The draft is around the corner, and perhaps the Royals will find the next franchise player. While they hold the fourteenth overall pick in next month’s draft, sometimes the best players in franchise history came after the first round. Those diamonds in the rough, passed on by every other team, may have had more to prove. Here is a look at some of the best Royals draft steals, taking into account both overall value in relation to what round they were selected.
Honorable mention: Dennis Leonard (2nd round, 1972), Mark Gubicza (2nd round, 1981), Kevin Seitzer (11th round, 1983), Bo Jackson (4th round, 1986), Joe Randa (11th round, 1991), Danny Duffy (3rd round, 2007), Wil Myers (3rd round, 2009)
10. Jarrod Dyson - 50th round (1,475th overall), 2006
By the time teams select in the 50th round (the draft doesn’t even go that many rounds anymore), they are usually drafting sons of coaches, taking flyers on high school kids that probably won’t sign, or even in some cases, drafting their favorite football players. But every once in awhile, teams stumble upon a gem.
Jarrod Dyson was described as a "raw talent" at Southwest Mississippi Community College who had tremendous speed, but was a dead fly-ball hitter who didn’t use his biggest asset - his legs. Royals scouts attended one of his games to check out a pitcher, but were amazed at the speed displayed by Dyson, grading him at "80", the highest grade a prospect can get graded in a skill. They convinced then-Scouting Director Deric Ladnier to take a chance on the kid.
Of the 431 players ever selected in the 50th round, Dyson is one of just seven to play in the big leagues. He gave the Royals Gold Glove-caliber defense, and is the fifth-most successful basestealer in the modern era. That’s a heckuva lot more valuable than drafting a coach’s son.
9. Cecil Fielder - 4th round (67th overall), 1982 Secondary Phase
Cecil Fielder had dropped out of UNLV when he accompanied a buddy to a winter league game in Pasadena managed by Royals scout Guy Hansen, according to Hansen in his book A Baseball Guy. It quickly dawned on Hansen the power potential Fielder displayed, and he began to hide his star prospect when he knew rival scouts might be around.
When the June draft rolled around, Fielder was subject to the "Secondary Phase" for players that had already been drafted once in their career, as Fielder had been when the Orioles took him in round 31 out of high school. A few gems went in the first round of that draft - Charlie Kerfeld, Bip Roberts, Kal Daniels, Randy Myers. But Fielder was the only player of consequence taken after the first.
Fielder destroyed the Pioneer League by knocking 20 home runs in 59 games, but the Royals wanted to acquire Blue Jays veteran Juan Beniquez, so they shipped Fielder to Toronto. Fielder would have to leave the Jays and have success in Japan before he became a two-time home run champ with the Tigers.
8. Greg Holland - 10th round (306th overall), 2007
The 2007 draft was the first overseen by Dayton Moore as Royals General Manager, and it was easily his best. Three of the top 25 players from that draft by WAR were selected by the Royals - Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, and Greg Holland. Moustakas set the California high school home run record and was considered one of the best players available, so it was no surprise he panned out. Danny Duffy was taken in the third round as an electric-armed lefty, and he had a bit more to overcome to reach the big leagues. But the most inexplicable success story was the 10th round selection out of Western Carolina.
Greg Holland was 5'7'', 150 lbs. out of high school, and had to walk onto Western Carolina, a school tucked in the western tip of North Carolina, about three hours west of Charlotte. He was a high-energy player there, and it was his energy, his attitude, his lack of fear that intrigued the Royals enough to select him. He was in the big leagues by 2010, and so far has two All-Star appearances, 164 career saves, and a World Championship ring on his resume by his seventh season.
7. Al Cowens - 75th round, (1,028th overall), 1969
The Royals were a brand new team in 1969, and needed to fill out the rosters of six minor league teams. They selected a record 90 players in the June draft, trying to find talent anywhere they could. Only six of those picks even reached the big leagues - first-round pick John Simmons turned them down to play football at Auburn. Pitcher Jim York, taken in the 16th round, and outfielder Al Cowens, taken in round 75, would be the only ones who would have a significant big league career.
Cowens was selected out of Centennial High School in Compton, California, the same high school that produced big leaguers Lenny Randle and Royals outfielder Lonnie Smith. He might have been a complete afterthought after he briefly quit in his second pro season after a dispute with a coach. But he returned and stuck with it and became the starting right fielder for three division-winning Royals club, finishing second in MVP voting in 1977, ahead of all 1,027 players selected before him in the 1969 draft.
6. Paul Splittorff - 25th round, (575th overall), 1968
The American League permitted its two newest franchises - the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots - to participate in the 1968 draft, one year before the teams were set to begin play. Those two franchises had been preparing since the previous fall, when they were awarded expansion teams. Their National League did not officially award franchises until May of 1968, giving the new franchises in San Diego and Montreal just over a week to prepare for the draft. Montreal actually had a city official run their draft - they hadn't had time to hire any front office personnel yet.
The Royals were not allowed to select until round four, where they made New Jersey prep shortstop Kenneth O'Donnell the first draft pick in franchise history. They found a few Major Leaguers in that first draft - Monty Montgomery would start ten games for the Royals, Lance Clemons would be used as trade bait to acquire John Mayberry, and while Dane Iorg did not sign with Kansas City out of the draft, he would later end up a Royals World Series hero.
It was in round 25, however, that the Royals found a graduate of tiny Morningside College in Iowa, who would spend the next four decades with the club. Paul Splittorff was a bespectacled, lanky lefty that became the first Royals draft pick ever to reach the big leagues when he debuted in 1970. Over the next 15 years he would win 166 games, all in a Royals uniform, participating on four division winners and the 1980 American League champion club. After his playing days were over, Splitt became a fixture in the broadcast booth, educating viewers on pitcher grips until his death in 2011.
5. Mike Sweeney - 10th round, (262nd overall), 1991
In the 1991 draft, the Royals felt they were getting a big slugging, first base/DH-type who could hit in the middle of the lineup for a decade. They just expected it to be first-round pick Joe Vitiello, not the skinny tenth-round pick they selected out of Ontario High School in southern California named Mike Sweeney.
Fifteen first basemen were selected before Sweeney (who began his career as a catcher), including Vitiello, and only first-rounder Cliff Floyd would end his career with more WAR. Mike wasn’t even the first "Sweeney" selected, as outfielder Mark (no relation) would be taken by the Angels in round 9. Sweeney had some dominant minor league seasons and was in the big leagues by age 22, but found management and coaches didn’t love his defense, and was nearly traded away. Luckily, the Royals held onto him and moved him to first, where he became a five-time All-Star with 215 career home runs, a career line of .297/.366/.486, and 24.7 WAR.
4. David Cone - 3rd round, (74th overall), 1981
The 1981 draft was perhaps short on super-duper talent, but teams did very well finding Major League talent in the first few rounds. The first ten picks in the draft all made the big leagues, several with long careers like Mike Moore, Joe Carter, Kevin McReynolds, and Ron Darling. The Royals’ first round pick reached the big leagues, but Dave Leeper played just 19 games in Kansas City and was a bust.
The Royals fared much better in the second round, grabbing Mark Gubicza, a prep pitcher in Philadelphia who was high school teammates with future Phillies GM Ruben Amaro. The second round would be pretty loaded as well, with three pitchers selected that round winning over 100 big league games - Gubicza, Mark Langston, and Frank Viola.
But it was the third round that they found a gem sitting in their own back yard. David Cone was a student at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City. At the time, the school did not have a baseball program, so Cone played in the area Ban Johnson League and got the attention of Royals scouts when he attended a tryout with the club.
"David has been a Kansas City fan his whole life. He always dreamed of playing baseball in Kansas City. When he was drafted by the Royals, he was so happy he couldn't contain himself.
-David's father, Ed Cone
Cone would get his feet wet with the Royals in 1986 before they shipped him to the Mets in the most-hated trade in franchise history. Cone would be a two-time All-Star before returning to Kansas City and winning a Cy Young, and ending his career with 194 wins and 61.7 WAR.
3. Carlos Beltran - 2nd round (49th overall), 1995
The Royals had a string of first-round draft flops in the early 90s that hastened the demise of the franchise. They selected Jeff Granger in 1993. Matt Smith in 1994. Their first-round pick in 1995 - Puerto Rican slugger Juan LeBron - was notable only because he was later traded for popular third baseman Joe Randa. It would be the second-round pick that year that would become the franchise player.
Carlos Beltran was a quiet kid from Puerto Rico who scout Johnny Ramos thought had speed and good contact, but not much power potential. A hamstring injury during a tryout with the Expos and a poor performance in front of the Red Sox cost him a shot at the first round. Instead, it was the Royals who scooped him up in round two, just after the Mets - the team he would spend much of his career with - passed on him for a guy named Brett Herbison. Twenty seasons later, Beltran has 425 career home runs, 2,654 hits, nine All-Star appearances, and the most WAR out of anyone from that draft.
2. Bret Saberhagen - 19th round, (480th overall), 1982
Sabes was considered an early round prospect before he hurt his shoulder in his senior season. The velocity drop was enough to scare most teams away, but Royals scout Guy Hansen was curious enough to continue watching Saberhagen. That patience paid off when he noticed that Saberhagen’s velocity was suddenly back up.
Two picks after the Angels passed on the kid playing in nearby Reseda, the Royals drafted Saberhagen in round 19. He turned down a scholarship offer from USC to sign with the Royals for $20,000. After the draft, he tossed a no-hitter in the Los Angeles City Championship at Dodger Stadium, and other teams quickly began to realize their error. In just two years, Saberhagen was in the big leagues, and a year later, he was a Cy Young winner and World Series MVP, part of an illustrious 16-year career.
1. George Brett - 2nd round, (29th overall), 1971
The 1971 draft had three Hall of Famers (Brett, Mike Schmidt, and Jim Rice), a pitcher than won 240 games (Frank Tanana), a Cy Young winner (Ron Guidry), and an MVP (Keith Hernandez). None of them were among the first 12 picks. Seven of the top twelve picks would reach the big leagues, combining for -2.5 career WAR, including -1.7 WAR from top overall pick Danny Goodwin, selected by the White Sox.
The Royals would bust as well in the first round with St. Louis prep pitcher Roy Branch, who spent just two games in the big leagues. They considered taking a shaggy-haired shortstop from southern California who had a brother in the big leagues, but waited until the second round to select that kid whose name was George Brett.
"George was very well known, being from Southern California, but he wasn’t a great tools guy."
-Royals assistant scouting director Herk Robinson
Coincidentally, the very next selection would be another Hall of Fame third baseman, as the Phillies selected Ohio prep star Mike Schmidt, who would later face off against Brett in the 1980 World Series as a matchup of two of the greatest third basemen to ever play the game.
Brett would sign for $25,000, but struggled initially in the minors, never displaying the kind of power or hitting prowess he would demonstrate in his 20-year Major League career. Under the tutelage of Royals hitting instructor Charlie Lau, Brett’s career would take off, ending in enshrinement in Cooperstown.
Many thanks to Baseball America’s Ultimate Draft Book, a terrific resource of draft information.