It’s time for the draft and while it will be nice to have some baseball things happening, it has been infamously reduced to just five rounds.
While players will still be able to sign if they aren’t drafted, signing bonuses will be capped at $20,000 for those undrafted players. For reference, 2019 tenth-round pick Anthony Veneziano’s signing bonus with Kansas City was $122,500, which was some $25,000 under slot. Sixth-round pick Danta Biasi, the first Royals draftee that would have been left out under the new format, signed for $247, 500, which was $51,500 under slot.
The 2020 draft class is looking at a deck stacked against them, despite the fact that the majority of players will land with clubs and play professional baseball. With that being said, Major League Baseball has a long history of great players that were not drafted in the first five rounds.
Names like Mike Piazza, Nolan Ryan, John Smoltz, Ryne Sandberg, and Albert Pujols were all selected after the first five rounds were completed. The Royals have also had great players emerge from beyond the fifth round of the draft. So, I decided to find the best of those players.
The criteria for this were pretty broad. I included players who were either drafted/found by Kansas City or whose longest MLB tenure was in Kansas City. Among those players, I looked for players who saw significant playing time, using mostly Baseball-Reference’s most common players by games played at each position tool. In other words, guys like Jamey Carrol and Josh Willingham don’t make the cut.
They weren’t all gems, either. In fact, it gets kinda ugly. Let’s take a look at the All-5th Round or Later Royals team.
Catcher: John Buck
Catcher was probably the most difficult position of the group. I didn’t include Salvador Perez because he was an international signee. Perez is the longest tenured starting catcher in Royals history with seven seasons as the starter. That is, seven seasons where he played more games than any other catcher on the roster. That number would be bigger had it not been for injuries, as well.
The next closest player is Mike Macfarlane with six seasons, but he was a fourth-round pick. Brent Mayne, Jamie Quirk, and Darrell Porter were first-round picks (so was Jim Sundberg, albeit in what was then the January draft). Kansas City liked first-round catchers. Ed Kirkpatrick and Fran Healy could have easily been included, but c’mon. No 1990’s baby Royals fan worth his weight in salt isn’t choosing the infamous John Buck.
Four five seasons, John Buck was the Royals starting catcher and was the backup for an additional season. In his first season away from Kansas City, he immediately became an All-Star with Toronto in one of the more underrated outlier seasons in recent history. For all intents and purposes, Buck was bad. But, Kirkpatrick and Healy weren’t all that good and Buck at least gave us some good Greinke stories.
First Base: Mike Sweeney
When it comes to Kansas City baseball folklore, Sweeney is probably the best Royals draftee at first base. There are better players on this list, but many of them were either drafted by other teams or found a lot of their success on other teams.
Sweeney’s 24.8 WAR is 15th-best in team history, but he accumulated that WAR mostly as a designated hitter or defensive liability. Which shows just how good he was at the plate. From 1999-2002, the tenth-round pick rattled off one of the best stretches in Royals history, slashing .324/.396/.535 with 104 homers and a 134 OPS+. He also accumulated more walks than strikeouts during that stretch.
All-time, Sweeney’s .861 OPS is the highest in Royals history among players with at least 1,000 games played. Danny Tartabull’s .894 mark is higher, but he played in just half the games that Sweeney played in. No player in Royals history, including George Brett, has had four consecutive seasons with an OPS above .900 as Sweeney did from 1999-2002.
Second Base: Whit Merrifield
Whit Merrifield’s career path has been a roller coaster. In the last college at-bat of his career, he walked off the College World Series in the last game ever played at the famed Rosenblatt Stadium. He was then drafted in the ninth round of the 2010 draft and proceeded to spend the next six years watching younger players get promoted to Kansas City.
Coming off a season in which he hit .319 across AA and AAA, Merrifield didn’t play a single Major League game for the Royals in 2015 who were rolling with Omar Infante, the worst qualified American League batter in the game, at second base. Kansas City relegated Infante to the bench when they traded for Ben Zobrist, but still.
Whit finally got the call in 2016 and hit a reasonable .283 but was a power black hole. He responded in 2017 by hitting 19 home runs and leading the league in stolen bases. Many doubted that it was anything more than a fluke, to which Merrifield responded with an even better season, leading the league in hits and stolen bases and getting MVP votes. Over the last three seasons, Merrifield has led the league in six major statistical categories.
Third Base: Joe Randa
The Joker was a cult favorite in Kansas City during his stay and provided something that Royals fans had very little of in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s: consistency.
Kansas City always had talent during the dark years, including guys like Sweeney, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, and Zack Greinke. But all those guys dealt with a mixture of injuries, being traded away, or having their talents swallowed up by the whirlwind of terrible Royals baseball.
In the midst of all of that, Randa was a steady hand over at third base for six seasons. During those six seasons, he averaged a 2.4 WAR, which Fangraphs would describe as a solid starter. Royals fans didn’t have many of those.
Shortstop: Freddie Patek
The Royals do not have a strong history at the shortstop position. The best season in Royals history at the position came from Jay Bell, a guy who played all of one season in Kansas City. With such a low bar of success, it shouldn’t surprise us that a former 22nd-round pick is the best shortstop in team history.
In fact, there isn’t really much competition. Alcides Escobar was a good player and will likely be in the Royals Hall of Fame, but Patek was better in just about every way. His 20.5 rWAR is good for 21st in Royals history and easily paces Escobar’s 8.6 mark. Patek was a three-time All-Star, none of which came in 1971 when he finished 6th in the AL MVP voting.
Patek is one of the most loved Royals of all-time, as well as one of the shortest players in baseball history. He also stole at least 32 bases in every full season of his Royals career, including a career-high and league-leading 53 stolen bases in 1977.
Left Field: Emil Brown
This is probably my favorite inclusion on the list. Whether it was Brown accidentally shooting a reporter in the eye with a BB gun or literally saving his soon-to-be dead career with a red hot Spring Training in 2005, Brown was an interesting player. Drafted in 1994, Brown wasn’t a full-time starter until making the team in Kansas City in 2005. He also came into Spring Training that season having not played a Major League game since August 2, 2001. His last hit had come on July 17, 2001.
Brown’s career was dead in the water. Then, he hit .389 in Spring Training with five homers to make the Opening Day roster. Matt Stairs was the Opening Day starter in right, but Brown quickly took over as the starter after hitting two homers in his first four games. From 2005-06, Brown was one of the best bats in the Royals lineup, hitting 32 homers with an .810 OPS in 297 games.
Center Field: Lorenzo Cain
Cain was taken by the Brewers in the 17th round of the 2004 draft out of Madison County High School. While that’s fairly late in the draft, it isn’t abnormal for successful baseball players to be drafted that late. Kenny Lofton, Ian Kinsler, and Orel Hershieser were all drafted in the 17th round.
However, each of those three players played grew up playing baseball and played college ball before being drafted. Cain was drafted a little over two years after he picked up a glove and a bat for the first time. Like, literally. The dude didn’t own a baseball glove. He caught his first fly ball with a gloved right hand, took the glove off, and threw the ball back in with his right hand. He had grabbed a left-handed glove even though he was right handed.
Fast forward to 2020 and Cain has the 14th highest rWAR in Royals history. His 36.1 career rWAR, which includes his time with the Brewers, would be the 7th highest in Royals history. He and Quisenberry are the only players on this list with a top-5 MVP finish. He is also the only player on this list to be the best player on a Royals World Series winner. He and George Brett are the only members of that exclusive club.
Right Field: Jarrod Dyson
In terms of late round value, there are few players in the history of baseball better than Jarrod Dyson. Only four players who have been drafted in the 50th round or later as Dyson was has a better career rWAR than the Southwest Mississippi Community College project. And with the draft being trimmed to 40 rounds in 2012, he will go down as the last 50th rounder in history.
There have been some words written about Dyson’s incredible story, and he was an easy player to like. However, it isn’t outrageous to see an 80-grade runner make the major leagues. What is outrageous is that he became arguably the best defender on a stacked defensive team while playing part time. What is outrageous is Dyson having a better fWAR than Salvador Perez and a close to identical fWAR to Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, and Mike Moustakas in a fraction of the games.
Dyson is 23rd on the Royals all-time fWAR list despite being just 39th in games played. Only Whit Merrifield has a higher fWAR in fewer games. He has played in four fewer games as a Royal than Dyson, but consider this. Dyson started just 371 of his 550 appearances in Kansas City. So, despite playing in four more games than Merrifield, he appeared in 359 fewer innings and had 865 fewer plate appearances. Dyson was an incredibly valuable player on a per-game basis.
Starting Pitcher: Bret Saberhagen
The Royals have a history of epic bad trades but there are few that hurt worse for fans than the Bret Saberhagen trades. From 1984-1991, only Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, and Nolan Ryan were more valuable than Saberhagen. He won two Cy Young Awards as a former 19th round pick, one of which also came with a World Series MVP at just 21 years old. He was on a Hall of Fame trajectory in 1991 and at 27 years old, was still in his prime.
Then, General Manager Herk Robinson traded him for an oft-injured utilityman, a 32-year-old who didn’t really want to play baseball anymore, and a bust who played just one year in Kansas City. To date, Saberhagen is the only Royals pitcher to win multiple Cy Young Awards, as well as the only one to win a Gold Glove. His August 26, 1991 no-hitter is the last Royals no-hitter to date and his performance in the 1985 World Series is still the stuff of legends.
The Royals were down 2-0 in the series when he pitched a complete-game to keep Kansas City in the series. Then he followed that by pitching a complete game shut-out in Game 7 to deliver the Royals its first world championship, famously being lifted into the air by George Brett after the last out. And he did it a day after his wife gave birth to their first child! Not bad for a 19th-round pick.
Starting Pitcher: Paul Splittorff
As far as career arcs go, Paul Splittorff might be Saberhagen’s opposite. While Saberhagen waited just two years to be a World Series hero, Splittorff waited a decade and a half only to come up one year short. The former 25th-round pick debuted during the Royals sophomore year in 1970 and quickly became a staple in the starting rotation. During a 13-year stretch from 1971-1983, Splitt threw fewer than 150 innings just twice and pitched in at least 200 innings seven times.
No pitcher in Royals history has thrown more innings than Splittorff’s 2554.2 innings, with the next closest being Mark Gubicza over 336 innings behind. His 392 starts are the most in Royals history, also by a wide margin. He also pitched well in the postseason, posting a 2.79 ERA in seven appearances, including his long appearance in the 1980 World Series.
Relief Pitcher: Dan Quisenberry
I think that the All-Fifth Round or Later team is too liberal for Dan Quisenberry. Quiz played NCAA Division III baseball at the University of La Verne. He wasn’t looked at by professional scouts. He got his opportunity with the Royals by happenstance – there was an opening with the Waterloo Royals and Royals scout Rosey Gilhousen was in a pinch. He told Quiz’s coach that if Quiz showed up at his house in the next hour, he’d sign him. He signed for $500.
And somehow, him and his 80 MPH arm started getting outs. Really though, if you have read this far, find a subscription to The Athletic and read this piece by Joe Posnanski on Quisenberry. It is worth your time. The most important thing for you to know for the purposes of this piece is that Dan Quisenberry fell backwards into Major League Baseball and became the best reliever in baseball and a fringe Hall of Fame candidate.
He was a five-time AL Rolaids Relief Man Award winner. Mariano Rivera is the only relief pitcher in either league to have as many of those trophies in his home. He was a five-time AL saves leader, one of four pitchers to ever lead the league in saves five times. If there was an MVP of an article like this that best represents this group, it would be Quiz.
Relief Pitcher: Greg Holland
Among other things, Greg Holland was famously the first Dayton Moore draft pick to make the Major Leagues. A 10th round pick at Western Carolina, Holland eventually became the last dreaded link of the HDH relief chain and one of the best relievers in baseball. A three-time All-Star, Holland also has the Royals single-season record for saves with 46. And from 2011-2014, he was darn near unhittable.
We don’t talk about how ridiculous his 2014 season was. He posted a 1.44 ERA, striking out 90 batters in 62.1 innings. He got even better in the postseason, giving up just one run in 11 appearances, striking out 15 batters in the process. He did all that with a ripped up UCL that in all likelihood cost him a chance to contribute to the 2015 World Series run.