."

The Red Sox arranged a private workout for Ellsbury in San Diego, but rain forced them into a gym. Ellsbury saw a basketball on the floor, grabbed it and took off, leaping from near the free throw line and throwing down a vicious dunk. The scouts looked at one another in amazement. "This guy is probably the most athletic guy in the country," their report said.

When Ellsbury was still available at 23, the Sox pounced. "Guess my basketball game helped me get drafted," Ellsbury says. Three picks later Boston used its other first-round pick to take St. John's relief pitcher Craig Hansen.

The Sox intended to take Buchholz with their next choice, at No. 42 -- a compensation pick for losing Martinez to the Mets, who also gave up their second-round pick to Boston. But would Buchholz still be there? Epstein knew Florida was interested, but the Marlins passed four times on Buchholz, taking pitchers at 16, 22, 29 and 34. (Three of them were high schoolers.) There was one more team to worry about: the Dodgers at 40. The Red Sox knew L.A. scouting director Logan White liked Buchholz, but the Dodgers took Tennessee pitcher Luke Hochevar instead. When the Vols pitcher's name was announced, the Boston war room erupted in celebration. The Braves took a high school pitcher with the next pick, and the Sox had their man.

Boston held two more sandwich picks, at 45 and 47. The Red Sox took Stanford infielder Jed Lowrie and Michael Bowden, a righthanded high school pitcher nowhere near big league ready -- and exactly the kind of pick Boston never would have made in its previous play-it-safe mode.

With their five picks, Boston wound up with Ellsbury, who hit .360 in the postseason last year for a world-championship team; Hansen, who had a 2.76 ERA in the minors, though he has struggled in the big leagues; Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second major league start and has been, says Epstein, "a model citizen"; Lowrie, a .291 hitter in the minors now on the cusp of the majors; and Bowden, who is 20-12 in the minors, having reached Double A last year at 22. "We did combination after combination," says Epstein, recalling those mock drafts, "and the haul we wound up getting would have been the best-case scenario."

Since 2005 the Yankees and the Red Sox have continued to sink more money into scouting and the draft. Says one rival AL G.M., "They've become what the U.S. and Russia were during the cold war: There is them, and there's everybody else. My goodness, the Yankees took a guy in the first round [Andrew Brackman in 2007] who needed Tommy John surgery, and they gave him a four-year major league contract. Nobody else can do that."

Now, neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox are staring at an abyss, thanks partly to changes that began with the 2005 draft. Fortified by a wave of homegrown players -- neither team added a major free agent last winter -- their rivalry remains for another generation.

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