What if the Royals had a perfect draft? Of course, we all know that is impossible. Drafting baseball players is notoriously hard and unpredictable. In fact, I think baseball is the hardest of the major four sports to evaluate talent and draft.
If baseball were as easy as say, football, Albert Pujols would have been the unanimous #1 pick in the 1999 draft. Instead, as you’ve read many times before, Pujols lasted until pick #402, in the 13th round. Pujols will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and is one of the greatest players, not just of this generation, but of all-time. The Royals, who were located just miles from where Pujols lived and played high school baseball, had the 391st pick and selected a third baseman from Pepperdine University named G.J. Raymundo, who never played an inning in Kansas City.
In 2009, a high school kid named Mike Trout lasted until the 25th pick of the first round. Trout will also go into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Stephen Strasburg went #1 that year and he was another can’t miss prospect. After that it got pretty dicey. The Royals had the 12th pick and selected Aaron Crow out of Missouri. Crow had a couple of decent seasons, but he’ll never give an induction speech at Cooperstown.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane and see what a perfect world would have looked like for the Royals.
The first year that the Royals were eligible for the draft was 1968, and Major League Baseball in their infinite wisdom, amazingly didn’t even give the new expansion teams the first four picks. The New York Mets had the first selection and took high school shortstop Tim Foli. Foli hung around for 16 seasons but was only worth 5.7 WAR in his career. In fact, he might be best remembered for having married a bunny from the Montreal Playboy club than for his baseball.
The Royals finally got on the board with the 81st pick and selected Kenneth O’Donnell, a shortstop from Neptune, New Jersey. A better choice would have been Texas high school pitcher Burt Hooten, who went with pick #85. The Royals also had pick #104 and took John Nelson, a high school outfielder from Duarte, California. In a perfect world, the Royals would have taken a sweet-swinging first baseman named Cecil Cooper, who went to Boston with pick #128. The Royals did have a few picks that made it to the show: Lance Clemons (#153), Monty Montgomery (#201) and most famously, Paul Splittorff at #574. In between, they missed on some solid players like Joe Ferguson, Doyle Alexander, Al Bumbry, Ben Oglivie, Steve Stone, Oscar Gamble and Bill “Spaceman” Lee.
In the 1969 January draft, the Royals selected Doug Bird, who was a key component of their bullpen for several seasons. For the 1969 June draft, MLB still wouldn’t let the expansion teams draft first, instead making the Royals wait until pick #23, where they blew it on a guy named John Simmons. They could have had Larry Gura (#40), Bert Blyleven (#55) or Dwight Evans (#107). Ouch.
Their 5th round pick, outfielder Keith Marshall, did make the team for an eight-game cup of coffee in 1973. Players coming off the board after Marshall included Bob Boone, Jim Sundberg, Rick Burleson, Bucky Dent, Bill Madlock, and Bill North. The Royals did score with Jim York at #381 who they later flipped for John Mayberry. So at least that worked out. Ken Griffey Sr. went to the Reds with pick #680. Kansas City did well with pick #1,026, which was in the 75th round when they snagged Al Cowens. In fact, the Royals had 41 of the final 68 picks and Cowens was the only player out of that group to make the show. Cowens, who finished 2nd in the 1977 MVP voting, might have been the greatest 75th round pick of all time.
The Royals had the 8th pick in the 1970 draft and wasted no time blowing it on a Texas high school catcher named Rex Goodson. 1970 wasn’t a particularly deep draft, but there were some decent players available to the Royals such as Fred Lynn, Dave Parker, Goose Gossage, Rick Reuschel, Bruce Sutter and Bake McBride. The Royals did pick up Tom Poquette and…well that was it for 1970. Thank god Cedric Tallis was a trading wizard.
The Royals bumped up the 5th spot in the 1971 draft, and true to form selected pitcher Roy Branch. Branch reportedly had loads of talent but battled arm trouble. He did squeeze in two games with the 1979 Seattle Mariners. To get Mr. Branch, they passed on Frank Tanana and Jim Rice. They did score big with the 29th pick, selecting California high school shortstop, George Brett. Mike Schmidt went with the next pick to the Phillies. How crazy is that? Two of the greatest third basemen of all time going in back-to-back picks? With pick #51, they selected outfielder Charles “Pickle” Smith, passing on Ron Guidry (#65), and Warren Cromartie (#143). 1971 was the first successful draft in Kansas City history. Besides Brett, they collected Joe Zdeb (#75) and Mark Littell (#267) but missed on Mike Flanagan (#346) and Keith Hernandez, who went to the Cardinals with pick #776 in the 42nd round. In the secondary phase of the 1971 draft, with their 2nd round selection, the Royals took USC pitcher Steve Busby. Busby went on to become the first great pitcher in Royals history.
In 1972, the Royals held the 18th selection and used it on Jamie Quirk, who was a valuable back up and trade chip for several years. To secure Quirk, Kansas City passed on Chet Lemon, Ellis Valentine, Gary Carter and Dennis Eckersley. KC scored big with their second-round selection, pitcher Dennis Leonard. The Royals fired blanks on their next eight picks, missing on talents like Randy Jones, Willie Randolph, Jim Sundberg (again) and Mike Hargrove.
1973 was the year that David Clyde went to the Rangers at #1. Kansas City had pick #9 and continued to flail by selecting pitcher Lew Olsen. 1973 wasn’t a particularly strong draft class, but they had another shot at Fred Lynn who went to Boston at #41. How did they miss Lynn? Lynn had been a star at USC, which was a baseball powerhouse in those days and just a year before they snagged Steve Busby out of USC, so they had to see Lynn. They also passed on Len Barker, Eddie Murray, Butch Hobson, Bob Stanley, Jack Clark and Jeff Reardon, all who had very solid big-league careers. Especially Murray, a 3rd round pick of the Orioles who terrorized major league pitchers for 21 seasons to the tune of 3,255 hits and 504 home runs on his way to Cooperstown. The Royals did pick up Rupert Jones in this draft with their 3rd round selection (6 picks before Murray) but lost him to Seattle in the expansion draft.
As the Royals started to win more games, their draft status moved down. In 1974, they finally got their first-round pick right, selecting Willie Wilson at #18. Hard to argue with that one. They rolled snake eyes on their next nine picks, missing out on Pete Vuckovich, Ed Whitson, Mark Fidrych, Bump Wills, Hubie Brooks, and Bob Welch. No Hall of Famers, but some solid ballplayers.
It looked like KC scored again in 1975 when they snagged outfielder Clint Hurdle with the 9th selection. Hurdle was touted to be the next Mickey Mantle. He never reached those heights but did have a reasonable career as a player and was even better as a manager. Why didn’t the Royals ever hire Hurdle to manage?
The Royals blew their next three picks before scoring in the 5th round with pitcher Rich Gale. Between Hurdle and Gale, they missed on Carney Lansford and Lou Whitaker. Solid players who went later in the draft included Keith Moreland (#156), Mike Boddiker (#178), Andre Dawson (#250), Dave Stewart (#384) and John Tudor (#484). Dawson was playing college ball at Florida A&M, which should have attracted the attention of the Florida regional scout.
In 1976, the Royals brain trust choked on their first selection, picking a Florida high school pitcher named Ben Grzybek, passing on, among others: Alan Trammell, Mike Scott, Rickey Henderson, Jack Morris, Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, and Wade Boggs. I’d need a calculator to add up all of that WAR. Break out the party hats because the Royals did pick up Jim Gaudet and Ken Phelps, who contributed -.5 WAR in a combined 38 game Kansas City stint. To be fair, Phelps did play for 11 seasons and hit over 20 home runs in four seasons with the Mariners between 1984 and 1988.
By 1977, thanks to a series of astounding trades by Cedric Tallis, the Royals were a fixture in the playoffs and their draft misses were easily covered up. Their first-round pick of 1977, pitcher Mike Jones did appear in 77 games for Kansas City between 1980 and 1985. By picking Jones, they passed on Dave Henderson, Mookie Wilson, Ozzie Smith (again), Tim Raines and Jesse Barfield. Along with Jones, the only other Royals pick of 1977 to make the bigs was Renie Martin, who was taken with pick #486.
In 1978, the Royals used their first pick, #25 overall, on World Series hero Buddy Biancalana. They missed on some other talent by taking Buddy, including Cal Ripken Jr., Steve Balboni, Mike Witt and Dave Steib. There was plenty of talent in the later rounds with Mark Langston at #377, Kent Hrbek at #432 and Ryne Sandberg at #511. The Royals, to their credit, did select pitcher Frank Viola in the 16th round, but were unable to sign him. Besides Biancalana, the Royals got Daryl Motley in the second round. Their other 29 picks all washed out. The Royals also missed on an outfielder named Rusty Kuntz, who went to the White Sox with the 261st pick.
In the final draft of the decade, the Royals selected pitcher Atlee Hammaker with pick #21 of the first round. They whiffed their second-round pick, missing on Jeff Russell, Greg Gagne, Harold Reynolds, and Von Hayes. They did snag Pat Sheridan with their third-round pick. They also selected Craig Lefferts in the 7th but were unable to sign him. In the 18th round, they selected a California high school kid named John Elway. They could have saved Chiefs (and Browns) fans a lot of heartbreak had they signed him. The remainder of the 1979 draft was a bust for the Royals. There were some good players available after Sheridan, such as Storm Davis, Jimmie Key, Bud Black, Orel Hershiser, Don Mattingly, Brett Butler, Joe Carter, Billy Hatcher and Glenn Davis.
One thing this exercise has shown me is how crazy difficult it is to identify and develop baseball talent. The Royals are not alone in this type of draft misery. Most teams have draft regrets, that “what if” we had selected this player. It also shows how important that ONE player can be to a franchise. A guy like George Brett, Fred Lynn, Cal Ripken, or Rickey Henderson. Players like that change the entire trajectory of your franchise. Find a player like that every five years and your team has a lot of flags flying. For the 12 draft years between 1968 and 1979, the Royals selected 596 players, 78 of those eventually made a big league roster. About half played at least a few games with the Royals. More notable were some of the players that Kansas City drafted and were unable (or unwilling) to sign who later made a splash. Some of those names included Sammy Stewart, Scott Sanderson, Hubie Brooks, Frank Viola, Mike Bielecki, and Craig Lefferts. Signing those players could have easily extended the 1980’s contention window.
The key draft years for the Royals were 1971 and 1972. In 1971, 24% of the players they drafted made it to the show including stalwarts Brett, Busby, and Littell. In 1972, 18% of their draftees made it to a major league roster with the big fish being Dennis Leonard. Adding Willie Wilson in 1974 was the final coup. Those strong drafts, coupled with Cedric Tallis’ trading genius, laid the groundwork for the Royals 1976 to 1985 run.