I said before the draft that I would find it almost impossible to rip the Royals, no matter who their first-round pick turned out to be. And when the Royals took Kyle Zimmer, I accepted their choice with good cheer, even though I had my reservations. But with each passing day, I’ve warmed up to the pick more and more. On Monday, I thought that Zimmer was the safe pick. Today, I think he might have been the best pick as well.
On my pre-draft board, I had Zimmer ranked 8th, which of course means that he was not the top guy left on my list when the Royals picked. But let’s look at the guys that were still there:
At #7, I had Albert Almora, the Florida high school outfielder. Honestly, I didn’t have a strong feeling one way or another as to who to rank higher – I originally had Zimmer #7 and Almora #8. When it’s this close between two players, I have no problem drafting for need and taking the college pitcher over the high school hitter. And I wouldn’t question the Royals at all if they felt it was not close.
At #4, I had Lucas Giolito, the high-school right-hander who might have gone #1 overall before he strained his elbow. I still think he’s the one pitcher in this draft with #1 upside, and if the Nationals can get him signed at #16, that’s a massive steal for them. But I get the decision not to take him. Given the concerns about his arm, given the concerns about his signability, given that he might have to sit out a year at some point if and when his elbow gives out, I appreciate that there were a lot of risks involved. Obviously, the Royals weren’t the only team to pass on Giolito’s upside. They might have been wrong to do so, but if so, they have a lot of company.
And that leaves Mark Appel, whose slide to the #8 spot in the draft was the biggest surprise of the first round.
Everything else equal, I’d rather have drafted Appel, and as stunning as it was that he was available when the Royals picked at #5, it was completely unsurprising when the Royals passed on him. It’s just like the Royals to look a gift horse in the mouth, and then send it back.
The question is, why? Why did he fall so far, and why did the Royals pass on him in favor of another college pitcher? The easy answer is that he’s a Scott Boras client, and he was going to be a tough sign and blah blah blah. We’ve heard it all before, like when the Royals passed on J.D. Drew and took Jeff Austin again.
Only that’s too easy. That was 14 years ago; Drew’s retired, for God’s sake. Dayton Moore’s Royals didn’t let Mike Moustakas or Eric Hosmer or Bubba Starling pass by because of their Boras-ness. (Nor did they let Luke Hochevar or Christian Colon pass by, though maybe they should have.) The new draft rules complicate things, but if anything, they should reduce the leverage of Boras clients, not enhance it.
That leaves only one other possibility, which is that the Royals honestly believe that Kyle Zimmer is the better prospect. And I will say, in the days since the first round was consummated, that I have heard from some people in the industry who share that assessment. It’s a minority opinion – but not a tiny minority. There is a segment of baseball people who really like Kyle Zimmer. Appel has more consistent stuff and a much longer track record; the general consensus is that he’s the safer pick. But a lot of people feel that Zimmer has the higher upside.
Remember, the one nick on Appel before the draft was that the whole didn’t always add up to the sum of the parts – that he should have dominated college hitters even more than he did, given his stuff. That may mean nothing; a similar complaint was lodged against Justin Verlander in college. But you can forgive the Royals for seeing this as a giant red flag, given that they have the poster child for this at the major-league level in Hochevar. I don’t know if their experience with Hochevar factored into the decision to pass on Appel. But I wouldn’t blame them if it did.
I’m not sure I agree with the decision to take Zimmer instead of Appel. But based on what I know now, I’m fairly confident that the decision was made based on a pure baseball evaluation, not simply on the finances involved and the difficulty in signing each player. All I can ask is for the Royals to take the player they think is the best available, and I think they did that here.
And I’ll say this: I’m not sure they’re wrong. Zimmer is really growing on me.
What worried me before the draft – the reason I placed him behind Appel and Gausman – were two things: 1) he sort of came out of nowhere, in the sense that two years ago he wasn’t pitching, and before this college season he was seen as a mid-to-late first-round pick; 2) after dominating early in the season, his stuff was down at the end, presumably (but not assuredly) because of a hamstring injury.
I haven’t encountered anyone who is genuinely worried about his velocity drop; it seems to be a consensus that it was, in fact, just a product of a tight hamstring, and that when he returns to the mound later this month or in July, his fastball will be back to sitting 95 and touching 99 again. And while he did have a meteoric rise from high school third baseman to college ace, he’s shown enough stuff for enough time that the odds it was all a mirage are close to nil.
Two years ago, Cubs’ GM Jim Hendry shocked the industry by using their first-round pick on a kid named Hayden Simpson, a Division II pitcher who had added velocity leading up to the draft. Almost from the moment he signed, Simpson’s new-found velocity disappeared – he had a nasty case of mono, and his fastball never came back. He currently has a 7.32 ERA in A-ball, with 29 walks and 14 strikeouts, and Hendry is no longer the GM of the Cubs.
Maybe that was in the back of my mind when I evaluated Zimmer before the draft. Or maybe it was Colt Griffin, who threw in the upper 90s for roughly three months in his entire life – it just happened to be the three months before the Royals took him in the 2001 draft. There are a lot of pitchers who show elite velocity for a short period of time, and you don’t want to be the team drafting them in the first round.
But that shortchanges Zimmer. Gaining velocity quickly is not a red flag in itself. Stephen Strasburg went from throwing 89 to 99 in less than a year, going from undrafted out of high school to a guy who, after his freshman season, was already being talked about as a potential #1 pick after his junior year. You just want to see a pitcher maintain his new-found velocity for more than a month or two. Zimmer only threw in the upper 90s for a couple of months, but he’s thrown in the low-to-mid 90s for the better part of two years. He outdueled Gerrit Cole when Cole was pitching at UCLA last season. That’s real.
Beyond that, Zimmer’s not defined by his velocity. His curveball is a fantastic pitch, and he has terrific command of both pitches. Actually, that might be the most interesting thing about Zimmer: that for a guy who didn’t start pitching until two years ago, he has tremendous polish.
Then there’s the age factor. Zimmer is still just 20 years old; he doesn’t turn 21 until August. (He’s just 11 months older than Bubba Starling, who was drafted out of high school.) My original study on the impact of age was limited to high school hitters, but I expanded on that study for a chapter I wrote in Baseball Prospectus’ book Extra Innings, which came out this spring. What I found was that younger draft picks tended to outperform older draft picks among college pitchers as well – although the effect was muted, roughly half as significant as the effect on high school hitters.
Still, that’s a good sign. The combination of youth, inexperience, stuff, and polish is really quite rare, and I struggle to think of another pitcher who fits that mold. I mean, in Royals history, the last example I can think of would be Bret Saberhagen, who wasn’t even drafted as a pitcher – he was a 16th-round pick as a shortstop – but was in the majors within two years, became the youngest Royals player ever, and as a rookie walked 32 batters in 158 innings.
I’m not comparing Zimmer to Saberhagen. I’m just saying that just because an 18-year-old position player magically turns into a 20-year-old phenom on the mound isn’t a bad thing.
(As long as we’re talking about converted third basemen turned into elite pitchers, Brandon Beachy was a third baseman in college, barely pitched at all, the Braves took a flyer on him as an undrafted free agent…and he was in the majors in barely two years. Last year, as a rookie, he led all major leaguers with 100+ innings in strikeouts per nine innings. This year, he leads the majors in ERA.)
As a former position player and multi-sport athlete in high school, Zimmer also does the things you’d expect from athletic pitchers, like field his position well, repeat his delivery, etc. And the other benefit from his lack of experience on the mound is this: he only threw 88 innings this year. Unlike pitchers at some college programs, Zimmer wasn’t abused at all by his coach, who never allowed him throw more than 120 pitches in a game. The Royals are getting a fresh arm; if he gets hurt, it’s not because he was mishandled before they ever got their hands on him.
And finally, yes, there’s the signability issue. Again, in some ways the new rules make it easier to sign elite players, because teams have the leverage that they have to stick to their slots or face punitive penalties. But in some ways the new rules make it harder to sign elite players, or at least more painful, because every dollar you give that player is a dollar you can’t give someone else. No one knows if Appel signs with the Pirates; while they would appear to have the upper hand, I’ll declare defeat for Scott Boras only after the game is over. But even if they do sign him, it will probably take more money than the $2.9 million that pick is slotted for, meaning they’ll have to take that money from other slots.
By getting Zimmer to agree to a deal quickly, the Royals not only signed him within days of the draft – becoming the first top pick to sign that fast since Billy Butler in 2004 – but worked out a $3 million deal, $500,000 less than the slot money assigned to that pick.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that Zimmer’s a bargain. Major league baseball was actually quite generous in their allotment for some of the slots at the top of the first round. While it took $5 million for the Diamondbacks to sign Archie Bradley, the #7 pick last year, Bradley is the only #7 pick in history to receive a signing bonus of more than $2.5 million. (And Bradley was a special case; that pick was a compensation pick for the Diamondbacks after they didn’t sign Barret Loux the year before. The pick was not protected, meaning if they hadn’t signed Bradley, the Diamondbacks would not have received a compensation pick the next year. So Bradley had more leverage than usual.)
Nonetheless, Zimmer signed for less than slot, and quickly, allowing the Royals to move that money elsewhere. I’m not sure whether I’d rather have Zimmer over Appel. But I’m pretty sure I’d rather take Zimmer, save on drama as well as money, and use the money saved to draft and sign better players elsewhere in the draft. That’s exactly what the Royals did, and it’s hard to fault them for that.
My fear, going into the draft, was that the Royals would take a college pitcher over Carlos Correa, who as you know I really, really, really like. As it turned out, that possibility was eliminated the moment the draft started. The fact that I might be partially responsible for the fact that Correa wasn’t available when the Royals picked – The Economist weighs in here – is, ahem, uncomfortable. (Particularly since Sam Mellinger hints here that the Royals probably would have taken Correa if he was available.) But given that he wasn’t, there wasn’t anyone else on the board who was clearly a better use of the #5 pick than Zimmer.
In the second round, the Royals took Sam Selman, another college pitcher, this time a left-hander from Vanderbilt. Sort of a boring pick, Selman ranked #146 on Baseball America’s draft rankings. He vaguely resembles Zimmer in that he’s a college pitcher who has a relatively fresh arm; whereas Zimmer steadily improved his draft stock over the past two years, Selman really only came on in the last half of this season. I’m a big fan of Vanderbilt players in general, which may reveal my own bias towards a school that melds academic and athletic success (at least in baseball) as well as any college in the country. If I had a son who was worthy of a Division I scholarship, Vanderbilt would be on my short list of schools I’d want him to go to. But I don’t know if that makes Selman a better prospect or not.
Third-rounder Colin Rodgers has already signed, albeit for $700,000, about 50% more than the $476,500 slot for his pick. BA had Rodgers ranked #207 overall, but the Royals clearly differ in their opinion. He’s a left-hander out of high school with good stuff when he’s on, but he’s not always on, and at 6’ even and 185 pounds, there’s not a lot of projection there.
My favorite pick in the draft after Zimmer – one of my favorite mid-round picks the Royals have made in recent years, in fact – is fourth-rounder Kenny Diekroeger, a shortstop out of Stanford. Diekroeger turned down $2 million from the Rays out of high school; after he hit .356/.391/.491 as a freshman, there was talk that he might be the #1 overall pick in this draft. Even after a disappointing sophomore season (.293/.356/.364), he was still looked at as a probable first-round selection.
Last September, Baseball America released their preliminary Top 50 for this year’s draft. Diekroeger ranked #18 on the list. One spot below him, at #19, was…Kyle Zimmer. At #20 was...Carlos Correa.
Of course, Diekroeger had an even more disappointing junior year; as I write this (Stanford is still playing) he’s got a .271/.339/.372 line this season. His swing is a mess, and most scouts think he’ll have to move to second base as a pro.
But…Diekroeger plays at Stanford. The Cardinal have a fantastic track record in college baseball, but they are notorious for having a hitting approach that doesn’t fit every player, emphasizing hitting the other way over power. While some players have taken to it very well, both in college and in the pros (e.g. Carlos Quentin), other players who were top high school prospects were completely fouled up by it. Most famously, Michael Taylor, who was a very well-regarded prospect out of high school (he attended school with Zack Greinke, two years behind) fell all the way to the fifth round in the 2007 draft after a poor Stanford career. By the end of the 2009 season he was one of the 30 best prospects in baseball, after hitting .346/.412/.557 and .320/.395/.549 in back-to-back years. He was then a key part of the Roy Halladay trade, and while he is still struggling to break through in Oakland, he was definitely a worthwhile use of a fifth-round pick.
Of course, there’s only one Michael Taylor, and there are plenty of Stanford picks that simply never panned out in the pros. But it’s a fourth-round pick. In a weak draft. He doesn’t pan out? Neither do 90% of other guys taken in that round. But I think it's worth a fourth-round flyer to draft a kid who, nine months ago, ranked ahead of two of the top five picks in the draft. (Keith Law, incidentally, had Diekroeger #49 overall on his draft sheet, largely on the theory that there might be a ballplayer waiting to break out once his Stanford Swing is fixed.)
The Royals will probably need to pay Diekroeger more than slot money to sign, which is why it’s nice they saved some money on Zimmer. This leads to a discussion of the Royals’ philosophy in this draft, in light of the new draft rules. Many teams decided to use their draft pool to go after premium players early, and then subvert the system by drafting college seniors – who generally aren’t as talented and definitely have no leverage – from rounds 6 to 10, thereby moving their draft pool money to the top guys. (Remember Allard Baird’s Glass-family-mandated “take it or leave it” $1000 offers to college seniors? Turns out the Royals were just a decade ahead of their time.)
The Blue Jays, for instance, took a bunch of tough-to-sign top prospects in the first three rounds – where they had seven picks – and then, from the fourth through the tenth rounds, they took a college senior with every pick, and not one of them was listed among Baseball America’s Top 500. These guys are getting $5,000 to sign, and the Jays will presumably be able to afford the elite guys they drafted. They’re like ringers in reverse.
It’s a shrewd philosophy, with one drawback: it means you’re wasting mid-round picks on guys with essentially no chance to develop into prospects. The Royals went the other route: perhaps because they knew that Zimmer would sign for less than slot money, they didn’t take a single college senior in the first ten rounds. Presumably, they took the best player on their board in each round; if even one of those later picks develop, they’ll be ahead of the vast number of teams in those rounds.
I say “presumably” because many of the players the Royals selected in those rounds were not high on Baseball America’s list either. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong; the Royals have earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to identifying amateur talent. But it’s worth watching. Last year, remember, the Royals gave bonuses of at least $575,000 to eight different players, some of whom were not ranked highly before the draft either. I can’t tell you how those decisions have worked out, because not one of those eight players (not even Bubba Starling) has played a game this year – they’re all in extended spring training waiting for the short-season leagues to start.
One undeniable benefit – at least to the Royals – of the new rules is that players are signing much, much faster. Of the Royals’ first ten picks, everyone except Selman and Diekroeger has already signed. Between them and last year’s holdovers, we’ll find out a lot in the next three months about whether the Royals can keep their draft touch going. But in a draft this weak, and with just one selection in the top 65, Kyle Zimmer’s success or lack thereof will make or break this draft for Kansas City. I’m optimistic, but then, I usually am.