Could draft and Minor League changes mean more hurdles for Moore and the Royals?

The MLB Draft will be coming up shortly on June 10th, and as discussed, the format will be drastically different, as the draft will only be 5 rounds, a 35-round reduction from previous incarnations.

And already, Royals general manager Dayton Moore doesn’t seem happy about it:

The reduced five-round format of the draft is certainly a reaction to the current COVID crisis affecting amateur baseball in 2020. Due to the pandemic and safety precautions instilled nationwide, many college and high school seasons were cancelled in March, which left players who were draft-eligible little opportunity to prove their worth to scouts this Spring. Furthermore, the likely lack of a Minor League season also contributed to the shortened draft, as it would be easier to accommodate five rounds of draft picks rather than 40, especially considering MLB teams would have nowhere to place them in terms of play.

While no definite decision has been made if this five-round format will be a temporary or permanent solution with the MLB Draft going forward, this certainly can be inferred from MLB and team owners these past few months since operations has been shut down:

Player development and the Minor League Farm System will be going through some massive changes in the future.

And unfortunately, this may only hurt clubs like the Kansas City Royals beyond 2020.

Without a doubt, it’s not surprising that Moore was outspoken over his disapproval of the new draft format on 810 Sports Radio (even if it was indirectly). Unlike some Major League teams and owners who did not want to pay their Minor Leaguers (cough…Oakland…cough), the Royals have not made any roster changes or stopped any payments to players in their Minor League system. The reasoning is simple: Moore knows the farm system and the players in their system will be key in the next 3-5 years if the Royals expect to compete again at the Major League level.

Currently, the Royals are in year two of the “Post-World Series” era that was previously led by stars like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera (just to name a few). Now, they are clearly in a rebuild, with Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon leading a new charge of players like Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler who provide hope in the short term, while Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, Bobby Witt Jr., and Erick Pena bring further optimism down the road.

However, a baseball team can’t just find success with 6-7 good players from a 26-man or even 40-man roster. The 2018 and 2019 seasons in Kansas City have showed that. Rather, the Royals need supplemental roster pieces to step up and produce, and Moore and the Royals are hoping that their focus on player development and amateur player acquisition can bring those pieces to Kansas City either directly from the system itself or through trades with other organizations (after all, the Royals don’t win the World Series without trading for Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist or even Wade Davis).

Moore has always touted this “Process” as GM since he was hired from Atlanta in 2006. He saw how the Braves were built under John Schuerholtz (a former Royals GM as well), and knew that drafting, scouting, and player development would be the key to long-term success in Kansas City. Thankfully for Royals fans, that formula came to fruition in 2014 and 2015, even if it was a bumpy road in getting to that point in which Royals fans had to endure multiple seasons of losing baseball at Kauffman Stadium.

Now, Moore is looking to do the “Process” all over again, as profiled in a Baseball America piece in 2018 by Tracy Ringolsby.

“We celebrate what we have accomplished,” [Moore] said. “We celebrate the fact all those players had an opportunity to move on and receive a contract that is life-changing. But at the same time, we don’t focus on that. We don’t dwell on the idea we are in a small market so maybe we can’t make as many moves as other teams.

“We focus on what we need to do, and that’s scouting and player development, growing a new generation of talented, championship-caliber players so that we can once again win here in Kansas City. It’s part of the game. With free agency you know you are going to lose players. You don’t dwell on that. You dwell on maintaining.”

“Ringolsby: Up For The Challenge” by Tracy Ringolsby; Baseball America

“Process 2.0” or “ReDux”, however Royals fans want to call it. The years are expected be lean at the Major League level in Kansas City, but the Minor League system will strengthen gradually and give Royals fans hope that 2013-2017-esque seasons can happen again. It will be just like 2006-2012 in Kansas City, though Royals fans hope that winning will come in perhaps 3-4 years rather than 7 like the previous rendition of the “Process”.

Since diving into “Process 2.0”, the Royals have strengthened their farm system, as their talent ranking has improved from 29th in 2018 to 27th in 2019 to 18th in 2020, according to Baseball America. Even MLB Pipeline rated the Royals’ system optimistically, as they ranked the Royals 17th in baseball in their 2020 rankings. Maybe this isn’t the “best farm system in baseball” like it was in 2011, but the Royals are doing their share to become a Top-10 farm system again when it comes to acquiring and developing Minor League talent.

But that could all go to naught in 2021. First, the shortened draft is a huge blow to organizations like the Royals, who have done their part in terms of finding talent in the later rounds. Jakob Junis? A 29th round pick in the 2011 draft. Whit Merrifield? A 9th round pick in 2010. Greg Holland? A 10th round pick in 2007. And lefty setup man Tim Hill? A 32nd round pick in 2014.

Royals fans can get the idea: this new draft format will make it much tougher for Moore and JJ Picollo, the Royals Assistant General Manager who focuses mostly on player development, to find and develop players who can contribute for the Royals at the Major League level.

If the shortened draft wasn’t a blow already, the expected contraction of around 40 Minor League teams will also add to the challenges the Royals will face in terms of implementing “Process 2.0”. Before COVID hit, there was already talk that Royals minor league affiliates such as the Burlington Royals (Appalachian League), Idaho Falls Chukars (Pioneer League), and Lexington Legends (South Atlantic League) were in danger of contraction by 2021. While Lexington may be more in the clear due to local support, it is likely that Burlington and Idaho Falls could be casualties, as fewer rounds of the draft would mean less talent to supply to those rookie short season leagues. One of the primary goals of Moore when he took over as GM was to add “more teams” in their farm system, not contract. And yet, it seems like Major League Baseball is making the decision for him, which in turn will only hinder and make “Process 2.0” even more of a challenge in 2021 and beyond.

With the exception of maybe European soccer, no league in any sport in the world has as robust a player development model than baseball in America. While NFL and NBA teams rely on “college-developed” talent in which they have no control over, MLB is one of the few professional sports leagues where teams could find talent as young as 16-18 years old and develop them in their system and in their team culture. Furthermore, Minor League Baseball and its affiliates connect baseball fans from all over to further enhance their appreciation of a Major League club. It’s not a surprise that Omaha, Nebraska, Springdale, Arkansas, and Burlington, North Carolina have Royals fans in their communities; their minor league teams are affiliates of the Royals. Furthermore, this doesn’t just boost fandom of Major League Baseball for Kansas City, but all 29 other franchises as well.

But unfortunately, those positive aspects seem to be lost with owners, who only care more about the bucks in their MLB cities, than the long term impact that these actions could have in their affiliate communities. And this owner stubbornness to pinch pennies hurts the Royals, even if Royals ownership is trying to fight it and keep the current system as it is. If any team should be fighting for parity, it’s the Royals, who play in one of the smallest markets in baseball. And yet, they want to preserve the draft, the farm system and those Rookie League teams because they know that investing in those areas has produced success before, and will produce success again in the near future.

Major League Baseball has done almost everything wrong during this COVID crisis. They shuffled their feet in terms of coming up with a plan for returning to play, and now the owners and players are in a stalemate where it seems like no baseball in 2020 is a real possibility. They have been quite silent during this “Black Lives Matter” movement as NBA commissioner Adam Silver and even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (which is the most surprising considering the league’s black-balling of Colin Kaepernick) have been more outspoken and made more positive noise about racial injustice in this country than MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who just released a statement not too long ago:

And if that’s not bad enough, the future of the Major Leagues, which is the Draft and Minor Leagues, is being threatened in a way that will only separate the “have’s” (Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, etc.) from the “have-not’s”, which the Royals unfortunately fall in. Kansas City already has enough going against them in this game, as they rate as the second least-valuable franchise in MLB, according to Forbes. To blunt the Royals’ path to success even further would only deepen the wounds Royals fans have suffered since they entered the “Process 2.0” rebuilding process in 2018. Baseball will not only lose fans across the nation if they continue this assault on the draft and Minor League Baseball, but they will lose more fandom in Kansas City, which would be a shame considering how vibrant Kansas City’s baseball community can be during competitive seasons.

Who knows what the future of the draft and Minor League Baseball will be in 2021. But this much is certain: if we continue to have 5-round drafts and less Minor League teams, it will be hard for Moore and the Royals to duplicate the success of the first “Process” with “Process 2.0”.

And that’s just a shame to not only Royals fans, but sports fans in Kansas City overall.

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