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Brandon Laird isn't the normal 27th round pick
Unlike the drafts of most major sports, the baseball draft doesn't always go according to the players with the most potential. Inevitably, players fall in the draft because of signability concerns, particular representation, or for a myriad of other reasons. In the case of Brandon Laird however, nobody is exactly sure how he fell so far.
The Yankees have rebuilt their farm system over the last couple of years, thanks in large part to drafting first-round talents that had slipped to them, in particular the selection of eighth round pick Austin Jackson in 2005 and eighth round pick Dellin Betances in 2006.
While New York was ecstatic to nab both high-ceiling players so late in those drafts, it's fair to say the Yankees are already feeling they got quite a steal in the 27th round this year when they picked up Brandon Laird.
He had all the amateur accolades in high school - being named to the first team all-league, first team all-CIF [California Interscholastic Federation], a second team all-American selection, the league's Most Valuable Player, and the Orange County Player of the Year.
He also had the distinction of coming from a high-profile baseball program at La Quinta High School, one that had already developed current big leaguers such as Oakland A's shortstop Bobby Crosby, Colorado Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart, and New York Yankees pitcher Ian Kennedy.
Laird also had bloodlines working in his favor. His brother, Gerald Laird, was originally drafted in the second round of the 1998 draft by the Oakland A's and is currently the starting catcher for the Texas Rangers, and is also a fellow La Quinta High School and Cypress College alum.
How about college stats? He led Cypress College in hits  in his freshman year, hitting .341 for the Chargers before following it up with a .392 average in his sophomore campaign that saw him lead the club in home runs , doubles , slugging percentage [.672] and several other categories in just 204 at-bats.
So how did a player with all the numbers, recognition, bloodlines, and being a product of two successful baseball programs, fall so far in the draft?
"Good question," said Yankees' scouting director Damon Oppenheimer. "Obviously we're very pleased with what we got and what we've seen. The kid can hit. He's got an uncanny ability to swing the bat. I really don't know why he slipped as far as he did.
"Our area scout, David Keith, just told me 'there's not a lot of people on this guy.' There's people who don't know what position he is, they're concerned about where he's going to play. Dave Keith did a nice job promoting him to us and we were able to get him signed fairly quick."
Receiving scholarship offers from both Arizona State University and Louisiana State University might have scared off prospective suitors. Or maybe with his brother being represented by Scott Boras [who Brandon ultimately signed with] was too much of a headache for some organizations.
Perhaps it was the fact that scouts were burned by him when he chose to opt for college instead of signing with the Cleveland Indians out of high school when they drafted him the 27th round back in 2005.
"He had turned down some money the year before from the Indians," Cypress head coach Scott Pickler revealed. "The Indians had made him an offer and he said 'no, I'm going back to school.' I'm sure with the money his brother got, and this kid has some pride, [he probably] said 'I can hit with my brother so why am I not getting the same that he got.' I think that had something to do with it."
Laird's high school coach, Dave Demarest, seems to side with Oppenheimer, speculating that Laird had developed a reputation as just a hitter.
"You'd have to talk to the scouts," said Demarest. "I think their biggest fear was, 'if he doesn't swing the bat, what do we have here?"
Considered an all stick, no glove type by scouts prior to the draft, Laird's college coach has a hard time figuring out how that reputation ever developed.
"It got better," Coach Pickler said of his defensive game. "He got very good at the slow roller play, very good reaction. That was the knock on him. People said he was a step slow to play third base but I never saw that.
"He can play [third]. He's got a very strong arm. He pitched for us a little bit. I didn't have any qualms with his defense at third base, I thought he was very good."
While he did pile up seven errors in 45 games with the Gulf Coast League Yankees this past season, after committing six errors in his first 22 games, he made some adjustments and was charged with just one more in his final 23 games.
"I think it is a yet to be determined thing," Oppenheimer said of where he will eventually play in the field. "I don't think we saw any reason when we had him in the Gulf Coast League this year why he can't be a third baseman.
"Obviously, like with anybody else, it'll take some work, some perseverance, and doing the right thing, but he's got ability, nice hands, can throw plenty - there's no reason why he can't play third."
While the Yankees and all of his former coaches believe he has the ability to stick at the hot corner at the professional level, and with his defense being sort of a question mark among the other scouts that had passed on him 26 times each, the one thing that can't be questioned is Laird's offensive potential.
Considering he has hit at every level he has ever played, including leading the Gulf Coast League Yankees and finishing fifth in the entire league with a .339 average in his professional debut season, everybody that has ever been around Laird seems quite sold he will continue to hit no matter where he plays.
"I've had thirteen guys make it to the big leagues out of our program," said coach Pickler. "I've had quite a few good players. He's right up there with all of them. His production for us last year - I thought he was the best hitter in our league by a long shot and our league's pretty good. He can hit with anybody."
"I think he's got a chance, there's no doubt. He's going to hit at any level he goes to - I really do think that. There hasn't been a level yet where they've proven he can't hit."
Coach Demarest paints a bit clearer picture of Laird's potent bat. Having coached both he and Ian Stewart - a first round pick and tenth overall selection of the Colorado Rockies back in 2003 who owns a .295 career minor league average - he contends there isn't much difference offensively between his two former players.
"One's left-handed and one's right-handed," he quickly summized. "I would say Ian Stewart runs better. Defensively I think they are pretty similar. They are a lot alike except Brandon swings it from the right side.
"I think both call play all four corner positions and neither is going to play in center, short, or second. They're both probably 6-foot-2 but Ian's probably a little thinner, that's it."
"Just in the tradition of La Quinta [High School], with Bobby Crosby, Ian Stewart - Brandon is right there. In fact the school has four numbers retired, those four guys in the big leagues. Brandon will probably be the next guy if he ever made the big leagues."
While the comparison to Ian Stewart seems quite logical since both came from the same high school and both play the same position, considering they share the same blood and the same last name, it's hard not to see how he stacks up against his brother Gerald, a former second round pick himself.
"Brandon comes from a baseball school, a baseball family, yet he's a kid that kind of has set his own identity," said Demarest. "He's one of those guys that didn't bother following in his brother's footsteps.
"Gerald is a finesse guy who catches and Brandon is a big, strong guy who is a power guy, so they really are two different people in the field. He didn't have to follow Gerald's footsteps."
Coach Pickler also realizes the two brothers are very much different on the field, but at the plate, he can't help but wonder how scouts felt twenty-five rounds separated them.
"I thought when Brandon played for us and when Gerald played for us, and I know Gerald went in the second round, I thought Brandon could hit right with him," said the Cypress College coach. "At that level, they were equal hitting-wise."
Showing an ability to hit since he was young, what coach Pickler loves about Laird's game is how receptive he is to receive coaching and make adjustments, a very good sign of his mental makeup.
"He played for us as a freshman and came in as the Orange County Player of the Year," said Pickler. "He struggled a little bit for us in his first year in league, not in preseason, and he really made a great adjustment as a sophomore.
"We would do some hitting drills where we put some cones in the middle of the diamond between the six hole and the four hole, and he was smoking balls up the middle. As a freshman he came in trying to do too much and really stayed with that [up the middle approach] the whole year, hitting balls to center and right, instead of trying to pull everything. That was the biggest adjustment.
"He's always been a good baseball player but he learned to use the entire field. I've had other guys say they're going to do that, or guys try to do that and do that in practice and can't carry it over into the games, but he did."
Showing he can make adjustments is another tool in his bag, but Laird's high school coach believes his biggest tool has been sorely overlooked by many, and it might be the most important one.
"I don't think Brandon has ever lost in his life," said Demarest. "I don't mean finishing in the middle of the pack either. If you want to label a winner, the guy, I don't know if he's ever lost in anything when it comes to baseball.
"Whatever he walks on, whether it's his youth league, La Quinta - I think his four year record at La Quinta was 115-12 or something and we won four championships. Then he goes Team USA Youth and they win the Gold Medal. He wins on the Junior National Team, he wins at Cypress and got to the state final, and then he goes to the Gulf Coast League Yankees and they win the championship.
"That's kind of a hidden tool because wherever he goes, they win. That's not by accident after a while. He's just one of those guys that's got it. After a while you ask if he's just lucky to be on good teams or is there a common denominator and he's it. I don't want to say that's going to move him along in an organization. Just like I would say with Bobby Crosby with Oakland though, he just makes people around him better."
While his former coaches find it hard to believe a kid with so much in his corner could fall as hard as he did in the draft, and with the Yankees not believing their luck in snagging him that far down, nobody was more surprised with his precipitous fall than Brandon Laird himself.
"Yeah it was actually surprising," Laird admitted about falling all the way to the 27th round. "I just wanted to get drafted though. I wanted to sign. I could have gone to Arizona State but I wanted to sign. I knew I was going to go out there and perform, that's all I had to do. I'm glad I went out there and did what I did and shocked some people. They're calling me the steal of the draft."
Putting his draft status behind him, all Laird did was go out and continue to do what he had been doing all of his life - play ball and succeed.
"Brandon came in from the draft and right away - there's guys that are just hitters - and Brandon Laird is a hitter," said GCL Yankees manager Jody Reed. "He's going to hit no matter what level he's at because he just has a real good feel on how to do it. The thing he needs to work the most on is his defense. If that comes around, he's going to be a player to watch out for."
Reed was quite pleased with Laird's defensive progress, pointing to the mental leap he made in his mind when he learned the importance and value of playing solid defense.
"You give them some technique, show them how to go out there and focus on it, and once he did that - he's an intelligent kid and he knows how to play the game - and once you bring that awareness to a kid like that, they go out there and develop very quickly as he did," said Reed.
As stunning as it was for Brandon Laird - a player beloved by his coaches from two very successful programs, comparable to current big league players at similar stages in their careers, related to another big leaguer, who has done nothing but put up numbers his entire life, and now already impressing his current employers - to fall as far as he did in the draft, the point is now moot while wearing pinstripes.
"I don't really pay attention to where they are drafted, I don't even know where they were drafted," Reed added. "I really don't even care because once they come in, they're all on the same playing field. They've got to play baseball and do what they're capable of. 27th round? Okay, maybe we have a diamond in the rough there."