Without the ability to sign a blank check to lure free agents, the Royals have had, and will continue, to rely on strong drafting to build a long-term winner.
When the 2015 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft starts on Monday, the Kansas City Royals will pick 21st and 33rd in the first round, much later in the process than the Royals grew accustomed to during years of futility through most of the 1990s and well into this century.
Kansas City’s history in the draft is a mixed bag filled with a decade’s worth of wasted first-round picks before a successful stretch beginning in the early 2000s.
For as much credit as Royals general manager Dayton Moore gets, and deservedly so, for revamping the organization’s international scouting and successful trades, the core or last season’s American League championship team is in Kansas City as a result of successful drafting that began under former GM Allard Baird.
After taking Michael Tucker and Johnny Damon in the first round in 1992, the Royals embarked on a stretch from 1993 to 2001 where Kansas City didn’t take a successful Major Leaguer in the first round outside of Mike MacDougal, who had a first half in 2003 good enough to make the All-Star team, but didn’t do much for the Royals otherwise.
Multiple times, it looked like Kansas City had found a future ace — Jeff Granger in 1993, Jeff Austin in 1998, Kyle Snyder in 1999 and Colt Griffin in 2001 — only to have each one either plagued with injuries or flame out completely until Zack Greinke was available first overall in 2002.
The Royals made a few nice picks outside of the first round in that era, getting Carlos Beltran, Jeremy Affeldt and David DeJesus between the second and fourth rounds, and 1994 third-rounder Jamie Bluma looked like a future star in his one month of Major League ball before a bum shoulder killed his career.
But it was that 2002 pick of Greinke that began the franchise turnaround, even if the Royals never actually won much with him.
From 2002 to 2008, Kansas City’s first round picks included Greinke as well as Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. In addition to Moustakas, the 2007 draft also gave the Royals Danny Duffy and Greg Holland.
In 2009, the Royals used their first round pick on local product Aaron Crow, who had his ups and downs in the bullpen before Kansas City let him go in the offseason, but they also landed Wil Myers in the third.
Myers and Greinke were the key pieces in trades that netted James Shields (for whom KC has a compensatory first round pick to use Monday), Wade Davis, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar.
That’s six of nine lineup players, a staff ace, a rotation guy and arguably the two best relievers in the game on last year’s playoff roster as a result of an eight-year stretch in the draft. That doesn’t even include Christian Colon, a first-round pick in 2010 who had the tying RBI, then scored the winning run in last year’s Wild Card Game and might be close to replacing Omar Infante as the starting second baseman.
Moore isn’t likely to get a blank check to go after top-shelf free agents anytime soon. How well the Royals draft will always be key to the franchise’s success, and it is still too early to tell if the most recent first round picks more closely resemble the Gordon and Hosmer variety or the repeated debacles of the ’90s.
When they took Bubba Starling fifth overall in 2011, the Royals had hopes he could be their version of Twins star Joe Mauer. Like Mauer, Starling was a hometown product and also one of the top quarterback recruits in the country.
But since signing with Kansas City rather than pursuing a football career at Nebraska, Starling has hit just .243 in the minors and struck out almost 300 times in just more than two season of Class-A ball, though he started hitting pitching in Wilmington early this season and has been respectable since getting called up to Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
Right-hander Kyle Zimmer was Kansas City’s top pick a year later and has been as good as expected when he’s stayed healthy, but that hasn’t been often enough. Hunter Dozier was a first-rounder in 2013 and has crushed low-level pitching, but has struggled to keep his average above .200 since being promoted to Double-A.
Then there’s last year’s pick, Brandon Finnegan, who went from College World Series to THE World Series in just a few months. But despite coming up big in the postseason, he was hammered in spring training and struggled against big league hitters this season.
Even taking into account their recent slump — Kansas City has lost eight of its last 10 — the Royals present and near future looks promising. But if the baseball revival in KC is going to be long-term, at least a couple of those guys need to pan out.
And not only that; Monday is a mighty important day for Dayton Moore and Co.