Here’s something that Yankee fans can’t say about their team: the Royals have drafted in the top half of the first round every year since 1996. (So there.) Unfortunately, drafting that early is hardly a guarantee you’ll land a great player. It’s drafting guys like Dee Brown (#14, 1996), Dan Reichert (#7, 1997), Jeff Austin (#4, 1998), Kyle Snyder (#7, 1999), Mike Stodolka (#4, 2000), and Colt Griffin (#9, 2001) that led to the Royals continuing to pick early in the first round.
(Take a look at that list of players again. Six straight years with Top-15 picks, the last five picks in the Top 10. Two of those guys never made the majors – Stodolka still might, but as a hitter now. Snyder might be the best pick of them all; he’s 8-17 with a 5.45 career ERA. And you wonder how the Royals lost 100 games three straight years.)
But since 2002, the Royals have drafted Zack Greinke (#6, 2002), Chris Lubanski (#5, 2003), Billy Butler (#14, 2004), Alex Gordon (#2, 2005), Luke Hochevar (#1, 2006), and Mike Moustakas (#2, 2007). Lubanski might still be a flop, and it’s too early to say much about Hochevar and Moustakas. But the other three guys alone make this run of first-round picks a success. So with the #3 overall pick this June, with guys like Pedro Alvarez and Justin Smoak available from the college ranks, and Tim Beckham and Tim Melville out of high school, the Royals are in perfect position to add another Grade A prospect to their stable.
For all the talk about competitive imbalance in baseball, the reality is that the draft remains an incredibly powerful tool to reversing that imbalance…so long as that tool is used wisely. The Rays are proof that, if you draft with even some intelligence, eventually all that sucking is going to work in your favor. It’s not just that the Rays have drafted in the Top 8 for nine straight years, and have used those picks to draft Rocco Baldelli, B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Evan Longoria, and David Price (not to mention Josh Hamilton, and there’s still hope for Jeff Niemann.) It’s that, drafting at the very top of the second round, they got first crack at the leftovers, and came away with Carl Crawford and top prospect Reid Brignac. In the third round, they got Wade Davis, and that round would look a lot better if 1) Elijah Dukes wasn’t a misogynistic, violent creep with a temper problem and 2) if they had signed Andrew Miller out of high school in 2003. Throw in 2004 fifth-rounder Jacob McGee, and five of the top six prospects in the best farm system in baseball are in this paragraph.
But you have to draft well. The Royals didn’t for many years, and they’re still trying to pick their way through the rubble. From 1994 to 2002, the Pirates drafted Mark Farris, Chad Hermansen, Kris Benson (#1 overall pick), J.J. Davis, Clint Johnston, Bobby Bradley, Sean Burnett, John Van Benschoten (who they, alone among the 30 teams, decided to use as a pitcher after he led the NCAA in homers his junior year), and Brian Bullington (another #1 pick, who their owner forced them to take over B.J. Upton.) That’s how you continue to pick at the top of the draft every year. GM Dave Littlefield didn’t seem to learn, as he used last summer’s #4 overall pick on Daniel Moskos, a perfectly good college left-handed pitcher – a left-handed reliever. To the relief of Pirate fans everywhere, that final insult seemed to be, well, the final insult: Littlefield was canned not long thereafter.
The Royals’ draft efforts from 1996 to 2001 are the reason why the Royals continued to draft high from 2002 to 2008. But the draft efforts from 2002 to 2008 may enable this cycle to finally end.
Last year’s draft, the first one with Dayton Moore at the helm, looks very strong at this point. Moustakas looks like a good pick in the first round, albeit he’s not Rick Porcello. Second-rounder Sean Runion had a decent debut for a projectable high school pitcher, and third-rounder Daniel Duffy, a lefty out of a small
The Royals need to keep the strong drafts coming, because there’s simply no way a small-market franchise can become a contender without a perpetual supply of young talent. To their credit, the team (or more precisely, the owner) finally realizes that, and has authorized money to be spent both in the draft and in the international amateur market. The Royals can’t afford to waste the #3 pick this June. If they don’t, there’s a good shot it will be the last time they draft that high in a long time.***
Just a heads-up: RotR will be going dark for a few days. I should be leaving shortly for Indianapolis, where I will be appearing with Joe Sheehan and Will Carroll from Baseball Prospectus, and John Gasaway from our new Basketball Prospectus, at the Marriott downtown; come out if you live in the area. Then this weekend Joe and I will be playing in a Stratomatic tournament in Indy. Yes, I'm a geek.