|The one that missed: Sox release former first-round pick||04.03.11 at 9:08 am ET|
ARLINGTON, Texas — By and large, the Red Sox have done extremely well with their top draft picks under the current front office. Virtually every top pick has yielded meaningful value for the club, whether by reaching the major leagues or through a trade. The 2002 draft yielded Jon Lester with the Sox’ first pick; 2003 yielded a pair of eventual trade chips in David Murphy and Matt Murton; 2004 gave Boston Dustin Pedroia; one year later, the team grabbed Jacoby Ellsbury. The top picks in the 2007-09 drafts (2007 top pick Nick Hagadone was a key to the Victor Martinez deal with the Indians; 2008 and 2009 first rounders Casey Kelly and Reymond Fuentes were both in the Adrian Gonzalez deal) all helped deliver impact talent to the Sox.
But there’s one outlier. On Saturday, the Red Sox released 2006 first round pick Jason Place. The outfielder — a two-sport star in high school — was drafted out of South Carolina by the Sox with the No. 27 overall pick that year. His across-the-board skill set earned comparisons to Trot Nixon. The Sox were at a point in their farm system where they wanted to aim high and go for impact players; Place’s tools made him a player about whom the Sox could dream big.
And even now, in hindsight, it’s not that difficult to understand what the Sox saw in him.
Daniel Bard — whom the Sox drafted one pick after Place, with the No. 28 overall pick in 2006 — played with the outfielder in Greenville in 2007. Place was playing essentially in his home town following a very solid debut in pro ball in 2006, hitting .292 with a .386 OBP, .442 slugging mark and four homers in the Gulf Coast League. There were aspects of Place’s game as a 19-year-old that were simply different from his peers of the same age.
“There’s a big building in left field in Greenville – an apartment or warehouse building. It’s huge, four stories or five stories high,” recalled Bard. “It covered all the way from the left field line almost all the way to center field. If you really got a hold of one, you could put it on top of the building. He used to hit them up there pretty consistently in batting practice.
“In practice, he’s a five-tool guy, if that makes any sense,” Bard continued. “He can run; big, strong kid; took the most impressive round of batting practice you’ll ever see – an impressive big league batting practice as far as he could hit the ball and stuff; always played really good defense – that translated to the game – always played hard out there with a plus arm, would run into a wall for you.”
The natural gifts were obvious. But…
“The old breaking ball got him, I guess,” said Bard. “He couldn’t hit it consistently enough.”
Place’s swing had a hitch that the Sox thought could be ironed out with instruction when they drafted him. They were willing to take a chance on a player with a flaw because, without it, a player with his potential upside wouldn’t have been available at that position in the draft.
The Sox anticipated that Place would struggle early in his pro career, but thought that over time, he would be able to put his talents together to become a potential impact big leaguer. But despite Place’s best, tireless efforts to iron out his swing, it never happened. Place struck out so much that his prodigious power didn’t have a chance to play. That led to immense frustration and a constant search in his approach. He hit .214 with a .657 OPS in Greenville in ’07, .246 with a .752 OPS in Lancaster in ’08; and .253 with a .719 OPS while splitting time between Hi-A Salem and Double-A Portland in ’09.
The situation began to grind on Place. In 2010, after a dismal start in Portland (.127 with a .491 OPS), the outfielder and the Sox decided that he should spend some time away from the game to clear his head and sort out his future. He decided to return a couple months later, but in 13 games, he struck out 19 times in 40 at-bats against Rookie Level and Hi-A competition.
With the Sox farm system increasingly crowded with athletic outfielders, the window for Place had closed. And so, he was released coming out of spring training, offering something of a cautionary tale about the challenges of the draft.
“There’s only so much research you can do to see how a guy’s going to fare with everything in pro ball,” noted Bard.
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