Reviewing the Royals’ 1st Round Draft Picks from 2010-2017

The MLB Draft is about to occur on June 10th, and it seems pretty certain that the Royals will probably draft either infielder Nick Gonzales from New Mexico State, Florida prep outfielder Zac Veen, or University of Georgia pitcher Emerson Hancock. There is a possibility that the Royals could swoop up Vanderbilt infielder Austin Martin, or Texas A&M pitcher Asa Lacy if they somehow fall to No. 4, but it seems like all the mock drafts are predicting that they will be selected before the Royals’ draft slot.

However, there will be no analysis of this upcoming draft in this post. Instead, I will be looking at all the Royals’ first round picks from 2010-2017, and analyze how the Royals front office and scouting team did with drafting in the first round during the last decade. Granted, drafting in any sport can be a crap shoot, especially in Major League Baseball. That being said, I wanted to take a look at the Royals’ most recent decade of drafting, and how those players have developed in the Royals’ system since they were selected by Kansas City.

In this post I will also include any compensatory first round picks the Royals received in a given draft, so some years will have multiple first round picks. The lone year where the Royals did not have a first round pick is 2016, as they lost their draft pick to sign Ian Kennedy to a free agent deal, and thus, they had to give their first round pick to San Diego as compensation. I am also omitting 2018 and 2019 from this list mostly because it still feels too early to call how either of these picks are progressing, and the lack of a Minor League season this year (most likely) only makes things more complicated. While 2018 and 2019 seem to be promising, I probably need another full minor league season from those draft picks before we can make more accurate analysis and projection.

2010: Christian Colon (4th overall; 1.5 career WAR)

The Royals had the fourth pick in a three-player draft, as Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon, and Manny Machado were expected to go 1-2-3 and be possibly franchise-altering players (Harper and Machado have lived up to the hype; Taillon has struggled through injuries but has produced at the Major League level). The Royals went with the polished Colon, not really a great “tools” player, but a proven commodity who was expected to move quickly through the Royals system and be a player in the Royals middle infield.

Colon displayed a solid approach and plate discipline in the Minors, as he has a career .285 average and 0.87 BB/K ratio in 3,605 Minor League plate appearances. Furthermore, Colon had some early success as a Royal, as he was known for his postseason heroics which included scoring the game-winning run in the 2014 Wild Card game against the Athletics, and driving in the winning run in the clinching Game 5 of the World Series against the Mets. However, he only posted a .586 OPS in 161 plate appearances in 2016, and eventually lost out on the second-base position to Whit Merrifield, who was drafted in the ninth round in 2010. Colon was released by the Royals in 2017, and is currently in the Cincinnati Reds organization.

2011: Bubba Starling (5th overall; -0.8 career WAR)

Starling probably was the most hyped draft pick of the Dayton Moore-era. A local product out of Gardner, Kansas, Starling was rated as the top prep prospect in America according to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook in 2011. Furthermore, the added intrigue of him receiving a scholarship to play quarterback at the University of Nebraska also gave Starling additional luster, and thus, the Royals paid Starling a handsome signing bonus of $7.5 million, one of the biggest in Royals draft history, to keep him from playing football in Lincoln.

Unfortunately for Royals fans, Starling has not quite lived up to his highly drafted hype. Starling has struggled with injuries and consistency at the Minor League level, as he has posted a career Minor League slash of .244/.317/.393 in 2,781 plate appearances in the Royals system. While he did finally make his long-anticipated debut last season, Starling didn’t give Royals fans much encouragement that he could be anything more than a backup outfielder, as he posted a .572 OPS in 197 plate appearances last season. He does have the potential to be a solid defensive outfielder, and his late renaissance in Omaha may give the impression that he’s a late bloomer, but it’s hard to imagine Starling having much of a career with the Royal beyond 2020 or 2021 at the latest, especially with competition in the outfield from Brett Phillips and Nick Heath, who are both on the 40-man roster.

2012: Kyle Zimmer (5th overall; -0.7 career WAR)

The early part of the 2010’s when it comes to first round picks doesn’t bode well for Moore. He had the 4th, 5th, and 5th pick from 2010-2012, and all three have combined to produce a 0 WAR (yep, ZERO exactly) at the Major League level. Colon failed to find a regular position (or any semblance of power) in Kansas City. Starling developed slower than expected (or wanted). And the last, pitcher Kyle Zimmer, who came from the University of San Francisco, has struggled immensely with injury and command.

Since getting shoulder surgery in 2014, Zimmer has failed to stay healthy or consistent as a pitcher. Since 2014, the hard-throwing right-hander has only pitched 159 innings in the minors, and has transitioned from the rotation to the bullpen during that span. Zimmer has one of the liveliest fastballs in the Royals’ system, but he struggles to locate it consistently for strikes, as he posted a K/BB ratio of 0.95 in 18.1 innings with the Royals last season. From 2013-2016, Zimmer was rated as a Top 100 prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America, which shows what he could have developed into had injuries not ravaged him over his professional career. Zimmer will turn 29 in September, and though he still has a Minor League option, it’s hard to see him making a major impact in the Royals bullpen unless he gets his control issues settled in 2020.

2013: Hunter Dozier (8th overall; career 1.5 WAR) and Sean Manaea (34th overall; career 8.5 WAR)

The Royals had two first round picks in the 2013 draft, and used their 8th overall pick on the Stephen F. Austin shortstop in order to save money for their 34th pick, pitcher Sean Manaea, whom they were able to offer an above-slot bonus. Manaea was a top prospect in the Royals system, but he was traded away to Oakland for Ben Zobrist, a move that helped the Royals secure a World Series, in 2015. However, the move hurt the Royals in the long term, as Zobrist ended up signing with the Cubs after 2015, and Manaea has become the ace of the A’s rotation, though he has dealt with arm injuries the past couple of seasons.

Dozier started off his career slow, as he posted a minus-1.7 WAR in his first full season in the Majors in 2018. However, Dozier broke out in 2019, as he hit 26 home runs, posted an .870 OPS, and led AL third-baseman in triples with 10 in 586 plate appearances. While not a bad defender, Dozier has struggled to find a position, and there is hope that Dozier can be a long-term option in right field, where he is expected to play in 2020 after the acquisition of free agent Maikel Franco from Philadelphia. While Dozier will need to follow up his impressive 2019 with a similarly strong 2020, all the signs suggest that Dozier can be a productive part of the Royals lineup for years to come.

2014: Brandon Finnegan (17th overall; career 2.2 WAR), Foster Griffin (28th overall; No MLB experience), and Chase Vallot (40th overall; No MLB Experience)

The Royals garnered three picks in the first round in 2014, but they have had little to show for the multitude of picks. Moore went with the polished TCU left-hander Finnegan at No. 17, and Finnegan moved quickly through the system, as he debuted for the Royals out of the bullpen in the same season he was drafted. Furthermore, Finnegan became a key member of the bullpen during the 2014 playoff run, and became the first rookie in baseball history to pitch in both the College World Series and MLB World Series during the same season.

Finnegan continued to pitch well out of the Kansas City bullpen in 2015, as he posted a 2.96 ERA in 24.1 innings of work. However, a lackluster K/BB ratio (1.62) was a concerning sign, and Finnegan became the key piece of a trade with Cincinnati that brought postseason hero Johnny Cueto to Kansas City. Finnegan moved to the rotation with the Reds in 2016, and in his first full season in Cincy, he posted a 3.98 ERA in 31 starts and 172 innings of work. Despite that promising Reds debut, Finnegan has struggled with arm issues, and has only pitched 33.2 innings since 2017, which included him missing the entire 2019 season due to rehab from Tommy John.

Griffin and Vallot, both drafted out of high school, have failed to impress in the Royals system since being drafted. Griffin did make the 40-man roster, but he lacks frontline stuff, and he has been up and down at various stops through the Royals system. Vallot, a promising prep catcher out of Louisiana, has not done much as a professional, as he has a career batting average of .212 in the minors and has yet to advance above High-A Wilmington over six seasons in professional ball.

2015: Ashe Russell (21st overall; No MLB experience) and Noah Watson (33rd overall; No MLB experience)

This was a rough draft, and even though it was recent, the Royals system has been trying to recover after whiffing on these two prep pitchers from Indiana. Max Rieper of Royals Review wrote a good retrospective piece on the 2015 draft in general, but also particularly focused on Russell, who has been MIA in the Royals system until recently (he has not pitched in a game since 2016 and has only pitched 38 innings total in the Minors). Here’s what Rieper said about Russell:

Russell made an appearance at the draft, endearing fans with a loud orange dress shirt and alligator shoes. Some pundits raved about his mid-90s fastball that could touch 97 mph, with comparisons to Noah Syndergaard or even Justin Verlander. Royals director of scouting Lonnie Goldberg made it clear the team was looking for someone that could bring the heat, telling reporters, “Right from the get go we attacked with power arms.”

But few would ever get a chance to see that power arm. Russell made 11 starts for Burlington in the Rookie Ball Appalachian League that year with perfectly adequate numbers – a 4.21 ERA in 36 13 innings. He pitched in two games the next spring in the instructional Arizona Summer League and that was it. He became a ghost.

For awhile, the circumstances surrounding Russell were a bit of a secret. Finally it came out that the young man was experiencing deep anxiety on the mound, what some refer to as “Steve Blass Disease”, named for the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who suddenly and inexplicably forgot how to throw a baseball…Russell took a break from professional baseball in 2017returning in 2018. He underwent Tommy John surgery in May of 2019 and is still recovering.

“A look back at the Royals’ 2015 draft class, five years later” by Max Rieper; Royals Review

Like Russell, Watson too has struggled as a pitcher in the Royals system. He has a career ERA of 6.46 in the minors over 340 innings of work, and he also has a career WHIP of 1.77, which further shows how hittable Watson has been on the mound. Furthermore, Watson has not advanced above High-A Wilmington, and considering he will be recovering from Tommy John surgery as well this year, it seems unlikely that Watson will ever have a Major League debut.

Safe to say, this may have been Moore’s worst first-round draft in his tenure.

2017: Nick Pratto (14th overall; no MLB experience)

A prep first baseman, Pratto garnered a lot of comparisons to Eric Hosmer. Much like Hosmer, he wasn’t a big “boomer” in high school when it came to power, but his athleticism and defense made Royals fans and management optimistic that Pratto could eventually tap into some raw power with more at-bats and development in the Royals system. In fact, many experts were high that Pratto could be a Hosmer-lite, as he was rated as the Royals’ best prospect going into 2018 according to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook (though that may have been a product of the Royals system, which BA ranked as second-worst in the league in 2018).

Pratto showed some nice flashes early as a professional, as he posted a .786 OPS and 14 home runs in 537 plate appearances in low-A Lexington. However, he failed to transition those numbers to Wilmington, as he only posted an OPS of .588 and struck out 164 times in 472 plate appearances. Pratto’s strikeout issues are pretty pronounced, and it was expected that he was going to repeat in High-A to gain some confidence and fix those problems. Unfortunately, with a Minor League season most likely moot at this point, things do not look good for Pratto, though the Royals seem to be still invested in Pratto, and hope that he can turn it around when Minor League play resumes in 2021.

Ranking of the 2010-2017 1st round picks

  1. 2013: Dozier looks to be a solid middle-of-order hitter for the Royals for the near future and Manaea helped bring Zobrist to KC, which brought the Royals their first World Series title since 1985.
  2. 2014: Finnegan pitched some valuable innings in the 2014 postseason and helped bring Cueto to KC in 2015, who was another key piece of the World Series squad. Griffin could be a bullpen arm if things fall right. Vallot is a wash at this point.
  3. 2010: Colon never developed into a regular starter, but he provided some key moments in the postseason, and was pretty good in 2014 and 2015. It would be interesting to see what Colon could have done had the Royals given the second base position to him instead of free agent Omar Infante.
  4. 2011: Starling may never live up to that “Local Star” hype, and he probably is still on the Royals because he’s a local kid. However, he made the Majors finally, and also made great progression in the minors last year, which gives Royals fans hope that he can continue to develop in 2020.
  5. 2012: Much like Starling, Zimmer will never live up to his draft status, but he finally pitched in the Majors in 2019 after going through so much adversity due to injury. His control and command will keep him from being anything but a “mop up” man at the MLB level, but his velocity will keep teams interested (the Royals included) for at least a little bit longer.
  6. 2017: Still a long way to go for Pratto, but the early returns are not good. A lost Minor League season will only put him further back in his development, and make it even harder for him to live up to his first-round hype.
  7. 2015: The Royals’ focus certainly was not on the draft in 2015 and it showed with the picks of two risky high school arms who came from a cold-weather state (which adds to the risk). 2015 wasn’t a great draft overall, but the whiffs on Russell and Watson, who may be out of baseball in a couple of years, certainly hurt the Royals’ farm system for a couple of seasons until the 2018 draft.

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