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The Royals go for ceiling and risk with high school pitching early in the draft

The Royals roll the dice.

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MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announces Frank Mozzicato as the seventh overall pick for the Kansas City Royals during the 2021 Major Leauge Baseball Draft at Bellco Theater at Colorado Convention Center on Sunday, July 11, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Royals sat in a pretty good position with the seventh pick in the draft this week, with a consensus that there was little separation among the top eight prospects in the draft. When a few clubs took surprising selections ahead of the Royals, it looked likely the Royals would have their pick of the litter.

But the Royals decided to make waves of their own, taking Connecticut prep left-hander Frank Mozzicato, a player that had skyrocketed up draft boards this year, but was considered a second-round pick, maybe late first-round. The Royals took high school players with four of their first five selections, including two local kids - pitcher Ben Kudrna of Blue Valley Southwest and catcher Carter Jensen of Park Hill.

The decision to pass on Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker, as well as other top draft prospects like infielders Kahlil Watson and Brady House, and outfielder Sal Frelick, will open the Royals to criticism from fans. High school pitchers are a much riskier profile in the draft than any other position. As Keith Law put it, “If you pick in the top ten and you choose a high school pitcher, you’re the guy at the craps table betting on eight the hard way because it sounds cool to say it. You might hit big on your bet, but you’re accepting a much higher risk that you get little to no return than you would by taking any other category of player.”

But the Royals seem resolute that going with young arms in this draft is worth the risk because of the upside.

“We felt that going into this particular Draft,” general manager Dayton Moore said, “if it fell the way it did up top, with the first six picks in front of us [and] with the fact that it’s only 20 rounds and the value that a lot of players put on themselves economically, that it may be a wise strategy to not only look at taking the best upside player or pitcher available, but also be able to maximize what we could do later on with the other 19 selections. That’s part of what we have to consider going forward.”

It is an interesting change in direction after the team went with such a heavy focus on college pitchers in the 2018 draft, which netted them two pitchers in their current rotation - Brady Singer and Kris Bubic - and some of the top prospects in baseball with Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch. But there could be a couple of different reasons for the shift in philosophy.

First of all, every draft is different, and there were a lot of teams that went heavy in pitching this year (the Angels used every single pick this year on pitchers, that’s right, they didn’t draft a single hitter!) Teams like Cleveland and San Francisco went very heavy on college arms, so perhaps the Royals wanted to zig while others zag and scoop up the prep pitchers.

Second, the Royals seem to believe in a philosophy of “waves” of talent coming through the organization. Dayton Moore talked about having sustained success, rather than the major drop off they had following their championship core departing. With the 2018 college pitching draft class either in the big leagues, or very close to it, Moore seems to feel he has some time to let some prep pitchers develop with some higher upside.

“As we all know, you can never have enough pitching,” Moore said. “We’re going to have to take guys who have a chance to be No. 1 and No. 2 starters. You can look at certain college players, and you know they’re going to make it to the major leagues. But really, what’s their upside? No. 4 or No. 5 starters? No. 4 and No. 5 starters aren’t going to win championships. We’re going to be really aggressive. (Royals owner) John Sherman has spoken about sustained success. I’ve spoken about it. (Manager) Mike Matheny has, too. If you want sustained success, you’ve got to fill the pipeline with upside talent, and we’ve got to transition it and develop it properly. It’s going to take a little bit longer. We understand that. But we’re willing to pay the price for what we have to do long-term.”

His comments on the limited upside of college pitchers may be a bit revealing in the development of some of their pitching prospects. Many college pitchers can be already set in their ways, and it can be harder to iron out the kinks. The Royals had Daniel Lynch make some adjustments to unlock more velocity to get the lefty to throw in the upper 90s after leaving Virginia. Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar have yet to develop a third pitch, which may be harder to do at their age.

In contrast, a young 18-year old is more moldable. The Royals seem to be consciously taking prep pitchers with one plus secondary offering - last year it was Ben Hernandez and his outstanding change up, a rarity among high school pitchers. This year it was Frank Mozzicato and his plus curve. The plan seems to be to hope he fills out a bit, unleashes a bit more velocity, and teach him a change up, according to Scouting Director Lonnie Goldberg.

“If he does what we think he will do, add velocity and add strength and continue to develop a changeup and have pitchability, he should have all the makings of what a front-line starter looks like,”

The Royals recently revamped their minor league pitching development process, and their confidence in that process was reflected in this draft. In fact, you can see their confidence all over this draft. This was not the draft of anyone fearing for their job. These are risky picks that leave the team open to fierce criticism. The benefits won’t be known for at least 4-5 years. There’s a lot of trust to the process here.

Let’s take a look at this year’s draft class and where they ranked in Baseball America’s Top 500 list, MLB Pipeline’s 250 list, ESPN’s top 200 list, and Prospects Live’s Top 600 list. Overall, they took six high school players, two junior college players, and 13 four-year college players.

Round 1 (7 overall)- P Frank Mozzicato, East Catholic HS (CT)

New England is not a hotbed of high school baseball talent, and Mozzicato did not participate in national events, but his four consecutive no-hitters won him some notoriety and he skyrocketed up draft boards this spring. If a team like the Rays selected Mozzicato, you’d probably say they know something others don’t, but with the Royals’ track record it seems like a reach. The kid has a big curve, and some reports had his fastball up to 94, which could make him pretty interesting.

BA: 42

MLB: 39

ESPN: 21

Prospects Live: 49

Round 2 (43) - P Ben Kudrna, Blue Valley Southwest HS (KS)

Kudrna is another kid who, in the right hands, could become a top pitcher. He has a big frame that can throw up to 97 and you could project him adding to that. His breaking pitches are described as raw without great metrics, but with potential. The Royals will have their work cut out for them - Kudrna has a nice easy delivery that you could see becoming a MLB workhorse - or he never develops a consistent breaking ball and can’t get out of A-ball.

BA: 48

MLB: 46

ESPN: 49

Prospects Live: 31

Competitive Balance Round B (66) - 2B Peyton Wilson, University of Alabama

Profiles as a utility player who doesn’t do anything excellent, but doesn’t have any major in holes to his game. Hit .290/.353/.460 with 9 HR and 10 steals in 58 games, although he did strike out a bit. He caught a bit, and he could be interesting if they move him back behind the plate.

BA: 78

MLB: 68

ESPN: 41

Prospects Live: 92

Round 3 (78) - C Carter Jensen, Park Hill HS (MO)

Teams love left-handed hitting catchers with pop. The word on Jensen is the power is real and it may even be good enough to play if he has to move off catcher, although his defense is said to be good. Jensen and Kudrna are both committed to LSU, it will be interesting to see how much it takes to lure them away from Baton Rouge.

BA: 83

MLB: 82

ESPN: 72

Prospects Live: 112

Round 4 (108) - P Shane Panzini, Red Bank HS (NJ)

The Royals take another high school pitcher from the northeast, and while he has some velo that can touch 94-95, the secondary pitchers will need work. Panzini will turn 20 in October, so he’s not exactly young for a high school kid.

BA: 240

MLB: 82

ESPN: 72

Prospects Live: 113

Round 5 (139) - P Eric Cerantola, Mississippi State University

Cerantola is another big kid with a 6’5’’, 220 pound frame and a mid-to-high 90s fastball. But he has trouble commanding it and was awful for the national champs with a 5.71 ERA with 24 strikeouts and 11 walks in 17 13 innings.

BA: 229

MLB: 223

Round 6 (169) - 2B Dayton Dooney, Central Arizona College

Was a Freshman All-American at the University of Arizona in 2019 before transferring to Central Arizona. He hit .367/.446/.693 with 9 home runs for the Junior College Championship runners-up. Dooney is described as a liability on defense and may have to end up at first base, but his switch-hitting bat could get him to the big leagues with an advanced eye for walks.

Round 7 (199) - P Noah Cameron, University of Central Arkansas

The left-hander from St. Joseph, Missouri had Tommy John surgery in October of 2020 and missed the entire season. Finished his career at UCA with a 2.86 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 122 innings.

Round 8 (229) - SS Ryan Cepero, Carlos Beltran Academy (PR)

Stands at 6’1’’ with a strong arm and is already considered a plus defender. Was actually playing in MLB’s new Draft League for Trenton and was committed to play for Wichita State.

Round 9 (259) - OF Parker Bates, Louisiana Tech

Has the defense to play centerfield and hit .346/.471/.583 with 11 home runs in 62 games for the Bulldogs. He’s a fifth-year senior, so his bonus will be well underslot.

Prospects Live: 586

Round 10 (289) - P Shane Connolly, Virginia Tech

Pitched at The Citadel before transferring to the Hokies this year. Throws with a lower arm angle, with a good slider, and profiles as a reliever. Had a 4.14 ERA with 81 strikeouts in 63 innings.

BA: 308

Prospects Live: 485

Round 11 (319) - SS Brennon McNair, Magee HS (MS)

Plus runner who hit 11 home runs his senior season. Shows good defense at short and is committed to South Alabama.

BA: 348

Prospects Live: 521

Round 12 (349) - P Tyson Guerrero, University of Washington

The lefty has a deceptive delivery and a fastball that sits at 94-95 with a power curve. Posted a 2.96 ERA with 50 strikeouts and 18 walks in 54 2/3 innings for the Huskies.

BA: 372

Prospects Live: 422

Round 13 (379) - P Patrick Halligan, Pensacola Junior College

Began his career at George Mason. Posted a 1.87 ERA with 109 strikeouts and 18 walks in 81 2/3 innings for the Pirates.

Round 14 (409) - P Caden Monke, University of Arkansas

Lefty posted a 3.71 ERA with 42 strikeouts and 21 walks in 34 innings for the team that spent most of the year at #1.

Round 15 (439) - OF River Town, Dallas Baptist University

Hit .326/.436.519 with 10 home runs and 20 steals in 59 games in his first year with Dallas Baptist after two years at junior college. Served as the team’s lead off hitter and drew 32 walks and was hit-by-pitch 14 times.

Round 16 (469) - P Anthony Simonelli, Virginia Tech

Posted a 3.91 ERA with 77 strikeouts and 28 walks in 66 2/3 innings for the Hokies. Began his career at Coastal Carolina with a stop at junior college, and will turn 23 in December.

BA: 296

Round 17 (499) - C Luca Tresh, North Carolina State

Was considered to be a possible first-round talent early in the year, but slumped to hit 231/.310/.476 with 15 HR in 56 games. Has big time power, but also a lot of swing-and-miss to his game. His cousin is former Yankees infielder Tom Tresh.

BA: 75

MLB: 101

ESPN: 88

Prospects Live: 80

Round 18 - P Harrison Beethe, Texas Christian University

Can regularly hit 100 mph on the radar gun but has little idea of where it’s going. Pitched in just 5 13 innings and walked 11. Re-worked his delivery late in the year to throw from a lower arm angle, but lost some velo doing so.

Round 19 - SS Cam Williams, University of Texas

Began at Dallas Baptist with a stop at junior college. Hit .295/.415/.575 with 12 home runs for the Longhorns. Will strike out some, but has some good batted ball data. His father is former Angels outfielder Reggie Williams.

Round 20 - P Jack Aldrich, Tulane University

Began at Santa Clara University with a stop in junior college. Was Tulane’s best pitcher this year with a 3.70 ERA and 96 strikeouts and 23 walks in 82 2/3 innings. Throws from a lower arm angle with a slider and curve.


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