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Despite risks, Royals bank on high school players in draft

The Royals are banking a lot on their player development.

Syndication: The Corpus Christi Caller Times Angela Piazza/Caller-Times / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Royals head into the All-Star break with the second-worst record in baseball, well on their way to setting a club record for most losses in a season. There is little help on the way, as many evaluators rank the farm system near the bottom of the league. The amateur draft provides an avenue for teams to re-stock depleted farm systems, and the Royals took a big swing with some high-risk, high-reward high school players on day one.

With the #8 pick in the draft, the Royals took prep catcher Blake Mitchell, a power-hitting left-handed bat out of Texas. You can see what the Royals like about the potential with his bat - he has good power with nice loft to a sweet left-handed swing. Scouts rave about his ability behind the plate and he has a cannon behind the plate - he has been known to throw in the mid-90s as a pitcher.

Teams have traditionally shied away from high school catchers because they represent one of the riskiest profiles. From 2010 to 2019, 28 catchers have been taken in the first round - half out of high school, half out of college. Of the 14 college catchers, 12 reached the big leagues, including starters like Adley Rutschman, Yasmani Grandal, Kyle Schwarber (who moved to the outfield), Shea Langeliers, Mike Zunino, and Matt Thaiss. Of the 14 high school catchers, just five have reached the big leagues so far, the best of them being Bo Naylor and Tyler Stephenson.

The Royals seem well aware of the risks, yet were undeterred in selecting the soon-to-be 19 year-old.

“I’ve done this job 27 years, and you know I understand the stigma attached to high school catchers,” Royals scouting director Danny Ontiveros said. “But I I haven’t really seen a catcher like this.”

Now past performance is no guarantee of future results, so Mitchell is not doomed to failure necessarily. Joey Votto was drafted as high school catcher. Wil Myers was drafted as a high school catcher. All-Star Jonah Heim was a high school catcher and actually stuck at the position. But none were a first-round pick, let alone the #8 pick in the draft. Despite the risks, the Royals had Mitchell highest on their draft board, bypassing a number of players other evaluators had ranked higher. ESPN’s David Schoenfield, wrote it was his least-favorite pick of the night, writing “No matter the scouting grades, it’s an extremely risky selection.”

With their second round pick, the Royals selected high school pitcher Blake Wolters, a hard-throwing right-hander out of central Illinois. If high school catchers are a risky bet, high school pitchers are right behind them. Injuries, an inability to develop a third pitch, a player not filling out his frame as expected, a lack of control can all derail promising prep flamethrowers. There is a lot to like about Wolters - he can already run it up to the high-90s with pretty good control. But with the Royals’ track record in pitching development, it is an open question they can turn this 18-year-old into a quality starter. Since 2008, the Royals have drafted and signed just one high school pitcher who has made an MLB start - Jakob Junis, who they selected in the 29th round in 2011.

There is the possibility these picks - particularly the Mitchell pick - will be for underslot deals, allowing the Royals to select and pay a player in the rounds today that has fallen due to bonus demands. This is a fine strategy other smart teams have used - they identify a player they really like that maybe is a bit of a reach, work out an underslot deal, and use the savings to grab good talent later on. Everyone’s draft board is a bit different and reaching a bit is fine - Mike Trout was the #22 ranked player by Baseball America in the 2009 draft, teams should have reached for him! But the Royals have not earned the benefit of the doubt that they can identify talent better than conventional wisdom.

Nor have they instilled much faith that their player development can turn these raw players into polished MLB players. It seems clear the organization has a lot of faith in their ability to develop players, but that faith seems unjustified. Simply getting draft picks into the big leagues is not enough, the Royals need to develop impact players that can help them win games.

Perhaps Mitchell and Wolters (and their Competitive Balance Round B pick, outfielder Carson Roccaforte) can become impact players. But for an organization currently in the dumps, they took a big risk that will take years to pan out. Perhaps everyone involved is secure knowing their jobs are not at risk. But these risks will need to pan out or else the Royals will continue to be stuck at the bottom of the standings.