The Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015, and were a model Major League Baseball organization. The more recent World Series victors, the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, shared many similarities to that Royals team.
The biggest shared similarity was a strength in player development. Most of the 2015 Royals stars—Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Jarrod Dyson, Danny Duffy, and Yordano Ventura—were direct products of the Royals minor league system, either selected in the MLB Draft or signed as international free agents. Others, like Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto, were indirect results of that player development because they were acquired in exchange for minor league talent.
If you’ve read General Manager Dayton Moore’s book More Than A Season, you’ll know this was not an accident. Moore wanted to construct a long-term solution through scouting and development, and constructing a viable farm system and changing the culture of the franchise is a fantastic achievement. The Royals’ drafting and development was almost impeccable from 2005-2009, and that powered the team to the greatest successes.
This is also true: the Royals have been one of the worst teams in all of baseball in the MLB Draft for almost a decade. Specifically, they have been shockingly bad at converting first round picks into useful players.
That may seem jarring, but it is absolutely true. More than anything, that is why the Royals were unable to follow up their 2014-2015 run with not a single winning season, and it is why Moore’s Royals teams have only made the playoffs twice in what will be 12 seasons this year.
Focusing on the front of the draft is important, because it is the only part of the draft that regularly results in productive MLB players. This has been analyzed before, and similar results always occur. Using Wins Above Replacement, the average production for picks in the draft looks something like this:
The difference in expected production between the first and tenth pick in the draft is greater than the difference in expected production between the 100th and 500th pick in the draft. Yes, every once in a while, you’ll get Whit Merrifield, a nice player plucked out of the ninth round in the 2010 draft as the 269th overall pick, or Jacob DeGrom, picked just three slots later at 272nd overall. But usually you get Jordan Cooper, Adam Saxton, Thomas Shirley, or A.J. Kirby-Jones. I’ll leave it to you to figure which one of those is made up.
Zooming in a little further to the first round, Matthew Murphy’s research resulted in this graph, specifically looking at production before free agency.
Look: drafting and developing players is hard. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be baseball. But as a team you don’t have to outrun the bear that’s chasing you; you just need to outrun your fellow teams.
And the Royals, despite their reputation, have been very bad at the draft for much, much longer than you might think.
Since 2009, the Royals have done an exceedingly bad job at outrunning their fellow teams. With serious assistance from Baseball-Reference’s draft index tool, I took a look at the total value of every MLB team’s top 50 picks since 2009. I tracked it through 2015, as nobody in the first 50 picks of the 2016 or 2017 drafts has debuted at the big league level through the end of 2017. Since accurately splitting and attributing value to multiple teams in trade situations is impossible, all production for any players that have switched teams is assigned to the original drafting team.
The teams at the top are there because of big names—Mike Trout, Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Correa—guys who have been excellent as major leaguers. But not every team has been able to grab those guys. The average Major League Baseball squad has received 23.4 WAR from its drafted players in the top 50 picks.
But Kansas City has received almost half that, at 12 WAR. Furthermore, the majority of that WAR comes from Brandon Finnegan and Sean Manaea, the former of whom has played most of his career with the Cincinatti Reds, the latter of whom was traded to the Oakland Athletics organization whilst he was still in the minor leagues. The effective production of Kansas City’s top 50 picks since 2009 has been half that again.
Of course, not every team’s position in the drafts has been equal. Unfortunately for the Royals, their track record in that regard is even more damning to the system’s lack of production.
From 2009-2015, the Royals’ average draft position was 10.3, fifth-highest in all of baseball. And from 2009-2015, Kansas City’s picks in the top 50 of each draft produced only 12 WAR, ninth-worst in all of baseball.
In the offseason, my colleague Shaun Newkirk wrote about a possible reason for the discrepancy between the early Moore years and the time since then. Properly scouting players takes a small army. In Major League Baseball, regional scouts handle the day-to-day scouting operations around the country. Those scouts report to the scouting director, who then reports to the General Manager. A GM is ultimately in charge, but the scouting directors are the true masters of amateur scouting.
The guys you recognize—Hosmer, Moustakas, Gordon, Holland, Billy Butler, Wil Myers—were the products of scouting director Deric Ladiner and his regime. The guys you may recognize for not doing so hot—Bubba Starling, Kyle Zimmer, Hunter Dozier, Ashe Russell, Foster Griffin—are all the products of Lonnie Goldberg, who was installed as scouting director for the 2011 season.
The first step, as they say, is admitting you have a problem. Goldberg might be that problem. He might not. But there is one. And since reputations last a long time, it hasn’t been addressed or discussed because the Royals built their World Series victory and post-success glow on the success of what is now its greatest weakness.
Ultimately, the Royals should have had a longer window of contention. In 2014, the Royals were American League Champions. In 2015, the Royals were World Series Champions. Nobody cared about the farm system then. In 2016, it was easy to rationalize an underwhelming campaign because of injuries; 2017 showed some cracks, but the World Series high was still there.
It’s 2018, though. This fall will represent three years since the World Series, three years since the last playoff series, and three years since the Royals ended with a winning season. Never underestimate how fast baseball moves, and how quickly fans can tire of losing.
Without a good team or a World Series glow to fall back on, it will be painfully obvious how subpar the Royals’ drafting and development has been for most of the past decade. Of course, it’s been there for years. Flags that fly forever draw all the attention.