Thursday, March 25, 2010

Prospect Rundown, Part 6.

Let’s finish off this prospect review before any more of them retire…

As an update to the last post: I had mentioned that prior to Tim Melville, the Royals only had two non-first-round picks signed to million-dollar bonuses going back to Bo Jackson, namely Derrick Robinson and Roscoe Crosby. I have been reminded that the Royals gave Luis Cota, their 10th round pick in 2003, $1 million to sign. Cota’s case was a little different, in that he was a draft-and-follow who didn’t sign that summer, but went to community college in Arizona and showed first-round talent on the mound. The Royals controlled his rights until one week before the 2004 draft, and ponied up the cash to sign him.

In Cota’s case, the Royals didn’t draft him with the intent of giving him big money to sign, so it’s not an exact parallel to the draft phenomenon I discussed last time. But he warrants mention. (Cota briefly impressed scouts with his fastball in the Midwest League before his shoulder exploded; he’s still trying to work his way back and I think he’s still part of the organization, but his future looks bleak.)

To continue…while Melville is emblematic of the Royals’ new aggressive approach to the draft, he’s emblematic of another trend as well. The Royals were able to gauge his signability in part because he was a local. I’m using the term “local” generously here; Wentzville, Missouri is maybe half an hour west of St. Louis. But even by an expanded definition of “local”, the Royals have a disturbing history of passing on local talent, even as many local products have gone on to have fine major league careers.

Let’s define “local” as broadly as possible – as any player selected in a six-state area: Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. In 1988, the Royals used their 1st-round pick on Hugh Walker, an ath-a-lete from an Arkansas high school who, alas, didn’t actually know how to hit. The Royals did a lot of that back in the late 1980s; presumably their success with Bo Jackson emboldened the franchise into thinking they could turn track stars into superstars, and never mind that Bo was actually a very productive collegiate hitter at Auburn.

The failure of Walker, in turn, might have cooled the Royals’ feelings towards local players. Probably not, but for whatever reason the Royals hardly ever drafted a local player with a high pick in the years to come. In 2005, the Royals selected Alex Gordon out of the University of Nebraska – a pick that was a no-doubt dead-cinch-lock pick that almost every team in baseball would have made with the #2 selection.

In the 17 drafts in between, from 1989 through 2004, the Royals selected only three players out of that six-state area in the first seven rounds of the draft. Interestingly, all three players made the majors, and at least one would have become a star in a kinder, gentler universe.

That would have been Jamie Bluma, who was the closer for Wichita State back when the Shockers were perennially contenders for the national championship. Bluma was taken in the 3rd round in 1994 as an almost-major-league-ready college senior; he was in Triple-A within a year, and in the majors the year after that, never posting an ERA higher than 3.12 along the way. He debuted in the majors on August 9th, 1996, and when Jeff Montgomery’s season ended with arm soreness on September 1st, Bluma took over as the team’s closer, saving all five of his opportunities. In 20 innings, he allowed just 18 hits and 4 walks, striking out 14. He was in place to be Montgomery’s set-up man the following year, and Monty’s presumed successor in the closer’s role.

And then he was hit by the curse – “curse” sounds nicer than “Gene Stephenson destroyed his arm” – that afflicted almost every high-profile WSU pitcher of that era. (Tyler Green. Darren Dreifort. Mike Drumright.) Bluma was found to have a torn rotator cuff the following spring. He missed all of 1997, pitched three lousy seasons in the minors from 1998 to 2000, and then retired without ever pitching in the majors again.

If you were to put together a list of the 10 most significant injuries in Royals history, I think Bluma has to be on the list. Montgomery started to lose his effectiveness in 1997, was a liability in 1998, and a disaster in 1999 – the year the Royals had what I have previously argued was the worst bullpen of all time. Bluma didn’t really project as a Grade A closer, but at the very least he would have given the Royals some stability in that role in the late 1990s. With Bluma, the Royals wouldn’t have felt pressured to trade for a closer, and might have traded Johnny Damon for someone who was actually valuable instead of Roberto Hernandez. They might not have spent millions on Ricky Bottalico. The turn-of-the-century Royals might have been prevented from doing a lot of dumb things had Bluma not been hurt.

Then in 1999, the Royals selected two local players with early picks. Their second-round selection was Wes Obermueller, a pitcher out of the University of Iowa. Obermueller was a converted outfielder with a live arm, and judging from his performance record might have been better served staying in the outfield. He reached the majors for a brief stint with the Royals in 2002, then was traded the following summer as partial payment for Curtis Leskanic when Allard Baird went all-in during the Summer of Fool’s Gold. (We really need a good nickname for the 2003 season.) Leskanic pitched very well for the Royals down the stretch, but his pitching earned his release the following summer; picked up by the Red Sox, he pitched well for them in a limited role, and then became the answer to a trivia question that October: “who was the winning pitcher the night Dave Roberts stole second base?”

Obermueller pitched three seasons in Milwaukee and another in Florida, and the lowest ERA of his career was 5.07. At the plate, he was a career .237 hitter, and was 15-for-39 in 2004.

In the fifth round, out of the University of Nebraska, the Royals selected Ken Harvey. We poke fun of Harvey a lot here in the blogosphere – and I’m still waiting for someone to put together a YouTube “greatest hits” compilation of Harvey’s most memorable plays – but he did play essentially two full seasons in the majors as a starting first baseman. In draft terms, you’re doing well if your fifth-round pick makes it to the majors. If you drafted a Ken Harvey in the fifth-round every year, that would win you some games.

The last quality player the Royals drafted from those six states was a true local; David Cone was drafted out of Rockhurst High in 1981. (Notice I didn’t use the term “All-Star” – Harvey was, incredibly, the Royals’ representative in 2004.) But it’s not because the Royals couldn’t find any star talent in their neighborhood; it’s because they didn’t even bother to try.

This wouldn’t be a big deal if there simply weren’t any major league players coming out of the Great Plains. But, of course, there were. Here’s just a sampling of local players – all drafted in the 4th round or later – from 1989 to 2004:

1989: Mike Oquist, U. of Arkansas, 13th Round*

1990: Mike Myers, Iowa State, 4th Round

1990: Mike Lansing, WSU, 6th Round

1990: Pat Meares, WSU, 12th Round

1992: Doug Mirabelli, WSU, 5th Round

1993: Bill Mueller, Missouri State, 15th Round

1995: A.J. Burnett, Central Arkansas Christian HS, 8th Round

1995: Ramon Vazquez, Indian Hills CC (IA), 27th Round

1996: Joe Crede, Fatima HS (MO), 5th Round

1996: Casey Blake, WSU, 7th Round

1996: Travis Hafner, Cowley County CC (KS), 31st Round

1996: Junior Spivey, Cowley County CC (KS), 36th Round

1998: Eric Hinske, U. of Arkansas, 17th Round

1998: Mark Buehrle, Francis Howell North HS (MO), 38th Round

1999: Nate Robertson, WSU, 5th Round

2000: Cliff Lee, U. of Arkansas, 4th Round

2000: Adam LaRoche, Seminole State College (OK), 29th Round

2001: Ryan Howard, Missouri State University, 5th Round

2001: Dan Johnson, U. of Nebraska, 7th Round

2002: Kyle McClellan, Hazelwood West HS (MO), 25th Round

2003: Ian Kinsler, U. of Missouri, 17th Round

2003: Brad Ziegler, Missouri State University, 20th Round

*: Oquist wasn’t all that good, but I list him here because he happened to sit down next to me on a plane as I returned from the 2003 SABR Conference in Denver back to Chicago – Oquist was returning to the Atlantic League after going home for the All-Star Break. He was incredibly gracious, and we had a very lovely conversation.

Notably left off this list is Albert Pujols, for the simple reason that including Pujols on a list of mere mortals would be an insult to his majesty. But let’s just remember that Pujols, who as a 13th-round pick in 1999 is inarguably the GREATEST LATE-ROUND STEAL IN DRAFT HISTORY, went to high school IN KANSAS CITY, and was drafted out of Maple Woods Community College IN KANSAS CITY, and while attending Maple Woods one of his roommates WORKED AT KAUFFMAN STADIUM.

That’s an impressive list of talent, particularly when you consider that we’re looking only at guys drafted in the 4th round or later. In particular, that’s a shocking amount of talent drafted in the late rounds (10th or later). Just using players from the 10th round and later, you could put together an infield of Pujols, Kinsler, Meares, and Mueller, put Hafner at DH, move Hinske and LaRoche in the outfield (or move Pujols out there), use Vazquez and Spivey as utility infielders, start Buehrle on the mound, and put McClellan and Ziegler in the bullpen.

The Royals drafted none of them.

I have no way of knowing without breaking down each region of the country the same way, but this strikes me as an incredible amount of major league talent that late in the draft, particularly for an area that’s not exactly known for being a baseball hotbed. This shouldn’t be surprising. Precisely because the area around Kansas City isn’t well-populated, and the quality of amateur baseball competition isn’t that high, it’s a lot harder to evaluate the major league potential of the non-elite prospects. Consequently, a lot of guys with big futures get buried in the late rounds.

Which makes the fact that the Royals didn’t focus their draft efforts in their own backyard for so long a criminal offense. The closest the Royals got to a late-round find in that span were two guys who just missed: Kit Pellow, a 22nd rounder in 1996 who briefly made the majors with the Royals and Rockies, and has since taken his all-or-nothing swing to leagues all over the world; and Ruben Gotay, a 31st round draft-and-follow out of Indian Hills CC in Iowa, who was the Royals’ starting baseman at the age of 21, and if his glove were a little better might still be a starting second baseman for someone today. And that’s it.

After Pujols, Ian Kinsler is one of the biggest out-of-nowhere college picks in the game today; he went from the 17th round to quality major leaguer inside of 3 years. You’d think the Royals would have had more looks at him coming out of Mizzou than other teams.

Almost half the guys listed above were drafted from three places: Wichita State, the University of Arkansas, and Missouri State (formerly Southwest Missouri State). There was a golden opportunity there for the Royals to out-scout their opponents for someone like Ryan Howard. Howard’s power wasn’t exactly a secret, but no one knew if he’d make contact consistently enough to be a major league threat. The Royals had the opportunity to make that assessment better. Another Missouri State grad, Shaun Marcum (who’s not listed above because he was a 3rd-round pick in 2003) also made the majors in short order. Meanwhile, the Royals haven’t drafted a player out of Missouri State in any round since 1993. (That year they took Bart Evans – who made the majors and briefly looked like a potential closer before suffering a serious ankle injury – in the 9th round.)

With Melville, the Royals finally took a flyer on a player from their own area. Just to prove that wasn’t a fluke, the Royals took Aaron Crow with their first-round pick last season. Crow was technically picked out of an independent league, but he went to Mizzou for three years and was drafted out of college by the Nationals the year before. He also grew up in Topeka and attended Washburn Rural there. I advocated that the Royals draft Grant Green with their pick last season, but I admire the fact that in Crow, the Royals took a player that they must have seen dozens of times in college. Their scouting dossier on him figures to be thicker – and presumably better – than most teams.

It’s not a coincidence that this new focus on home-grown talent started after Dayton Moore was named GM, because Moore is a product of the Braves’ front office, and the Braves are the most famous – and most successful – example of a team mining its own backyard for major-league talent. The Braves didn’t starting drafting out of Georgia in earnest until the year 2000. Prior to that, their most successful local pick was John Rocker, an 18th-rounder in 1993. (They also found Kevin Millwood out of neighboring North Carolina in the 11th round in 1994.) But here’s a list of all the Georgia picks from the first 6 rounds from 2000 through 2005:

2000: Adam Wainwright, high school, 1st Round

2000: Bryan Digby, high school, 2nd Round (did not reach majors)

2000: Blaine Boyer, high school, 3rd Round

2001: Macay Mcbride, high school 1st Round

2001: Josh Burrus, high school 1st Round (did not reach majors)

2001: Richard Lewis, Georgia Tech, supplemental 1st Round (did not reach majors)

2001: Kyle Davies, high school, 4th Round

2002: Jeff Francoeur, high school, 1st Round

2002: Brian McCann, high school, 2nd Round

2003: Paul Bacot, high school, 2nd Round (did not reach majors)

2004: Clint Sammons, U. of Georgia, 6th Round

2005: Will Startup, U. of Georgia, 5th Round (did not reach majors)

In 2006, which was the draft when Dayton Moore had one foot in Atlanta and one in Kansas City, the Braves took a pair of college pitchers from Georgia in the 2nd and 4th rounds. And in 2007 the masterpiece of this draft strategy was picked: Jason Heyward, one of the best hitting prospects of this decade, was selected by the Braves with the 14th overall pick.

Heyward was considered an elite talent – at the time Jim Callis of Baseball America declared him the steal of the first round – but he fell to the middle of the first round in large part because, playing against weak high school competition, he was pitched around so much that opposing scouts rarely got a chance to see him swing the bat. The Braves’ scouts, on the other hand, had been following him for years, and had seen enough repetitions to know what was hidden behind all those semi-intentional walks.

Last season, the Braves didn’t get around to drafting a home-state player until the 7th round, the latest they’ve waited to take a local product this decade. On the other hand, their first-round pick – Mike Minor, who most thought was a reach with the #7 overall pick – went to Vanderbilt; they drafted a kid from Florida in the 4th round; a kid from South Carolina in the 5th round; and a kid from Alabama in the 6th round. This is a strategy that is here to stay.

And it’s a strategy that has largely worked. Certainly, the Braves have made their share of mistakes, but they found a pair of stars in Wainwright and McCann, a pair of maddening but still talented players in Francoeur and Davies, some useful relievers in McBride and Boyer, and a potential superstar in Heyward. Given that only a third of these players were taken with first-round picks, and that the Braves were drafting at the end of each round most years, that’s a heck of a good job of drafting.

There isn’t as much talent in the Royals’ neighborhood as there is in the Braves’ neighborhood, and what talent there is has been much more likely to come out of college than out of high school. That’s not surprising; the Braves have taken advantage of the East Cobb Baseball organization, one of the best youth baseball organizations in the country, that has developed players into premium prospects by the time they’re 18, while players in Kansas and Missouri aren’t getting the playing time against other top talent they need to develop until they’re in college.

But the talent is there, and it’s high time the Royals take advantage of it. They’re going to miss on a few no matter what; already under Dayton Moore the Royals missed Derek Norris, who was drafted by the Nationals in the 4th round out of Goddard High School in Kansas in 2007. (Even growing up in Wichita, we thought of Goddard as the sticks.) Norris is now one of the best catching prospects in the game.

But you can’t win if you don’t play. The Royals are finally starting to play. In 2007, Moore’s first draft, the Royals took a signability player named Zach Kenyon out of an Iowa high school in the 9th round; Kenyon could not be persuaded to sign. In 2008, they took Melville. Then last year, they took Crow in the first round; a pitcher named Nicholas Wooley in the 12th round out of a small Missouri college named William Woods University; a toolsy high school outfielder out of an Oklahoma high school named Lane Adams in the 13th round; and in the 15th and 17th rounds the Royals took the starting keystone combination at the University of Arkansas, Scott Lyons and Benjamin Tschepikow.

Oh, and in the 7th round they drafted a Missouri State player for the first time in 16 years – a short lefty named George Baumann.

They’re going to miss on a few of these guys. (I just heard that Lyons and Tschepikow both retired in the last few days.) But when it comes to the draft, failure is the rule, and success the exception. Common sense dictates that success is more likely when you know more about the players you draft, and you ought to know more about the players in your own backyard. The Royals continue to common defy common sense in many other ways, but when it comes to looking for talent in the draft, credit Dayton Moore & Co. for putting common sense to good use.

Back with some short(er) comments on a few other players, and a final farm system wrap-up, soon.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Prospect Rundown, Part 5.

(So this is what I’ve become. What started as a simple post about Tim Melville is already approaching 3000 words. It’s not really about Melville at all at this point, but then, that’s usually what happens when I start an article with one topic in mind and end up rambling about another. So rather than provide fodder for those of you who like to mock the lengths of my posts (that would be, um, all of you), I’m splitting this into two parts. Which of course means that I’m the guy who needed to split an article about Tim Freaking Melville into two parts. Whatever. On with the show.)

The Royals have ten prospects that clearly stand out from the rest, and I’ve discussed seven of them – the two first-round hitters (Moustakas and Hosmer), the five lefties (Montgomery, Arguelles, Duffy, Lamb, and Dwyer), and their first two picks last year (Crow and Myers). That leaves only Tim Melville, but I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that he’s an afterthought. On the contrary, Melville is one of the organization’s most meaningful prospects, both in terms of his own talent and in terms of two positive organizational trends that he represents.

If, sometime in the not-too-distant future, The Process™ starts to work and the Royals become a perennial contender on the basis of a perennially productive farm system, we may identify the exact point at which the franchise started to turn itself around as the moment the Royals drafted Melville. Even in the moment, as I refreshed’s draft page on my iPhone while walking towards my daughter’s school play, I was stopped cold when Melville’s name popped out. His selection was, to that point, completely out of character for the organization, and the first real sign that – at least in terms of the farm system – Dayton Moore might live up to his promise.

See, the Royals drafted Melville in the 4th round. They drafted him in the 4th round even though, if players were drafted based purely on their ability and not on financial considerations, Melville wouldn’t have gotten out of the 1st. He was a high school right-hander out of a Missouri high school who could throw in the mid-90s with a terrific curveball, and prior to his senior year there was talk that he might be a Top-5 pick. His velocity dipped a little as a senior – there’s been a lot of talk that his high school coach altered his throwing motion to his detriment – but he still projected as at least a late-1st-round talent.

But he wanted mid-1st-round money to sign, and for some reason his money demands – which weren’t that egregious – caused him to fall in the draft. The further he fell, the more teams fretted that he wouldn’t sign, and pretty soon he was in that downward spiral where teams don’t want to waste a 2nd or 3rd round pick on a player that might not sign, even if he has 1st round talent. At that point, a prospect might well fall into the double-digit rounds, where some team will finally gamble on an “unsignable” player, perhaps using him as an insurance policy in case their own top picks don’t sign.

The Royals correctly gauged his signability, stopped his fall in the 4th round, and gave him $1.5 million to sign, which is only slightly more than slot money if he had been drafted where his talent had projected him. Melville wasn’t a loser – he got the money he wanted – but the Royals were definitely winners. They got arguably the best high school right-hander in the draft in the fourth round. In his first pro season last year, Melville was a little wild and raw (43 walks and 10 homers in 97 innings) but also showed true power stuff (96 Ks and a 3.79 ERA.) His fastball is usually in the 92-93 range but sometimes higher, and has great sinking action. His curveball is a potentially dominant pitch that drops straight down but is tough to control. In this fine article, J.J. Picollo compares him to Andy Benes, which is obviously optimistic but not completely insane.

You have to understand: before Melville, this stuff NEVER happened to the Royals. It was other teams, big-market teams, that benefited when top prospects slid in the draft for signability reasons.

But after Melville, well, it’s almost become commonplace. Last year, of course, the Royals drafted Aaron Crow, who was only available in the first place because he had rejected the Nationals’ contract offer after they had selected him with the #9 overall pick the year before. Crow got over $3 million guaranteed and a major-league contract to sign. The Royals didn’t have a second-round pick, but they drafted Wil Myers in the 3rd round and gave him mid-1st-round money; they then drafted Chris Dwyer in the 4th round and gave him late-1st-round money. Meanwhile, the money that might have been used on a 2nd-round pick was spent and then some on international free agents: Korean catcher Shin-Hin Jo ($600,000); Nicaraguan third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert ($1.35 million); and Noel Arguelles, the first Cuban defector the Royals have ever signed, to a 5-year, $6.9 million deal.

The Royals spent over $11 million in the 2008 draft, an all-time draft record at the time. Counting Arguelles, they spent more on amateur players in 2009 than they did in 2008. They’ve reached a point where Kevin Goldstein, in the process of ranking every organization in terms of their minor league talent, wrote of the Royals (who placed 10th), Some might even classify them as trailblazers when it comes to small-market teams spending big money in the later rounds, as it's still the best bargain in baseball.”

Analysts like myself have been saying this for years, as it’s one of the most obvious lessons in the game: the most cost-effective way to find talent is through the draft, and “overpaying” to draft elite talent is an investment that almost always pays off. One of the most aggravating things about being a Royals fan for the last 15 years – really, since Ewing Kauffman died – was that the Royals refused to acknowledge this very simple concept. The Royals decided to spend $2.7 million on Jeff Austin instead of $7 million on J.D. Drew. Starting in 2003 they drafted a bunch of college seniors starting in the 5th round and offered them $1,000 take-it-or-leave-it offers to save money.

As recently as three years ago, they spent $4 million on Mike Moustakas instead of $6 million on Matt Wieters or $7 million on Rick Porcello. In fairness, the decision to draft Moustakas instead of those guys is too complicated to break it down as simply a matter of money – there was a legitimate concern (albeit one I consider far-fetched) that Scott Boras simply wouldn’t let either Wieters or Porcello sign with the Royals.

Regardless, if the Royals did draft Moustakas in part to save money, it’s the last time they pinched pennies in the draft. The following year, they spent $6 million to sign Eric Hosmer; regardless of whether he was the right pick, he was certainly the most expensive pick the Royals could have made in that spot. They then spent well over slot money to sign Melville in the 4th round. Last summer, they gave Aaron Crow a major-league contract to sign, and he looked so good in spring camp that he might be the first starter the Royals call up this season if a need arises. They gave millions to Myers and Dwyer, and Myers already looks like he’ll justify the money.

Of the Royals’ top 10 prospects, seven of them would never have become part of the organization if the Royals hadn’t been willing to overspend to sign them. Moustakas and Hosmer both signed for over MLB’s mandated slot money (with the caveat that “slot money” for the top 5 picks is ridiculously low, and teams almost always exceed the recommended slot unless they’re being ridiculously cheap, as the Pirates were when they selected Daniel Moskos one pick ahead of Wieters.) Crow also signed for above-slot.

Melville, Myers, and Dwyer all got first-round money even though the Royals were able to snag them rounds later. Arguelles was the Cuban bonus baby. That leaves only Michael Montgomery, Daniel Duffy, and John Lamb as “traditional” draft picks that signed for slot.

Under a different, pre-Dayton Moore administration, the Royals’ Top 10 prospects might look more like a Top 3. For about the same amount of money as the Royals have paid Jose Guillen so far, the Royals have improved their farm system dramatically in two years.

The last two drafts have a chance to be two of the best drafts in team history. The 2008 draft, in particular, could be historic if Hosmer comes around – at this point, he’s the only disappointment in the first five rounds. Montgomery was a supplemental-1st-rounder; the Royals got scrappy second baseman Johnny Giavotella, who I think has become quite underrated, in the 2nd round. In the 3rd round they took Tyler Sample, a raw but hard-throwing right-hander out of high school in Colorado. Sample made huge strides in his control last season, and is an excellent bet to move into next year’s Top 10 rankings.

Melville was drafted in the 4th round, and John Lamb was drafted in the 5th. If the Royals’ 7th round pick, Jason Esposito, had signed, this draft would look even better. Esposito evidently agreed to a $1.5 million bonus before he was picked, foregoing a scholarship to Vanderbilt, but he had second thoughts afterwards and decided to go to college. He’s considered a possible first-round selection in 2011.

Last year’s draft doesn’t have the depth of talent, given that the Royals were missing their 2nd round pick and didn’t have a supplemental pick, but with Myers that draft has arguably more star potential.

But it all started with Melville, more or less. The Royals did give $1 million to sign Derrick Robinson out of the 4th round in the 2006 draft. Robinson was considered the fastest man in that draft but a project with the bat, words that unfortunately remain as true today as they were four years ago. And in 2001, the one time Allard Baird convinced David Glass to open up his vault for some 18-year-old kids, the Royals spent $1.75 million on their 2nd round pick, Roscoe Cr…Roscoe Cros…I’m sorry, my fingers won’t let me time his name. (The Royals would end up recouping some of that bonus money. The story of what happened is long and still not entirely clear, but after signing, Crosby never appeared in a game. I don’t mean a major-league game – I mean a pro game. One of the most-hyped Royals draft picks of the decade never so much as suited up for a minor-league game before he was released.)

Before Crosby, unless I’m missing someone, the last time the Royals went way over budget to sign a draft pick was…Bo Jackson, who got a major-league deal for over $1 million (the largest bonus ever given to an amateur player to that point) as a 4th round pick in 1986.

Between Melville, Myers, and Dwyer, the Royals have signed more high-priced draft picks in the last two drafts than they did in the 20 previous drafts. That’s a trend I can get behind.

More to come…