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U.L.’s Toothpick: The Best And Worst Drafts In Royals History

It’s a cliché, but it’s true: for a small-market team like the Royals, the amateur draft is the lifeblood of the franchise. The opportunity to get young talent at a greatly reduced cost is vital to any organization, especially one that rarely has the wherewithal to buy top free agents. Of course, the draft isn’t the only way to get cheap talent—there are Latin American free agent signings (an area the Royals have improved greatly), trades (which the early-day Royals did very well) and even amateur U.S. free agent signings (Frank White being the most successful example of this). But the draft is probably the most equitable way to acquire these players, then and now.

With the 2017 version of the draft set to begin today, I began wondering which drafts the Royals have done the best in. And which ones they performed the worst in. To do this, I went through Baseball Reference’s draft records, then used the mothership to look up each player’s WARP as a Royal. I did give them credit for any time a player spent as a Royal; for example, David Cone had 0.0 WARP in his brief first stint in Kansas City, but 8.5 when he came back in the early ‘90s. That 8.5 goes into the 1981 draft score. But in cases where the Royals did not sign the draftee, I did not credit them for that player’s WARP even if they ended up in Kansas City later on. For years where baseball had multiple drafts (there used to be secondary drafts), I combined all the drafts into one “draft class.” Add up the WARP for each draft class, and there you go.

Here’s a handy chart of WARP by year for each class:

WARP chart 2

The five best drafts in Royals history, measured by WARP, are: 1971, 1981, 1982, 1974, and 1991.

1971 (five players, 110.7 WARP): This was actually the draft that made me start researching this topic. I wondered if, at any time, the Royals had outdone themselves by drafting a collection of players more valuable than George Brett. The answer is a resounding no. By himself, Brett—picked in the second round of the June 1971 draft—is more valuable (92.9 WARP) than any other complete draft in team history. This draft class also featured Steve Busby (10.6) and John Wathan (4.3) (both picked in one of the secondary drafts) and Mark Littell (3.5). Had Busby stayed healthy, one wonders what the total WARP of this group could have been.

1981 (six players, 53.1 WARP): The aforementioned Cone was in this class, but the biggest contributor was Mark Gubicza (40.0). In a delightful twist, the pick the Royals used on Gubicza was a compensation pick for Darrell Porter leaving as a free agent for St. Louis. Four years after this draft, Gubicza was helping beat the Cardinals in the World Series. The only other player of note from this draft was Bill Pecota (4.8).

1982 (three players, 52.8 WARP): The Royals followed up the successful 1981 draft with a couple more future pitching stars, Bret Saberhagen (42.5) and Danny Jackson (10.3). There’s your 1985 World Series title. Jackson was drafted in the January secondary draft, but Saberhagen was chosen 10 rounds after the third future Royal in this draft class, Israel Sanchez, who compiled 0.0 WARP in his brief career. Just goes to show how difficult it can be to pick future major leaguers. Fun fact: the Royals picked Will Clark in the June draft but couldn’t sign him. They also picked Cecil Fielder in the June secondary draft, did sign him, then traded him away after a year in rookie ball. Whoops.

1974 (one player, 44.1 WARP): The first five draft classes in Royals history all had positive WARP. Then the 1973 class was a bust. They recovered nicely in 1974, although they only got one future Royal out of the class. That would be first-rounder Willie Wilson. Those six classes would form the backbone of the 1976-1985 dynasty; after this class, they had Brett, Wilson, Busby, Wathan, Littell, Dennis Leonard, Al Cowens, and  Paul Splittorff in the fold, along with some other role players.

1991 (seven players, 37.6 WARP): The two jewels of this draft class were Mike Sweeney (24.1) and Joe Randa (14.3). The other five players (Joe Vitiello, Ryan Long, Shane Halter, Rod Myers, and Les Norman) actually were a net minus (-0.8 WARP) although Halter had some nice years for Detroit. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that by inexpensively filling roster spots, they added a little value, but on the field, their contributions were negligible. Still, any team would be happy with a draft class of just Sweeney and Randa, I imagine.

Honorable mention goes to the 1972 draft class, with 36.7 WARP. That was mostly thanks to Leonard (35.0), with an assist from Jamie Quirk (1.8). Yes, the Royals were doing a lot of good things in the early 1970s. You might wonder if those draft classes had an advantage in this exercise since players tended to stay with the same team longer in the ‘70s and 80s. I suppose so, but three of the top 11 scores came in 2005, 2002, and 2007. If you get good enough players in the draft and have some good luck, you’ll probably do well in this sort of thing, whether they stay Royals for 20 years or just six.

Now, to the dark side. Most draft classes in Royals history have been a net positive. There are a few that are at exactly zero WARP (although the jury is out on 2015 and 2016) and some others that are a rounding error away from zero. But five stand out as the worst: 1978, 1989, 1998, 1977, and 1996.

1978 (five players, -1.3 WARP): Darryl Motley hit a big World Series home run and was worth 1.5 WARP as a Royal. The other four players in this class were below replacement level. The biggest offender was Buddy Biancalana (-1.9). But hey, he hit .278 in the World Series. The Royals did draft Frank Viola in the June draft, but he spurned their contract offer and went to college instead.

1989 (two players, -3.3 WARP): This is kind of a weird case. The Royals’ first-round pick was Brent Mayne, who obviously had a decent career overall even though it probably was not what you’d want from a #1 pick. Mayne had two stints with the Royals; from 1990-1995 he amassed a total of only 0.1 WARP, but he was the backup catcher most of that time. In 1995, he took over as the starter and had 0.3 WARP, then got traded away. He returned midway through the 2001 season, and in 2002 he had a bad year: .236/.309/.310. That was worth -2.2 WARP. He was a bit better in 2003, but still assessed a -0.8 WARP. Mayne was never a great hitter but he was a better player than this; he just happened to have his worst two years as a Royal at age 34 and 35. This class doesn’t really belong on this list.

1998 (four players, -4.6 WARP): Three players in this class (Jeff Austin, Paul Phillips, and Shawn Sedlacek) were just under replacement level. Chris George, however, was -3.5 WARP as a Royal (and for his major league career, as he never made the bigs with anyone else). George was one of about 500 pitching prospects the late 90s/early 2000s Royals ran through without much success. It wasn’t a good time to be a pitcher anyway; I don’t think the Royals helped by pushing this high schooler along quickly. Three years after being drafted he was in the majors, without much command of the strike zone. He did manage nine wins for the 2003 team, but had a tidy 7.11 ERA to go with it (if one player could sum up the 2003 Royals, it might be Chris George). He was talented but the Royals, out of desperation or just incompetence, never could develop him.

1977 (three players, -4.7 WARP): Renie Martin (-0.2) was decent enough as a reliever but not that great when the 1980 Royals tried him as a starter. The big offender here was a pitcher named Mike Jones (-4.5). In my memory, Jones was not that bad as a reliever on the 1984 and 1985 teams. But when they used him as a starter, he was not good. His big problem was command; Jones walked 108 batters while striking out 106 in 71 major league games. He also gave up 23 home runs. There’s a probable reason for his struggles: following his rookie season in 1981, Jones was involved in a car crash near his home in New York. Jones was charged with driving under the influence (he claimed he merely hit an icy patch) and hit a tree; luckily, no one was killed, but Jones had a broken neck—he suffered a dislocation between the fourth and fifth vertebrae. He missed the whole 1982 season, then spent all of 1983 in the minors. It’s amazing he made it back at all.

1996 (seven players, -7.4 WARP): Of the seven players the Royals drafted who made the majors, only one had a positive WARP in Kansas City. That was Kit Pellow, with 0.1. Jeremy Giambi had a couple of nice years with Oakland after he left Kansas City; most of the other players in this class were in the majors only briefly. But two of them played a lot and not very well for the Royals: first-round pick Dee Brown (-3.2) and third-round pick Chad Durbin (-2.5). Durbin carved out a solid career later on as a relief pitcher in Philadelphia, but as a youngster thrust into the Royals’ rotation, he wasn’t very good. He suffered through a poor 2000 season, and while he was somewhat better in 2001, he was still subpar. Then he got hurt, and his Royals career was done. Meanwhile, Brown put up some great minor league numbers but could never master the strike zone (career OBP: .280). A commonality among Brown, Durbin, and George? All of them were in the majors two or three years after being drafted.  I think that explains a lot about the Royals’ futility in the post-strike era.

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