This is the second installment looking back at who the Royals could have selected in past drafts, by the decade. I’m not sure if there is anything more difficult in life than identifying baseball talent. Brain surgery? Talking to women? The list is pretty short. Staking your career as a scout or General Manager to the analysis of 18–22-year-old ball players is a risky endeavor. Why do some players make it and some do not? That remains the million-dollar question that vexes all teams.
The 1980 draft was the Darryl Strawberry draft. There was little doubt about the straw man going #1. Even the Mets, who held the pick, couldn’t have blown that one. Kansas City held the 16th pick and took Frank Wills, who ended up pitching in 154 games over a nine-year, three-team career. After Strawberry, the pickings were slim. Danny Tartabull went to the Reds with pick #71 in the 3rd round. Doug Drabek went to the Indians in the 4th. The big miss by every team was another Los Angeles high school outfielder, Eric Davis, who went to Cincinnati with pick #201 in the 8th. The Royals did pick up catcher Don Slaught in the 7th and also drafted pitcher Tim Crews, who enjoyed a solid career as a reliever before dying in a tragic spring training boating accident as a member of the Cleveland Indians. Grade: D
The 1981 draft had some decent early talent - Joe Carter, Kevin McReynolds, and Ron Darling all went in the first nine picks. The Royals had their first selection at #23 and took USC outfielder Dave Leeper. They also held #34 and used it on pitcher Mark Gubicza. Mark Langston went at #35 and Frank Viola at #37. The Royals had taken Viola in 1978 but must have liked Gubicza better. Local product Phil Bradley went to Seattle at #53 and had a solid eight-year career.
The huge miss was at pick #58, which the Padres used to select Tony Gwynn. Gwynn led the National League in hits seven times and won eight batting titles on his way to 3,141 career hits and a place in Cooperstown. Somewhat unbelievably, Gwynn never won an MVP award, including 1987 when he led all National League players in WAR by a wide margin. The Royals did score later in the 3rd when they selected hometown boy David Cone with pick #74. There were still great players to be had, such as Paul O’Neill, Todd Benzinger, John Franco, Devon White, Alvin Davis, Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, Roger Clemens, Lenny Dykstra, and Vince Coleman. The Royals had a solid pick in Round 4 with Shane Mack but were unable to sign him. They picked up Bill Pecota in the January phase and he had a solid career. Grade: A
In 1982, Shawon Dunston went #1 to the Cubs, ahead of Dwight Gooden at #5. The Royals took outfielder John Morris at #10, passing on David Wells, who came off the board with pick #30. The Royals whiffed on their 2nd round pick, Joe Szekely, missing on future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin who went 14 picks later. They also fired blanks on their 3rd round pick at #64, missing on Mike Greenwell, who went to Boston at #72. The Royals could have scored big with their 4th round pick at #90, a young first baseman named Will Clark, but were unable to sign him. The Royals’ big coup was selecting a high school shortstop with their 19th round selection, a Reseda, California kid named Bret Saberhagen. There was a lot of good talent in the later rounds: B.J. Surhoff, Pat Borders, Alvin Davis (again), Terry Pendelton, Rafael Palmeiro, Tom Browning, Vince Coleman (again), Rob Dibble, and Jose Canseco. Grade: A
Kansas City scored in the January draft when they inked pitcher Danny Jackson, as well as slugger Cecil Fielder, although they would trade him to Toronto before he ever became a home run king.
How unpredictable are baseball drafts? In the 1983 June draft, the best player was Roger Clemens and he didn’t get selected until pick #19, two selections before the Royals took Gary Thurman. Wow, can you imagine if the Rocket had dropped to Kansas City? There were a lot of serviceable pros in this draft, but the next best player the Royals passed on would have been Wally Joyner who went to California at #67.
The Royals did find gold in the 11th round when they nabbed Kevin Seitzer. The rest of their draft was gravel. They missed on Ron Gant, Terry Steinbach, and Jeff Montgomery, who went to Cincy at #212. Their hearts were in the right place with their 30th round pick, catcher/third baseman Todd Zeile, but failed to sign him. Can you imagine the late 80s Royals with Shane Mack in the outfield, Cecil Fielder at DH, Will Clark at first, and Todd Zeile at catcher? Added to what the Royals already had, that core might have won 2-3 more World Series titles. Never hurts to dream a little. Grade: C+
There wasn’t much to dream about with the 1984 draft. The first round was fairly grim. Shawn Abner went #1 to the New York Mets. Mark McGwire went to Oakland at #10 and Shane Mack, who the Royals couldn’t sign in 1981, went to San Diego at #11. Mack eventually made his way to Kansas City for the final 66 games of his nine-year career. Better late than never, I suppose. The Royals picked up their only serviceable player in the draft with pick #16, when they selected pitcher Scott Bankhead, who was part of a 1986 trade that brought Danny Tartabull to the Royals.
There were a couple of huge misses that went in the second round: Las Vegas high school pitcher Greg Maddux went to the Cubs with the 31st pick while Tom Glavine was selected by the Braves with pick #47. The Royals had the 44th pick and used it on Luis de los Santos, who played 39 career games for Kansas City at below replacement level, while Glavine won 305 games and went to the Hall of Fame. Ouch.
As with any draft, there were some finds in the later rounds. Jamie Moyer went to the Cubs in the 6th. How about that Cubs draft? Maddox and Moyer. Wow. John Wetteland went in the 12th. The Angels grabbed Chuck Finley in the 15th and Dante Bichette in the 17th. Overall, 1984 was a weak year on top-level talent. Grade: D
The Royals fared a little better in 1985. B.J. Surhoff went #1 to the Brewers. Former Royal pick Will “the Thrill” Clark went to the Giants at #2. Barry Larkin was taken at #4 and Barry Bonds went to the Pirates at #6. The Royals were on the clock at #17 and did the smart thing in choosing Brian McRae, son of Royal legend Hal. There were a few players taken right after McRae that also would have been reasonable choices: Gregg Jefferies at #20, Rafael Palmeiro at #22, and Randy Johnson at #36. Kansas City scored again in the 4th with the selection of Mike Macfarlane. They came back in the 6th and selected Deion Sanders out of North Fort Myers, Florida, but were unable to sign him. In the 8th round they took University of Mississippi third baseman Deric Ladnier, who eventually became their scouting director. Grade: C+
Future Royal Jeff King went #1 in 1986 to the Pirates, who passed on Kevin Brown, Matt Williams, and Gary Sheffield among others. Due to their winning ways at the time, the Royals didn’t pick until #24 and gagged it up on high school shortstop Tony Clements, who only made it into Kauffman as a paying customer. A better pick would have been Kevin Tapani, a college pitcher who went to Oakland at #40.
The Royals also blew their 2nd round pick, #52, on Darryl Robinson, a Chicago high school outfielder. Todd Zeile went at #55 and Dean Palmer went with pick #59. Kansas City rolled the dice in the 4th round by selecting Auburn outfielder Bo Jackson, in what remains one of their great picks of all time. Bo ended up playing 25 games for the Royals in 1986, before making the club permanently in 1987.
I always thought the Chiefs should have taken him in the 1987 draft, thereby keeping him in town year around. The Chiefs didn’t have a 6th round selection but could have taken Bo in Round five. Instead, they opted for a wide receiver named Kitrick Taylor. Al Davis, who was a bit of a mad scientist, ruined it for everyone by taking Bo. There was nothing quite like watching Bo play baseball. Or football. Too bad it ended like it did.
In Round six, the Royals hit another home run with Tom Gordon. The added pitcher Greg Hibbard in the 16th, but gave up on him too soon, trading him (and Melido Perez!) to division rival Chicago White Sox. That was a bad trade. In Round 32, they selected David Howard, who had some serviceable years. The remainder of the draft was fairly uninspiring. Hal Morris, Steve Finley, Scott Leius, Tim Salmon, John Olerud, and Chuck Knoblauch were the best players drafted in the later rounds. Grade: A
In most years, Kansas City seemed to pull at least one good player out of the draft pond. Ken Griffey Jr. was the no-brainer at #1 to Seattle in the 1987 draft. The Royals had the #9 pick and scored big time with pitcher Kevin Appier. No complaints there. Ape was one of the best to ever toe the mound for Kansas City. They took Terry Schumpert in the second round with pick #41. Albert Belle went to Cleveland at #47. Can you imagine Belle hitting behind Bo? That would have been something to see.
The other pick by Kansas City that ended with a solid career was Jeff Conine, who they selected in the 58th round with pick #1226. Conine made his Royal debut in 1990, was lost to the Marlins in the expansion draft, where he had his best seasons, then required by Kansas City in 1997, all part of a 17-year career which saw him stroke 1,982 hits. In round 65, the Royals selected, but failed to sign, infielder Bret Barberie, who despite a six-year career, was better known for marrying sportscaster Jillian Barberie. Some notables they missed were Reggie Sanders (7th round), Mike Mussina (11th round), Mike Stanton and Steve Finley (13th round) and David Segui (18th round). There always seems to be talent available, the problem is identifying it. Grade: A-
1988 wasn’t a particularly strong draft year. Andy Benes went #1 to the Padres. Steve Avery went #3 to Atlanta and Nolan Ryan’s favorite whipping boy, Robin Ventura went at #10 to the White Sox. The Royals had the 18th pick and whiffed with Arkansas high school outfielder Hugh Walker. There wasn’t a lot behind him, but Ed Sprague (#25) or Brian Jordan (#30) would have been better selections. In round two, with pick #48, the Royals grabbed Bob Hamelin, a good pick, if for no other reason than it gave the fans Hammer Time, that glorious time during the summer of 1994 when it seems like the Royals might have something going on.
In the 5th round, they picked up catcher Tim Spehr, who had three stints with the team. They missed on Jim Edmonds (7th round), Mark Wohlers (8th) and Kenny Lofton (17th), who was a star basketball player at the University of Arizona. Much like Bo Jackson, Lofton was a bit of a project. He ended up playing for division rival Cleveland and had a Hall of Fame-worthy 17-year career in which he made six All-Star teams, stroked 2,428 hits, and stole 622 bases. He would have looked good in Royal blue. Grade: D
In the final draft of the decade, pitcher Ben McDonald was the consensus #1 pick, going to the Orioles. A better choice would have been Auburn first baseman Frank Thomas, who went to the Chicago White Sox with pick #7. The Royals had pick #13 and selected catcher Brent Mayne. Mayne was a decent player but think about Maurice “Mo” Vaughn playing first for Kansas City. They could have had him; he went to Boston with pick #23.
Kansas City made 60 picks in this draft but could have stopped after Mayne. Matt Karchner was the best of the rest at #205, but he was lost to the White Sox in the minor league Rule 5 draft. He pitched in 223 games in a six-year career. Like all drafts, there were some diamonds who went later such as Jeff Bagwell (#109), Ryan Klesko (#114), Curtis Leskanic (#201), Trevor Hoffman (#288) and the Royals’ all-time daddy, Jim Thome, who went to the Indians in the 13th round. The Indians also snagged Brian Giles in the 17th round. Jeff Kent went to the Blue Jays in the 20th round. Future Royal Joe Randa was selected by California in the 30th round but did not sign. Grade: D
You can see the groundwork of a dynasty being laid by division rival Cleveland in these drafts: Belle, Lofton (acquired in a trade), Thome, and Giles.
The line between future pennants and 100 loss seasons is thin. Scouting baseball talent is difficult and convincing your management to take a chance on a player you scouted could be a career maker or breaker. For the decade of the ‘80s, the Royals made 561 picks. 79 of those players spent some time in the big leagues, which is a 14% success rate. The Royals made some solid picks, especially pitchers as they snagged Mark Gubicza, David Cone, Danny Jackson, Scott Bankhead, Tom Gordon, Greg Hibbard, and Kevin Appier in those ten draft years. The big problem was the front office trading off most of those arms before they matured.
One thing that is certain, in the drafts of the 1970s and 1980s the Royals were better at picking quarterbacks than were their football cousins, the Chiefs. In 1971, the Royals selected Archie Manning and Steve Bartkowski, who were both excellent quarterbacks. In 1979, the Royals hit the quarterback mother lode when they selected John Elway and Dan Marino, who both ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Add in the selection of Neon Deon in 1985 and Bo in 1986, and an argument could be made that the Royals scouts should double up and handle the drafts for the Chiefs.