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Does it matter if the Royals get the first pick in the 2019 draft?

Or will ‘almost’ be just fine?

Kansas City Royals v Houston Astros
Carlos Correa #1 of the Houston Astros scores in the seventh inning against the Kansas City Royals at Minute Maid Park on April 7, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Correa was selected first overall in the 2012 MLB Draft.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The 2018 Kansas City Royals season almost immediately took a turn for the worse and then fell into a sinkhole, but it’s taken until June for the true awfulness of this team to truly solidify. Yes, a team can have a terrible month, but after a terrible April, May, and now June, it is abundantly clear: this team suuuuuuuuuuuucks. Kansas City is on pace for the worst season in its 50-year history by an additional eight entire losses. That’s a 48-114 record, by the way. Ick.

This has many consequences, of course, but one of the biggest ones is that, after 74 games of truly abysmal baseball, the first selection in the 2019 Major League Baseball amateur draft is realistically in play for the Royals. The bottom of the standings currently looks like this, with the following four teams within seven games of each other:

  1. Baltimore Orioles: 21-51
  2. Kansas City Royals: 22-52
  3. Chicago White Sox: 24-49
  4. Miami Marlins: 29-46

While other teams could indeed drift downwards over the second half of the season, these five teams all have a distinct...lead?...over the other Contenders of Badness. The Orioles, Royals, White Sox, and Marlins are the only teams in baseball with a run differential of worse than -100. While the Cincinnati Reds are functionally tied with the Marlins, their run differential is significantly better than the Inferior Four, and the Reds are 2.5 games, down, whatever...over the next closest team, the Texas Rangers, who are themselves 1.5 games up on the next team.

Barring crazy baseball junk (which can certainly happen), these four teams will find themselves competing for the bottom...uh, top, maybe...of the barrel for the 2019 draft.

The Royals are arguably the worst of the bunch; their run differential of -143 is far and away the worst in baseball, and they are only half a game away from the Orioles for worst record in baseball. In addition, Kansas City has sold off two of its best players already and will likely trade at least two more, further eroding the actually skillful part of their roster to the bone.

However, Baltimore is stuck in a division with the two best teams in baseball and two reasonably competent other teams, while the Royals’ division could not possibly be more mediocre.

The result is probably a two or possibly three-team race for the top pick in the draft (the White Sox are egregiously bad themselves). And with additional challengers ready to step in should the Royals falter and accidentally go on a winning streak, it is certainly no guarantee that Kansas City will select first next June.

But does it matter? If the Royals pick second or third, will that truly screw up their rebuild? The answer depends.

The following is a list of each of the ten first, second, and third overall picks between 2006-2015, listed from most recent to oldest. I have italicized players who never made the big leagues and bolded each player with at least 10 career WAR per Baseball-Reference; while different people have different ideas of what constitutes a ‘quality’ pick, each of the bolded names have made a sizable impact on their respective teams.

First Overall

  • Dansby Swanson | SS | 2.3
  • Brady Aiken | LHP | 0
  • Mark Appel | RHP | 0
  • Carlos Correa | SS | 19.4
  • Gerrit Cole | RHP | 14.4
  • Bryce Harper | OF | 26.7
  • Stephen Strasburg |RHP | 25.9
  • Tim Beckham | SS | 4
  • David Price | LHP | 35
  • Luke Hochevar | RHP | 3.6
  • AVERAGE: 13.1
  • MEDIAN: 9.2

Second Overall

  • Alex Bregman | SS | 8.1
  • Tyler Kolek | RHP | 0
  • Kris Bryant | 3B | 21.3
  • Byron Buxton | OF | 7
  • Danny Hultzen | LHP | 0
  • Jameson Tailon | RHP | 5
  • Dustin Ackley | OF | 8.1
  • Pedro Alvarez | 3B | 6.5
  • Mike Moustakas | 3B | 12.6
  • Greg Reynolds | RHP | -1.5
  • AVERAGE: 6.7*
  • MEDIAN: 6.8

Third Overall

  • Brendan Rodgers | SS | 0
  • Carlos Rodon | LHP | 4.7
  • Jon Gray | RHP | 5.2
  • Mike Zunino | C | 6.0
  • Trevor Bauer | RHP | 11.3
  • Manny Machado | SS | 29.8
  • Donavan Tate | OF | 0
  • Eric Hosmer | 1B | 16.1
  • Josh Vitters | 3B | -1.3
  • Evan Longoria | 3B | 50.3
  • AVERAGE: 12.2
  • MEDIAN: 5.6

*I chose 2006-2015 to get a selection of players that debuted and/or played multiple years in modern MLB, when shifts became common, the pressures of social media exerted themselves, and analytics prevailed in front offices.

But no look into a selection of years from the draft will tell the whole story, and this selection unfairly paints the second overall pick in a more negative light than it should be. Immediately preceding Greg Reynolds’ underwhelming MLB career as the second overall selection in 2006 were the selections of Alex Gordon (career 33.8 WAR and future Royals Hall of Famer) and Justin Verlander (career 60.6 WAR and MLB Hall of Fame candidate).

What do these numbers mean?

  • Only six of these 30 picks have not played in the MLB, and four of those are pitchers
  • In fact, it has been almost twice as likely over the last decade for a top-three pick to accrue 10+ WAR than to not make the majors at all
  • By the end of the year, six of these players will have been worth at least 20 WAR in their career
  • In each of the first, second, and third overall picks from 2006-2015, there was at least one player who didn’t make the big leagues and at least one with 20+ career WAR

If you’re looking for a full verdict here, I suppose it’s this: unless there is a surefire number one pick like Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg, teams recently haven’t really been much worse off with the second or third pick than the first pick. It’s too early to tell if this is the case for 2019, though it is worth keeping an eye on high school shortstop Bobby Witt, Jr., who is on top of multiple too early 2019 mocks including Fangraphs,, and Baseball America.

Regardless, not every surefire 1.1 pick succeeds. What is most important is making the right selection; having a higher pick gives you more options but cannot make the best pick for you. In 2006, for instance, the Royals had the first pick in the draft and selected Luke Hochevar. But Evan Longoria, Brandon Morrow, Clayton Kershaw, and Drew Stubbs had better careers than Hochevar, and all were selected in the top 10 of that draft.

Importantly, things get significantly hazier after the top three picks. No fourth overall pick has accrued more than 10 WAR since Ryan Zimmerman in the 2005 draft, Drew Pomeranz is the only fifth overall pick to have any positive WAR since Buster Posey’s selection in 2008, and only Anthony Rendon has eclipsed the single-digit WAR mark for any sixth overall selection since Zack Greinke in 2002 (no, seriously). This has nothing to do with any magical qualities of those picks but everything to do with the simple fact that there just aren’t many can’t-miss draft prospects and, after the first few picks, those guys are almost always gone.

If the Orioles really do win Tankfestpalooza 2018, then, so be it. If the Royals slip up and end up with the third overall pick, oh well. But Kansas City should hope that they keep pace, because the draft is truly a game-changer, and the Royals need every bit of help to climb out of the sinkhole in which they are currently stuck.