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The Red Sox' mastery in June paid off when they made December's biggest trade (so far)

Last Saturday, as members of baseball's deal-making class were packing for Orlando, the Red Sox and the Padres agreed to a trade that sent slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to Boston in exchange for three top prospects. At first glance the deal felt too good to be true, a rare win-win swap. Boston got the power bat it needs; San Diego got elite young talent in exchange for a star they were certain to lose to free agency after the 2011 season.

It almost was too good to be true: There were reports on Sunday that the trade had fallen through because the team and Gonzalez failed to agree on a contract extension. But the Red Sox introduced their new first baseman the next day (no extension was announced), and when the dust settled, the swap was the latest reminder that Boston is an organization operating at high efficiency.

The Red Sox were in a position to make such a deal because of how well they've used their draft picks in recent years. The team's first couple of drafts under G.M. Theo Epstein, who took over before the 2003 season, were heavy on low-impact college talent. Since those early years the Sox have de-emphasized any particular category of players and better integrated statistics and scouting—and in doing so, upgraded the talent level in their system. Righthander Casey Kelly (the No. 24 prospect in the game, according to Baseball America), first baseman Anthony Rizzo and centerfielder Reymond Fuentes—the price they paid for Gonzalez—were all high school draftees. Kelly and Fuentes were taken late in the first round, often a difficult place to find impact talent.

The Sox have gotten around this problem by using their deep pockets to acquire hard-to-sign amateur players. Kelly, the 30th pick in the 2008 draft, received a $3 million bonus, more than all but seven first-round picks received that year. The Sox have also played the free-agent game well, letting veteran stars walk away and gathering compensatory draft picks in return. Since 2005 the Sox have had 17 picks in the first and supplemental first rounds of the draft. Starter Clay Buchholz and reliever Daniel Bard, two key contributors to last year's team, were selected with compensation picks for the loss of free agents Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon. In 2009 the Sox used two pitchers they had taken with compensatory draft picks, Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price, to trade for Victor Martinez—who will now bring back two more picks in the draft after signing with the Tigers as a free agent. (Boston will get two more 2011 picks for third baseman Adrian Beltre, who is expected to sign elsewhere as a free agent.)

That cycle—turning players into draft picks into prospects into players, sprinkling in money as needed—is why the Red Sox have, in less than 10 years, gone from a dysfunctional franchise to a model one. Whatever criticism may be leveled at Epstein for his work in the free-agent market, where the Red Sox have often spent too much and gotten too little, his draft pick management, and the freedom it gives him to trade, deserves praise.



MONEY! Epstein's big investment in Kelly (below) paid off with a healthy return when the G.M. welcomed Gonzalez.



[See caption above]