Head of the Class: A look at Theo Epstein and Red Sox draft success

Douglas Flynn

Theo Epstein knew he would be learning on the job when he became the youngest general manager in major league history Nov. 26, 2002.

Less than seven months later, he took his first grad-level seminar - Advanced Team Building 101. Class was in session from June 3-4, 2003, and Epstein proved a quick study, guiding the Red Sox through his inaugural MLB draft as a GM.

The fruits of his efforts over those two days included all-star closer Jonathan Papelbon and a pair of young outfielders who have since found homes elsewhere in the majors.

Matt Murton was part of the pivotal four-team trade at the 2004 deadline that brought Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz to Boston and helped end the club's 86-year championship drought. Last month, David Murphy was included in the package Epstein sent to Texas to land reliever Eric Gagne, another deadline move he hopes will help bring a championship.

Epstein has now run five draft boards with the Sox, adding the likes of Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz to the organization. Landing those prizes might not have been possible without the lessons learned in his first go-round at the draft in 2003.

"Definitely, looking back there's a lot I do differently now," said Epstein. "In that '03 draft, we were looking for more certainty. We didn't draft enough high-ceiling guys. We've adjusted that philosophy a few times since then."

Epstein and his scouting staff selected 52 players that June. Just four have reached the majors, with Papelbon the only current member of Boston's varsity. Seven others remain in the Sox system, including southpaw starter Abe Alvarez, who made it up to Boston briefly in each of the past three years, and Beau Vaughan, a Class AA reliever at Portland who is still on track to potentially reach the majors. Nine more remain active in other organizations, including major-league contributors Murton and Murphy.

The Sox played it fairly safe that draft, following the "Moneyball" trend of focusing on more advanced college players. Just one of their first 18 picks was a high schooler, with 38 college and 14 high school players chosen overall.

Still, the Sox scored big with early picks, as each of their first six selections are currently either in the majors or still in Boston's system. Papelbon alone is enough to make the 2003 class a memorable one.

"Certainly, any draft that produces a Papelbon, as well as several of the other guys we still have, is a success," said Epstein.

Homegrown hero

Papelbon is a rarity, and not just because his blend of pure stuff and mound presence have made him one of the game's elite closers at age 26.

What sets him apart the most is the fact that he's made it through the system and into a prominent role with a big-market club that's known more for filling needs through free agency and trades.

"It's huge," said Papelbon. "It's very gratifying because not many people come up through the organization, especially with us and the Yankees. I'm just glad I was able to come up and learn the game the Boston Red Sox way."

It's special for management as well to watch a guy they scouted, drafted and developed make such an impact at the big-league level.

"I think any homegrown guy, any guy you might have watched either as an amateur or in the system, you feel a little bit of a special bond with," said Epstein. "You know all the people that have worked hard, driven many miles, stayed up late to find a way to help turn these kids into big-league players. So I think there is something special when you have a homegrown player."

And Papelbon is special. His 35 saves and 0.92 ERA in his first year as a closer showed that. The 28 saves and 1.93 ERA he took into this weekend's series with the Angels proved it was no fluke.

When it comes to Papelbon, the only question Epstein can't answer is why it took so long for the Sox to pick him.

"If I were that smart, we would have taken him in the first round, and a lot of other teams should have too," joked Epstein, who ultimately scooped up the Mississippi State right-hander in the fourth round (114th overall) that June.

To get to that selection, the Sox needed a perfect blend of old and new scouting methods - sabermetric number crunching backed by a good old-fashioned up-close look.

"With Pap, that was a combination of objective and subjective scouting," said Epstein. "He was a guy who had really good strikeout-to-walk numbers. He had a good arm. (Then assistant GM) Josh Byrnes and I were down at the SEC tournament and got a good look at him and really liked what we saw."

All that was left was to make sure Papelbon liked the Sox as much.

"I was actually at my house in college," recalled Papelbon of that draft day. "They called me in the third round and asked if they picked me in the fourth would I sign, and I said, 'Yeah, pick me.' And it worked out."

Things worked out perfectly for Murton as well. The Georgia Tech outfielder had a chance to see Red Sox Nation first-hand when he spent two summers playing for Wareham in the Cape Cod Baseball League, so he couldn't have been more excited when Boston used its first-round sandwich pick (32nd overall) on him.

"Draft day was a big day for me and my family," said Murton. "I was very anxious. I had played on the Cape the previous two summers so I was familiar with the Red Sox. Being picked by any team would have been a thrill, but I had a few teams in my mind that if I had a choice I was hoping for, and Boston was one of those."

Trading places

Murton never fulfilled his dream of making it to Fenway. Less than 14 months after being drafted, he was on his way to becoming a Cub. Murton joined Nomar Garciaparra in Epstein's 2004 blockbuster deal, and headed off to Chicago's Class A affiliate in Daytona.

It was a difficult adjustment starting over in a new organization, but Murton left the Red Sox without any bitterness.

"After being traded and watching them win the World Series that year, I was pulling for them," said Murton. "I still always hope to see them do well.

"It's different," added Murton of being traded. "I had never been a part of a trade at that point. You see it all the time, that player going for this player. But now all of a sudden I was one of those players. ... I had to leave behind a good group of people, but you have to move forward and keep pushing toward your goal."

Murton reached his goal the following year, making it up to Chicago in 2005 and hitting .321 with seven homers in just 51 games. Last year, he hit .297 with 13 homers and 62 RBI in 144, but found himself back in Class AAA Iowa briefly this season before being recalled again on July 27.

"The Cubs have been great, they gave me an opportunity to play at the major-league level," said Murton, 25, who's hitting .268 with four homers with the Cubs this season. "I may not have had that chance in Boston. They have some great outfielders there. We do here in Chicago too, but I was fortunate that the one spot that there was a chance to play was in left field."

Trades can be tough on a GM too, even if he knows the player he's dealing might have a better opportunity elsewhere. Epstein had to part with the first player he ever drafted - 2003 first-rounder Murphy (17th overall) - to bring Gagne to Boston.

"It's never easy to make a trade," said Epstein. "You have to see the disappointment in a (Kason) Gabbard's face. It's not an easy part of the job. But sometimes if you go in a trade you go to an organization where you'll get more opportunities. I think that was the case with Murph. He was lost a bit (in the mix) here, but he'll have a chance now to play and show what he can do."

Murphy, 25, has done just that. He was called up by Texas on Aug. 10, and entered the weekend hitting .462 with four of his first six hits going for extra bases.

Difficult though they may be on the principles involved, trades are part of the business of baseball. It's a high-stakes game, where personal feelings have to take a backseat to what's best for the club.

Drafting and developing a player up through the farm system may be a special achievement, but it's not the only way to get a valuable return on the investments made on draft day.

"The most important way to derive a benefit from drafting a player and developing him is to get young talent at the big-league level year in and year out," said Epstein. "We've benefited from that and it's one of the reasons we're in first place. It's also important to make sure you have enough depth so you can trade from the minor-league system to acquire the pieces you need to win at the big-league level."

Life after baseball

Few players ever get to be a piece of the puzzle at the big-league level. Papelbon, Murton and Murphy are the only players from the 2003 class currently in the majors. Just four years after that draft, 35 of the 52 players Boston selected are no longer playing at any level.

Catcher Erich Cloninger is one of the many whose diamond dreams died early. The Sox' 35th-round pick (1,044th overall), the Liberty University graduate hung up his spikes after the 2004 season having advanced only to Class A Augusta.

The grandson of former Sox pitching coach Tony Cloninger, Erich Cloninger was the kind of baseball lifer one would expect to have had a tough time leaving the game. Not quite.

"Not at all, I don't miss it one bit," said Cloninger, reached at his home in Denver, N.C., where he now works as a real estate agent. "I miss the fellowship of the team, but baseball did not define me as a person. Sure, I wish I was still playing, but I moved on. There's so much more you can accomplish in life."

And Cloninger, 26, has already accomplished plenty in his post-baseball life. In addition to his real estate work, he also teaches martial arts and leads a group of friends annually to Mozambique, where they have installed an irrigation system and built water wells for a village. While there is an evangelical spirit to that effort, it's not done through any organized group or church.

"It's just me and a handful of people from Denver," said Cloninger. "We do it by ourselves. It's really rewarding."

And Cloninger hasn't completely abandoned baseball. Somehow he also finds time to coach his younger brother Ryan's 15-year-old AAU travel team. Don't expect him to follow his grandfather's footsteps up the coaching ranks though.

"That's about all I want," said Cloninger. "I'll coach until my brother is finished, after that I'm done."

Life may be taking Cloninger away from the diamond, but he'll always cherish the time he spent in the Sox system.

"I was happy with what I attained and accomplished," said Cloninger, who batted .217 over two seasons with short-season Lowell and Class A Augusta. "I didn't have the best minor-league career, but I gave it all I had, every ounce I had. I worked my butt off, played hurt. The Red Sox liked my work ethic, but some guys just got more, you know what I mean?"

The Sox got everything Cloninger had as a player, and they're still getting everything he has now - as a converted diehard.

"I'm a Red Sox fan until the day I die," proclaimed Cloninger. "I would not have wanted to be drafted by any other team. ... I never had a set team that I really followed growing up. Being picked by the Red Sox, now I'll always have a team to root for."

Cloninger still keeps in touch with many of his ex-teammates from the minors, and even some major leaguers, as he visits fellow North Carolina native Trot Nixon every year.

"That's what I miss, being with those guys," said Cloninger. "The guys were so cool. That was tough leaving."

The 2003 draft has helped forge many longterm relationships - between teammates, and even with the boss.

"Theo and I have a great relationship," said Papelbon. "Obviously, a player and a general manager aren't going to agree on every last little bit. That comes with the territory. But I have nothing but respect for him and what he's done. Hopefully, we can have a good relationship for a long, long time here together."

That would be the ultimate legacy of the GM's first foray into the draft.