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A look back at the Royals’ 2015 draft class, five years later

In the middle of a championship season, the Royals did not have a championship draft.

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Milwaukee Brewers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

On June 9, 2015, the Royals took sole possession of first place, a spot they would not relinquish the rest of the season. The club was riding high, proving that the pennant run the previous season was no fluke. The scouting department had reason to be feeling good, as much of the club that would go on to win a World Series that fall was home grown, drafted and developed by the Royals. Eric Hosmer. Mike Moustakas. Alex Gordon. Even Brandon Finnegan, their first-round pick from the previous year, had already made an impact at the big league level.

The very next day, the Royals had the 21st selection in the first round of the draft. Due to their success in 2014, it was their latest first-round selection since 1986. The Royals were said to be “looking for a bat” going into this draft and were reportedly in on high school shortstop Cornelius Randolph out of Georgia, despite some concerns he would be a difficult sign. But Randolph had a late rise up draft boards, and would get selected tenth overall by the Phillies.

The Royals had been connected to right-handed pitcher Phil Bickford back in the 2013 draft when he was a high schooler, so some, like Fangraphs, expected them to select him if he fell to #21. Instead, the Giants selected him three picks ahead of the Royals. Other names mentioned included high school left-handed pitcher Kolby Allard, UCLA right-hander James Kaprielian, Louisville right-hander Kyle Funkhouser, and prep catcher Chris Betts.

With Allard and Kaprielian off the board, the Royals selected Indiana prep right-handed pitcher Ashe Russell. Russell had been mentioned as a possibility for the Royals, despite the fact he had never been brought in for a workout. The young right-hander was lauded for having great stuff, but with some noted maturity issues and mechanical flaws in his delivery. Our Shaun Newkirk wrote in the days leading up to the draft:

Some have Russell pegged as a reliever immediately. He’s got excellent stuff that would play very well in the rotation, but his delivery/mechanics are worrisome. It’s a low 3/4 arm slot and the arm speed is faster than you’d like, creating some spotty command. Keith Law mentioned Chris Sale as a mechanical comparison.

Others are much higher on Russell though, citing his really effective arsenal and room for growth/projection.

He’s been able to beat high schoolers based on his fastball and slider alone, so the changeup is still raw, but when used it flashes average.

Russell made an appearance at the draft, endearing fans with a loud orange dress shirt and alligator shoes. Some pundits raved about his mid-90s fastball that could touch 97 mph, with comparisons to Noah Syndergaard or even Justin Verlander. Royals director of scouting Lonnie Goldberg made it clear the team was looking for someone that could bring the heat, telling reporters, “Right from the get go we attacked with power arms.”

But few would ever get a chance to see that power arm. Russell made 11 starts for Burlington in the Rookie Ball Appalachian League that year with perfectly adequate numbers - a 4.21 ERA in 36 13 innings. He pitched in two games the next spring in the instructional Arizona Summer League and that was it. He became a ghost.

For awhile, the circumstances surrounding Russell were a bit of a secret. Finally it came out that the young man was experiencing deep anxiety on the mound, what some refer to as “Steve Blass Disease”, named for the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who suddenly and inexplicably forgot how to throw a baseball.

Others in the game have suffered from a similar mental state - Mackey Sasser, Chuck Knoblauch, Rick Ankiel. It is not something to be taken lightly and it is difficult for many fans to understand how an athlete being paid handsomely can suddenly forget how to perform something he has done thousands of times before. But as Ankiel told Terry Gross on NPR, once the mental breakdown begins, it is hard to get the physical mechanics back on track.

I know what my mechanics look like, what they feel like, what I’m supposed to do. And that’s the crazy part about it. You’re standing out there on the mound. You know exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it and your body and brain will not let you do it.

Russell took a break from professional baseball in 2017, returning in 2018. He underwent Tommy John surgery in May of 2019 and is still recovering. He has thrown 38 13 innings in his professional career.

Had the Royals used Shaun Newkirk’s big draft board taking a consensus of draft rankings, they would have selected Funkhouser, who went 35th overall to the Dodgers. Funkhouser did not sign, and fell to the fourth round of the 2016 draft, where he was selected by the Tigers. He suffered a bad ankle injury early in his career and has progressed slowly, struggling last year in Triple-A at the age of 25. The next pick on the big draft board was Walker Buehler, who went 24th to the Dodgers, and has been a 5.7 WAR pitcher over the last two seasons.

The first round of the 2015 draft seems to have pretty mixed results so far. Of the top 42 picks, 20 have reached the big leagues, and just seven have put up 1.0 WAR or more so far. Second overall pick Alex Bregman has become a star, #7 pick Andrew Benintendi is very good, and Buehler is very sold. First overall pick Dansby Swanson has perhaps not lived up to his draft selection, but he is a solid starter and there is hope Ian Happ, Kevin Newman, Trent Grisham, Austin Riley, Kyle Tucker, Christin Stewart, Brendan Rodgers, and Josh Naylor can become solid regulars.

The Royals had the 33rd overall pick in the draft as compensation for losing James Shields to free agency, and went with another Indiana prep pitcher, selecting right-hander Nolan Watson. Watson struggled mightily in A-ball, and still has yet to pitch higher than High-A, undergoing Tommy John surgery last May.

In the second round, the Royals selected fireballer Josh Staumont out of Azusa Pacific, a pitcher who delighted scouts with a fastball that could reach triple digits. As Lonnie Goldberg told reporters, “Josh may have the most electric arm in the draft, one of the easiest working arms,” adding, “I haven’t seen many on the amateur level whose arm works that well. There’s big upside.” Staumont made his MLB debut last summer, one of two Royals from this draft class - 14th round pick catcher Nick Dini being the other - to reach the big leagues.

In fact, just nine players from this draft class have even reached as high as Double-A. Aside from Staumont, only infielders Gabriel Cancel (7th round), and Emmanuel Rivera (19th) get mentioned on any prospect lists. Of the top 21 picks, 12 are already out of baseball. Three missed all of last year after Tommy John surgery.

Royals 2015 draft class

Round Overall Player School BA Top 500 rank 2019 level Resume
Round Overall Player School BA Top 500 rank 2019 level Resume
1 21 RHP Ashe Russell Cathedral HS (IN) 17 Did not pitch Threw 38 IP before suffering from anxiety, Tommy John surgery
1 33 RHP Nolan Watson Lawrence North HS (IN) 56 High A Struggled in A-ball, required Tommy John surgery last May.
2 64 RHP Josh Staumont Azusa Pacific University (CA) 80 AAA/MLB Promising reliever with a 3.72 ERA in 19.1 IP with KC
3 98 OF Anderson Miller Western Kentucky University 166 AA Solid organizational guy, but bat isn't big enough to get past AA.
4 129 LHP Garrett Davila South Point HS (NC) 175 Did not pitch Has showed promise in lower levels, had Tommy John surgery in May.
5 159 CF Roman Collins Florida Atlantic University NR Out of baseball Struggled in Wilmington and was let go after 2017.
6 189 CF Cody Jones TCU 306 Out of baseball Speedster got as far as AA, but the bat never developed.
7 219 SS Gabriel Cancel Padre Anibal HS (PR) 402 AA Solid offensive second baseman, has a shot as a MLB bench player.
8 249 LHP Andre Davis University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff NR Out of baseball Traded for Melky Cabrera in 2017, last year of pro ball
9 279 LHP Joey Markus Indian River CC (FL) NR Out of baseball Struggled with control, pitched just 57 2/3 innings of pro ball.
10 309 RHP Alex Luna University of Alabama-Birmingham NR Out of baseball Never made it out of rookie ball, despite decent numbers.
11 339 OF Ben Johnson University of Texas 121 Out of baseball Let go after a tough year in Lexington in 2016.
12 369 RHP Daniel Concepcion Virginia Commonwealth Univ. NR Out of baseball Was let go after a 6.14 ERA in Lexington in 2016.
13 399 SS Travis Maezes University of Michigan 376 Out of baseball Hit just .199 in two seasons despite some decent power.
14 429 C Nick Dini Wagner College NR AAA/MLB Has hit well at each level, played in 20 games for the Royals.
15 459 OF Marquise Doherty Winnetonka HS (MO) 136 Did not sign Did not sign, played football and baseball at Mizzou
16 489 RHP Matt Ditman Rice University NR Out of baseball Put up solid numbers, but was let go after 2016.
17 519 LHP Matt Portland Northwestern University NR Out of baseball Let go after 2016, briefly pitched in White Sox system.
18 549 RHP Brian Bayliss St. Joseph's College (IN) NR Out of baseball Let go after 2016.
19 579 SS Emmanuel Rivera Universidad Interamericana (PR) NR AA Third baseman has some potential, but bat has been underwhelming.
20 609 RHP Junior Harding Chipola College (FL) 226 Out of baseball Did not sign, drafted by Reds in 17th round in 2017.

NR = Not Ranked

Of the 42 picks overall, 20 were pitchers with 22 position players. They selected seven high schoolers, seven junior college players, and 28 four-year college players.

Quite frankly, this will likely be one of the worst draft classes in club history. Most likely Staumont and Dini are the only ones who will ever reach the big leagues, and Staumont’s upside is a solid reliever, while Dini will likely be a backup catcher in a best-case scenario. Staumont’s potential will likely keep this draft class from rivaling the awful 2001 draft class, but the overall weakness of the draft class is a big black mark on the record of the Royals scouting department.