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The Royals’ 2016 draft class, five years later

The Royals forfeit their first round pick

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off a World Series parade, the Royals went into 2016 hoping to keep the party going a little bit longer. They had a core that was still club control for the next two seasons, but to maintain a consistent winner, they’d have to find amateur talent that could replace that core eventually. That means finding some gems in the draft, despite the fact that they would have the fourth-from-last selection in the first round.

But rather than try to find the next Royals star, the club decided to make the plunge into free agency and forfeit their first-round pick. The Royals did have a weakness in the starting rotation, and they would have to replace departing free agency Johnny Cueto. To fill that hole, they signed Padres pitcher Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million deal. Because Kennedy had rejected a Qualifying Offer, under the rules of the time, the Royals had to give up their first-round pick to sign him. It would be the first draft they would be without a first-round pick since 1990, when they forfeited their pick to sign another Padres free agent pitcher - Mark Davis.

Had the Royals kept their pick, they would have had the 22nd overall pick due to all the free agent signings. That pick ended up being used by the Pittsburgh Pirates to select Will Craig out of Wake Forest University, a first baseman who was already designated for assignment and is best-known for a fielding blunder. Among the next ten picks include infielder Carter Kieboom, catcher Will Smith, and pitchers Dane Dunning and Eric Lauer.

The Royals would not get to make a selection until pick #67 in the second round. They were said to be looking for value, and a “safe bet”, possibly a pitcher. You can imagine they may have looked for a polished college pitcher who could make it to the majors quickly to join their core group. Vanderbilt’s Ben Bowden was mentioned as a possibility, but he would go off the board at #45 to Colorado.

There were some interesting college arms on Shaun Newkirk’s consensus draft board that night. Corbin Burnes of St. Mary’s would fall to the fourth round to the Brewers. Jon Duplantier of Rice would go in round three to Arizona. But it was a prep arm some fans were calling for in the draft open thread - Jesus Luzardo. The “Jesus Lizard” had already undergone Tommy John surgery, but would go to Washington in the third round. In fact, the third round ended up being pretty full of good pitchers - Dustin May, Zac Gallen, and Aaron Civale would all go in that round.

Instead, the Royals went with another college pitcher, right-hander A.J. Puckett of Pepperdine. Puckett threw in the low-90s with a plus change up, and had overcome a near-fatal car accident to post a 1.27 ERA for the Waves. As Baseball Prospectus wrote:

Both the fastball and change are above average, and he throws strikes with all three pitches. The curveball needs a lot of work, but if it can be even average, he’s pitching in a rotation.

Puckett would put up okay numbers his first season, but had very underwhelming numbers in the pitcher-friendly environment in Wilmington, and in the summer of 2017 the Royals traded him to the White Sox for outfielder Melky Cabrera.

With the second-to-last pick in the third round, the Royals took an interesting two-way prep player in Khalil Lee, from the Washington, DC area. Some had projected him as a pitcher, but the Royals wanted him in the outfield.

“We got to the point where we thought he was the best athlete on the board. It’s rare to find a player with those pluses at both positions.”

-Royals Director of Scouting Lonnie Goldberg

Lee is one of six players from the Royals’ draft class that year that have reached the big leagues so far. The only one to play in more than a handful of games though is infielder Nicky Lopez, taken in the fifth round out of Creighton. Pitchers Richard Lovelady (10th round) and outfielder Nick Heath (16th) each got a cup of coffee with the Royals while pitchers David McKay (14th) and Anthony Bender (20th) got a taste of MLB action with other clubs.

Kansas City Royals 2016 draft class

Round Overall Player School BA Top 500 rank 2021 level Resume
Round Overall Player School BA Top 500 rank 2021 level Resume
2 67 P A.J. Puckett Pepperdine 73 High A/AA Had Tommy John surgery, taken by the Braves in the minor league Rule 5 draft
3 103 OF Khalil Lee Flint Hill School (VA) 121 AAA/MLB Traded to the Mets in the Andrew Benintendi deal, appeared in 11 MLB games
4 133 P Jace Vines Texas A&M 461 AAA Underwhelming K numbers, finding more success this year as a reliever.
5 163 SS Nicky Lopez Creighton 401 MLB Has hit .227/.288/.306 in 208 MLB games, was a Gold Glove finalist.
6 193 OF Cal Jones Dadeville HS (AL) NR Out of baseball Turned down a chance to play football at Alabama, but never advanced past low-A ball.
7 223 P Travis Eckert Oregon State NR Out of baseball Good numbers in rookie ball, but played just one more year in Low-A.
8 253 1B Chris DeVito U. of New Mexico NR Out of baseball "Red Hercules" had his power sapped in High-A Wilmington.
9 283 P Walker Sheller Stetson University 454 Out of baseball Reliever reached as high as Double-A, but had trouble throwing strikes.
10 313 P Richard Lovelady Kennesaw State Univ. NR Injured Has a 7.71 ERA in 21 MLB innings, currently out with injury.
11 343 OF Vance Vizcaino Stetson University NR AA/AAA Good speed, no power, currently at the top Cubs affiliate.
12 373 P Jeremy Gwinn Colby CC NR Out of baseball Gave up 57 runs in 48 innings in rookie ball and was done.
13 403 2B Logan Gray Austin Peay State 169 Out of baseball Local kid out of Rockhurst HS never made it out of rookie ball.
14 433 P David McKay Florida Atlantic NR Injured Sold to the Mariners, has 6.08 ERA in 26.2 MLB innings. Now in Tigers organization.
15 463 P Mike Messier Bellarmine Univ. NR Out of baseball 6.40 ERA, never made it out of rookie ball.
16 493 OF Nick Heath Northwestern State NR AAA/MLB Speedster has played 28 games in MLB, now with the Diamondbacks
17 5223 P Dillon Drabble Seminole State College NR Out of baseball Had injuries, never made it past Low-A ball.
18 553 P Vance Tatum Mississippi State NR Out of baseball Put up solid numbers, good K numbers, but never made it past High-A ball.
19 583 P Tyler Fallwell Cohise CC NR Out of baseball Got to Low-A ball, spent 2019 in the independent American Association.
20 613 P Anthony Bender Santa Rosa JC NR MLB Released, signed by the Marlins out of indy ball, has thrown 10.1 scoreless IP.

On the plus side, nine of the top nineteen picks reached at least Double-A, with six of them reaching the big leagues. On the other hand, two of them - McKay and Bender - reached the big leagues after the Royals let them go for basically nothing. Two others - Lee and Heath - are currently playing for other clubs. And the only player that looks like a significant contributor is Nicky Lopez, whose bat may relegate him to reserve duty long-term. Perhaps Lovelady breaks through, or maybe the Royals get contributions from late-round relievers Grant Gavin (29th round) or Nathan Webb (34th). It was not a MLB draft class completely devoid of talent either. Shane Bieber, Cavan Biggio, Tommy Edman, Tony Gonsolin, and Nate Lowe were all taken in the fourth round or later.

But when you sacrifice your first-round pick, you are really handicapping your draft class. Ian Kennedy was pretty good in 2016 - he was worth 2.5 WAR, according to Baseball Reference - and maybe if the Royals play a bit better he makes a big difference in the post-season and helps them make one more run. But overall, the deal looked like a bust, not only for all the money paid for a 4.48 ERA in 546 23 innings and 6.3 WAR in four seasons, but for sacrificing the chance to add a premium prospect to a farm system that sorely needed it.