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The Royals latest draft strategy is paying off in early returns

Better returns are coming from somewhere unexpected

2022 Major League Baseball Draft Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The NFL Draft took place this week in Kansas City and although the MLB Draft won’t occur until July 9-11 this season, the Royals’ draft strategy is already front and center in the minor leagues this season. Recently, we’ve seen a slight shift in Kansas City’s draft plan and it’s paying early dividends already down on the farm.

Early-round picks have traditionally been where Royals’ drafts have lived — and died. Historically, drafts have been characterized by how those first-round picks fare. A successful selection later in the draft was just icing on the cake or a silver lining in an otherwise poor crop of draft signings. Since 2021, that’s starting to change for the Royals.

To understand this shift in draft philosophy, it’s important first to understand how the draft’s Signing Bonus Pool (SBP) works. The MLB Rules Glossary lays it out below:

Each pick in the first 10 rounds of the Draft has an assigned value, and the total for each of a club’s selections equals what it can spend on signing bonuses for players selected in those rounds without incurring a penalty.

If a player selected in the first 10 rounds doesn’t sign, his pick’s value is subtracted from his club’s pool. If a team exceeds its allotment, it faces a penalty.

A team that outspends its pool by 0-5 percent pays a 75 percent tax on the overage. At higher thresholds, clubs lose future picks: a first-rounder and a 75 percent tax for surpassing their pool by more than 5 and up to 10 percent; a first- and a second-rounder and a 100 percent tax for more than 10 and up to 15 percent; and two first-rounders and a 100 percent tax for more than 15 percent.

In the simplest of terms, the MLB assigns a value to each draft pick and then adds that up for each team based on which picks they are scheduled to have. That becomes a team’s SBP. That bonus pool applies to the first ten rounds in the draft. This means that any player signed — up to a certain amount — in rounds 11 through 20 won’t count against that team’s bonus pool. That threshold was $125,000 until the recent CBA agreement upped it to $150,000.

Those later rounds can become key for a small-market team like the Royals that needs to capitalize on prospect acquisition wherever they can in order to compete in today’s MLB. So which players are available in the late rounds of the draft? According to Bleacher Report, just 20% of players drafted in rounds 6-10 make it to the major leagues. That percentage is even lower in rounds 11-20. Oftentimes, players available after round 10 are fringe guys who simply might not be cut out for professional baseball. With 20 rounds and 30 teams, the talent drops off substantially.

Other times, there are players with signability concerns. It could be a college sophomore who plans to return to school in order to be drafted higher and receive a higher signing bonus. Or, it could be a high schooler who has already committed to play for a large university that might be better suited to attend school rather than agree to a minimal draft bonus before entering the minor leagues. These players with signability concerns are where the Royals have started making their mark.

The Royals' success in the later rounds of the draft since 2021

The Royals surprised many when they drafted Frank Mozzicato seventh overall in the 2021 draft. He went on to sign with the Royals for $3.55 million. The slot value for that pick was nearly $2 million more at $5.4 million. For many fans in Kansas City, the term “under slot” has become almost synonymous with “cheap.” Many see that draft strategy as a way to save money and have started to see it as an obstacle to acquiring premier draft talent.

By going under slot with Mozzicato, it allowed the Royals to later sign second-rounder Ben Kudrna for almost double his slot value. However, it goes beyond just Kudrna. In the same draft, Kansas City drafted and signed Brennon McNair (11th round), Tyson Guerrero (12th round), and Luca Tresh (17th round). Tresh, the Royals' number 13 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, signed for $423,000. That’s more than 2021 sixth-rounder, Dayton Dooney.

2022 was more of the same for the Royals. They didn’t go under slot in the first round with Gavin Cross, however, they once again targeted talent after round 10 with large signing bonuses. In the 11th round, Kansas City drafted pitcher David Sandlin and later signed him for $400,000. Then, in the 20th round, the Royals drafted Austin Charles. He signed for $430,000. Both of those signing bonuses were more than any other selection by the Royals after the fourth round of last year’s draft.

Notable Royals late-round picks

Player Draft Year Round 2023 Level 2023 OPS/ERA
Player Draft Year Round 2023 Level 2023 OPS/ERA
Vinnie Pasquantino 2019 11th MLB 0.837
Tyler Tolbert 2019 13th AA 0.639
Luca Tresh 2021 17th AA 0.711
David Sandlin 2022 11th A 3.38
Ryan Ramsey 2022 13th A 1.13
Javier Vaz 2022 14th A+ 0.849
Austin Charles 2022 20th Ext. Spring N/A

If the Royals want to change their fortunes long-term, they’ll have to do better in the draft. This latest trend is a great step in the right direction. Pair late-round value with early-round success and the Royals could start to churn out minor-league talent like other successful organizations such as Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Los Angeles.

One late-round pick is landing on MiLB Leaderboards

One important distinction in all this makes the Royals’ recent later-round success look even more encouraging long-term. It’s one thing for a player picked late to play well in the minor leagues. This is the case for Tyler Tolbert, for example, even if he isn’t exactly on track to lead the league in average or OPS. It’s something else entirely for a late-round selection to immediately start his pro career on MiLB leaderboards.

That’s the case for 2022 11th-rounder David Sandlin. Among qualified minor league pitchers at all levels, Sandlin ranks 13th in xFIP. He ranks ninth in SO9, ninth in K%, and 14th in K-BB%. Sandlin isn’t just having a great start to the season for the Royals — he’s having one of the best starts to the season in the entire minor leagues this season.

The renaissance of pitching development in the Royals’ minor leagues has been a major storyline so far in 2023, and Sandlin is one of the headliners of that process. He’s not currently ranked among the team’s top 30 prospects but is a candidate to find himself on the list at the mid-season update. As a college arm from the University of Oklahoma, he could be a quick mover through the system and could reach the major league rotation as early as 2025. And, of course, he’s a shining example of how the Royals' latest draft strategy could change the future of this franchise for the better.