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Swinging for the fences: Red Sox go for big power tools with top draft picks

by: Alex Speier on Fri, 06/06/2014 - 8:53am

Infielder Michael Chavis had some of the best bat speed in the 2014 draft. (AP)This is what it means to go for upside. 

For the first time since 2002 (when the team struck it big with Jon Lester and then whiffed with Scott White), the Red Sox used each of their first two draft picks on high school players. With the first-round selections of infielder Michael Chavis and right-hander Michael Kopech, the team acquired players with the sort of defining upside tools that it almost never sees when picking (as the Sox do in most years) toward the back end of the first round. 

Chavis is an infielder with what the Sox saw as uncommon power potential. Kopech, meanwhile, has the sort of elite fastball that rarely gets beyond the upper half of the first round. The upside possibility with both players was such that an organization that had in the recent past almost invariably followed a top high school pick with less risky college picks decided to swing big with back-to-back selections. 

With their third and final pick of the draft's first day, the Sox selected another player with considerable power potential -- though this time at the college level -- in Indiana University first baseman Sam Travis. 

A brief look at the selections:

MICHAEL CHAVIS, SS -- SPRAYBERRY HS (GA.)

FIRST ROUND, NO. 26 OVERALL

5-FOOT-10, 190 POUNDS

BATS RIGHT, THROWS RIGHT

A year ago, the Red Sox were ready to pounce if Georgia high school outfielder Clint Frazier had fallen to them at the No. 7 overall pick in the draft, recognizing a player whose uncommon bat speed created the sort of power potential that is almost never available where the team typically makes its first pick in the draft. While Frazier was snapped up, he offered a sort of frame of reference as the team scouted Chavis this year. 

"I had the opportunity to see Frazier last year here in the area and phenomenal bat speed. Then I got to see Michael and it was an even quieter approach with his hands, bat path to the ball. It was a short, quick stroke. You just don't see that every day. It stood out for me," said one evaluator of Chavis. "That was really the first thing I noticed. You see it two years in a row and I had something to compare it to and you sit there and say, 'Wow. This kid is a pretty good player.'

"[Chavis is] very close [in a power grade to Frazier]," added the evaluator. "He's got power. It's one of those things where he played in a decent size high school park, and raw power, he hits them as far as anybody. That's going to be part of his game, without a doubt. He can use the whole field. He'll hit balls to right, he'll hit balls to center, he'll hit balls to left, and that's what makes him a good player as well. He's got power to all fields."

Two other evaluators raved about Chavis' "serious bat speed," suggesting that he has well above-average easy raw power. That, in turn, creates at least a glimmer of possibility that the Red Sox could find their way to the type of prospect who has been somewhat elusive in recent decades. 

The scarcity of right-handed power hitters has been very much a thing in baseball circles. Teams have simply found it incredibly challenging to draft and develop right-handed mashers, and the Sox are no different. 

There have been 84 right-handed hitters who have launched 30 or more homers in a season since 2000, 65 of whom have been taken in the draft. Three of those players started their careers with the Red Sox -- Hanley Ramirez was an international signee, Jeff Bagwell was taken in the fourth round of the 1989 draft (and infamously traded to the Astros) and Ellis Burks was a January first-round selection in 1983. 

The last time the Sox drafted and signed a right-handed hitter who ended up launching 30 homers in a season? That would be Nomar Garciaparra (who last launched 30-plus homers in a year in 1998) in 1994. 

While that might sound like a scouting deficiency, the reality is that the Sox are one of many teams that has found it difficult to procure right-handed power through the draft. (Indeed, the team's commitment to Will Middlebrooks reflects in part of a recognition of what a rare power-hitting commodity he possesses.)

Just 27 right-handed hitters drafted in 2000 or later have had as many as 30 homers in one major league season. There are more teams that have *not* drafted a 30-homer right-handed hitter since 2000 (16, with the Red Sox among them) than teams that have (14). 

And given that, with the exception of 2013, the Red Sox have found themselves picking in the 20s and 30s in most years, the challenge of drafting power has been even greater. Of the 65 drafted players who hit 30 or more homers since 2000, 21 went in the top 19 picks; after that, as many 30-homer right-handed hitters were found between picks 21 and 40 as after pick No. 500, well over a dozen rounds into the draft. 

The Sox hope Chavis might thus represent a player of uncommon ability and profile. In 28 games as a high school senior -- most of which were attended by the Sox, whose scouting effort was led by Georgia area scout Brian Moehler -- Chavis hit .580 with a .663 OBP, a 1.197 slugging mark, 13 homers, 14 walks and just 10 strikeouts.  Conversations among scouts who attended his games would drift to how unusual it was to see a player of Chavis' stature who could generate his kind of bat speed, with names like Jeff Bagwell and Kirby Puckett getting bandied about as examples of players who, while standing at less than 6 feet, could put a tremendous charge into a ball. 

“Growing up, I always have hit home runs. I didn’t realize that I was quote-unquote undersized,” Chavis said. “Being 5-11, 6-foot, that's always been a major part of my game. Hopefully it will just continue as a part in professional baseball.”

While Chavis played short in high school and showed athleticism at that position, he is expected to move as a professional. The 18-year-old said that he'd talked with the Sox about playing either second or third base, with one evaluator suggesting that he had the defensive actions to look like a very good defensive third baseman. 

Chavis spoke of his excitement to be in the same organization as Dustin Pedroia -- and in some ways, his enthusiasm for the Sox second baseman offers a basis for understanding Chavis' own playing style, which was described as a full-throttle, max effort approach ("It's something that you don't see every day," said an evaluator) by a player who sprints on and off the field. 

"How [Pedroia] plays and goes about the game is incredible," Chavis said. "That's what I think some people are missing nowadays in baseball, is that they kind of play lackadaisical and they're kind of relaxed. I like how he plays 100 percent and plays as hard as he can every single play of the game."

MICHAEL KOPECH, RHP -- MOUNT PLEASANT HS (TEXAS)

FIRST ROUND, NO. 33 OVERALL

6-FOOT-4, 195 POUNDS

Kopech may be the hardest-throwing high school pitcher the Red Sox have drafted under the current ownership regime (dating to 2002). The rocket-armed Texas right-hander regularly was up to 98 mph, sitting at 93-95 mph, in almost every outing of the year, with the Sox attending virtually every one of his starts (an effort anchored by area scout Tim Collinsworth and associate scout Jay Oliver). 

He put up the sort of Nintendo numbers that dominant high school pitchers often will post. Chavis went 3-0 with a 0.44 ERA and .115 opponents' batting average, allowing just four earned runs on 25 hits (with 18 walks) while punching out 129 (18.1 per nine innings) in 64 frames. Unsurprisingly, he overmatched his opponents in his high school schedule, but he showed similar dominance on the scouting showcase circuit, most notably when he punched out three elite prospects (No. 6 overall pick Alex Jackson and second-rounders Monte Harrison and Michael Gettys) in an inning of work in the Under Armour All-American Game at Wrigley Field. 

Kopech has been seen quite a bit by scouts dating to his sophomore year. He filled out gradually throughout high school, but the still-lanky right-hander still has plenty more room to add strength in a fashion that could permit him to get to the upper end of his velocity more frequently. 

"The thing that really stood out then was the frame he had, the present arm strength he was showing when he was 15 or 16," noted Red Sox cross-checker Jim Robinson. "As we kept following him, he just got better and better and better.

"He's really grown into his body. He's tall and strong, more on probably the leaner side, but he's very strong and very athletic," added Robinson. "He's got a really, really good arm. We're really thrilled to get him. He has a chance to be a really hard thrower."

In high school, he featured a four-pitch mix (fastball, curveball, slider, changeup, with the curveball and slider often running into each other but the potential for a good power slider evident), but the signature was and is his velocity.

"He's got a hell of an arm. Special arm. I don't know that I've ever scouted someone who's had this kind of arm strength," said one evaluator. "This guy can long toss from foul pole to foul pole before the game -- without a problem, without a crow hop. It's special. It's a special, elite type of arm."

The Sox are confident that, even though he didn't need it in high school, he has the makings of a changeup and the frame to handle the kind of workload to give him the potential to be a starter -- with the sort of velocity to give him premium upside, though with the caveat that as a high schooler who hasn't truly had to develop his secondary arsenal, he's light years away from such a projection. 

SAM TRAVIS, 1B -- INDIANA UNIVERSITY

SECOND ROUND, NO. 67 OVERALL

6-FOOT-0, 210 POUNDS

BATS RIGHT, THROWS RIGHT

Travis represents another masher, someone who was a middle-of-the-order power hitter during all three of his college seasons -- including a sophomore campaign in which he managed to hit .316/.419/.545 with 10 homers in 65 games despite playing through a broken hamate for part of the year. He followed that up with a junior year in which he was Big Ten Player of the Year as well as a second-team All-American. 

His approach is advanced, as suggested by the fact that he walked nearly as much (93 times) as he struck out in college (94 times). While he represents a profile -- the slugging first baseman -- on whom the Sox have rarely used an early pick, the power potential was too intriguing to ignore for the Sox. 

Chavis and Travis, noted one evaluator, "both have plus raw power. Both will hammer balls onto the parking lot across Lansdowne Street."