There may be no greater source for “what-ifs” than the MLB amateur player draft. Every sport’s draft depends on luck to so some extent, but baseball’s luck is way more of a crapshoot than the others, even as teams pour increased money, personnel, and analysis into scouting. I don’t really like to say, “What if they had drafted this guy instead of that other guy who became a great player?” because it seems a little too easy. Sure, the Royals should have drafted Albert Pujols, but every team made that mistake.
Instead, I found a few cases in Royals history where the team made what turned out to be a good decision, only to not reap the benefits. In these cases, the Royals picked a high school player who decided to go to college instead of signing. To me, those are more interesting scenarios. And sure, maybe these players wouldn’t have developed in the Royals’ system. And yes, every team can point to similar situations that might have changed their fortunes. But these are just for fun, and the great thing about these is there are no wrong answers.
Scott Sanderson, 1974 (11th Round)
Sanderson was a high school pitcher in the Chicago suburbs when Kansas City drafted him. He chose to go to Vanderbilt instead. In 1977, Montreal selected Sanderson in the third round, and he was in the majors by the end of the 1978 season. In the six years before he would have been a free agent (and thus the years the Royals would have been assured of his services), he had a 56-47 record and 3.33 ERA in 883 innings. He was a dependable starter, and the only major injury he suffered in those years was a torn thumb ligament in 1983, which he suffered while running the bases (he turned an ankle and fell down, injuring himself by putting his hand out to break his fall). Since that wouldn’t have been a concern in the American League, you could pencil him in for 32 starts as a 1983 Royal in this hypothetical.
I think Sanderson would have helped the Royals win the AL West in 1979. The team had trouble finding reliable starting pitching to round out the Larry Gura/Dennis Leonard/Paul Splittorff trio. Putting Sanderson (who went 9-8 with a 3.43 ERA in 1979) in there would move Rich Gale (9-10, 5.65 ERA) to the fifth spot. Kansas City finished three games behind California, so a rotation upgrade probably would have made the difference.
In 1980, the Royals won the AL West comfortably, and it’s hard to say one pitcher could make a huge difference in the small sample size of a World Series. Gale did start two of the six games in that Series, but he got lifted early in both. Does Sanderson do better? Possibly.
Sanderson also might have helped the Royals to the 1982 AL West title. Once again, the Royals finished three games behind California, and once again rotation problems hurt them. Dennis Leonard missed two months with an injury, and Bud Black and Dave Frost combined for 28 starts and a 5.17 ERA in them. Meanwhile, Sanderson went 12-12 with a 3.46 ERA in Montreal.
Frank Viola, 1978 (16th Round)
In this case, I feel certain that had the Royals signed their pick, there would be more flags flying at Kauffman Stadium. That’s because after Viola, who hailed from Long Island, turned them down to attend St. John’s University in New York, he was picked by the Twins in 1981. He reached the majors the next season and became a star in 1984, going 18-12 with a 3.21 ERA. From 1984-1988, he won 93 games capping off that stretch with the 1988 Cy Young Award. Now, Viola probably wasn’t enough to get the Royals past Detroit in the 1984 ALCS. And things went south in 1986; one pitcher wasn’t overcoming that. But in 1987, the Royals finished just two games behind…Viola’s Minnesota Twins. The problem with that Royals team was offense, not pitching, but taking Viola away from the Twins and putting him on the Royals would seem to easily be a two-game swing at least. The Twins pulled off upsets of Detroit and St. Louis to win the World Series; with the pitching the Royals would have had in this scenario, they could have done the same thing. Imagine dealing with your Cardinal fan friends, family, co-workers if the Royals had defeated St. Louis twice in the World Series in three years.
Will Clark, 1982 (4th Round)
This one hurts a little. OK, a lot. Losing out on a 11th or 16th round pick isn’t that bad. But this one is a double whammy in lost pick value (other notable Royals fourth-round picks: Mike Macfarlane, Bo Jackson, David DeJesus) and the fact Clark could have provided some much-needed offense to the late 1980s Royals teams. Clark was picked out of Jesuit High School in New Orleans but instead went to Mississippi State. The Giants picked him in 1985 and he was in the majors in 1986, finishing fifth in the Rookie of the Year vote. The next year he finished fifth in the MVP vote. Add Clark’s .308/.371/508 line in 1987 to that Royals team and they probably finish ahead of the Twins (and if you add Viola to that team…whew). You might wonder where Clark would fit in that lineup. I assume George Brett would have been moved to DH instead of first base (where he played most of 1987 to make room for Kevin Seitzer). Royals DHs hit .215/.289/.411 that year, which includes Brett hitting .288/.370/.600 in 21 games as the DH. In a word, woof.
The 1988 Royals finished a long ways behind Oakland, but in 1989 they finished seven games back of the A’s. Clark was the NL MVP runner-up that year, hitting .333/.407/.546. Meanwhile, Royals DHs hit a pedestrian .250/.315/.386. It’s hard for one player to make up a seven-game difference…but Clark was credited with 8.3 WARP in 1989. It would have been a much closer race, I think it’s safe to say. Clark would not have made a difference in the Royals’ overall fortunes the next few years before he would have become a free agent, but perhaps he could have fetched a nice return in a trade.
Deion Sanders, 1985 (6th Round)
A year before the Royals drafted Bo Jackson, they went with another two-sport star. I suppose they figured Willie Wilson had worked out well, so why not try another exceptionally fast guy? They probably had plenty of scouting opportunities, as Sanders attended high school in Fort Myers, Florida, which was Kansas City’s spring training home at the time. Of course, Sanders decided to go play football at Florida State. Unlike Jackson, Sanders seemed to prefer football, so he only played 100 games in a season once. Despite a slow start, he turned into a decent baseball player. It’s hard to pinpoint a season where he would have made a huge difference—the closest the Royals came to first place in his first six seasons was the strike-shortened 1994 season. But it would have been really interesting to have the two most famous two-sport stars on the same team.
Jon Gray, 2010 (13th Round)
Had Gray signed with the Royals when he was drafted in 2010, he’d likely be a Royal right now. Instead, he went to junior college and then the University of Oklahoma, and then the Rockies drafted him. His first full season in the majors was 2016, when he went 10-10 with a 4.61 ERA, although his underlying numbers were good enough for 2.0 WARP. The 2016 Royals gave Chris Young 14 starts and got -1.4 WARP. They gave Dillon Gee 13 starts and got -0.3 WARP. Put Gray in there instead and you get a net gain of 3.7 WARP. The Royals finished eight games out of a wild-card spot…but they also really faltered down the stretch. Would a relatively young, fresh arm have helped? I think so.
And in 2017, when Gray went 10-4 with a 3.67 ERA, that depth would have been welcome. With Gray on board, maybe the Royals aren’t tempted to trade for Trevor Cahill and Brandon Maurer. That move seemed like a good idea at the time, but their ineffectiveness helped torpedo the Royals’ season. Gray suffered a foot injury last April but was back in the rotation by late June, helping the Rockies make the wild-card game.
Unfortunately, we will never have answers to these scenarios. We can only hope that no one the Royals select in this week’s draft will be “the one that got away” in the future.