It is January. There is snow on the ground. The city is on pins and needs in anticipation of the big football game this weekend. Perhaps the last thing you would think about right now is drafting amateur baseball players.
But that is what used to happen this time of year. For over two decades, Major League Baseball held a draft in January. According to the Baseball America Ultimate Draft Book, when Major League Baseball instituted a draft, they feared legal repercussions on restraining trade. So they wanted to give amateur players as many opportunities to be drafted throughout the year, implementing as many as five drafts throughout the year in 1965 and 1966. They settled on two drafts, one in the summer following college and summer leagues, and one in the winter. The January draft was set up for high school players that graduated a semester early, junior college players, and drop-outs from four-year colleges.
The January draft had a primary phase and a secondary phase, and produced some notable players like Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk, Kirby Puckett, and Tom Seaver (whose contract was voided and was made a free agent). According to Baseball America, 15.7% of players selected in the January draft reached the big leagues, compared to 20% in the June draft during the same time. Eventually, baseball decided to consolidate into one draft in 1987, to be held in June each year.
Typically the January draft went less than ten rounds, with teams often ending the draft before that. The first player the Royals ever selected in the January draft came in 1969, when they took shortstop Ronald Opatkiewicz out of Mount San Antonio College in California, a player that would never get past low-A ball. But it wouldn’t be too long before they did start finding some diamonds in the rough that became solid contributors. Some of the best players the Royals selected in the January draft include shortstop Hubie Brooks, outfielder Dave Collins, and pitcher Mike Bielecki, but none of them signed with the Royals. Here’s a look at the best players the Royals ever selected and signed from the January draft.
Jim Wohlford was a Southern California kid drafted out of high school by the nearby Angels. He turned them down to attend junior college at College of the Sequoias. In 1970, he was eligible for the secondary phase of the January draft, a phase for players that were previously drafted but did not sign. The Royals took Wohlford in the third round, a few picks ahead of the Orioles selection of All-Star third baseman Doug DeCinces. Wohlford enjoyed a solid 15-year career as a semi-regular outfielder, and was known for his wit. It was actually him, not Yogi Berra, that said “Ninety percent of this game is half-mental.”
Greg Minton is not a player you may remember because he was traded away from the Royals before he ever reached the big leagues. The Royals grabbed him in 1970 out of San Diego Mesa College, a junior college that also produced future Royals manager Tony Muser. In 1973, the Royals shipped Minton to the Giants for catcher Fran Healy. The right-handed reliever would go on to a 16-year career with the Giants and Angels, with a 3.10 career ERA in 710 games, with 150 saves.
John Wathan, like Minton, was a San Diego native who played college ball in his hometown at the University of San Diego. The catcher had a fantastic junior season, hitting .430 with 30 steals for the Toreros, but was listed on scouting reports as “NP” or “No Prospect.” The Royals convinced him to enter the January draft in 1971 and selected him fourth overall. It ended up being a very good draft year that year for the Royals, as they got pitchers Steve Busby and Mark Littell that June as well as a young high school infielder by the name of George Brett. Wathan would have a fine career on his own, spending ten years with the Royals, setting the single-season stolen base record for a catcher with 36 in 1982.
Bill Pecota was also a California kid, albeit from the northern side. He attended community college at DeAnza College. The 1981 January draft produced some solid players like Billy Hatcher, Glenn Davis, and John Kruk (who did not sign). Pecota fell all the way until the tenth round, the 234th player selected. He had to prove himself at each level of the minors and spent five full season down on the farm before making his Major League debut at age 26. He yo-yo’d between Kansas City and Omaha for several seasons, earning him the nickname “I-29” after the interstate that connects the two cities. But he eventually stuck and was a valuable utility infielder for several seasons with the Royals, Mets, and Braves.
Danny Jackson is perhaps the best player the Royals ever got from the January draft. The left-hander turned down the A’s out of high school to pitch for the Oklahoma Sooners for a year before transferring to Trinidad State Junior College in his home state of Colorado. The Royals had the #1 pick in the secondary phase of the 1982 January draft for reasons that escape me. They had the tenth-worst record in 1981 (technically making the playoffs in the convoluted strike-shortened season), so I am guessing it had something to do with them having the highest unsigned draft pick from the previous June?
Anyway, Jackson was the first player selected, ahead of guys like Oddibe McDowell, Chris Bosio, and Charlie Kerfield. Jackson would be part of a dynamic young trio of pitchers the Royals would develop in the early 80s with Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza. Jackson would go on to give one of the best post-season pitching performances in Royals history, giving up just three runs in 26 innings against the Blue Jays and Cardinals in 1985, including a huge complete game shutout in Game 5 of the ALCS that helped stave off elimination. Jackson would win 112 games in 15 seasons in the big leagues with 18.1 WAR.
Sean Berry was a fourth-round pick by the Red Sox out of high school in California, but turned them down to play at UCLA. After just a year there he was selected ninth overall by the Royals in the 1986 January draft, the last time MLB would hold a January draft. He seemed to be the heir apparent at third base once the Royals moved on from Kevin Seitzer, but a blockbuster trade with the Mets brough Gregg Jefferies to Kansas City. Despite terrible defense at third, the Royals went with Jefferies, instead shipping Berry to the Montreal Expos in a trade for pitcher Chris Haney. Berry would go on to a solid 11-year career, mostly with the Expos and Astros, hitting .272/.334/.445.