So, the 2020 MLB Rule 5 Draft has passed, and for the first time since 2016, the Royals did not select or acquire anyone in the December player draft either in the Major or Minor League section. With three roster spots open on the Royals 40-man roster, it initially seemed likely that Dayton Moore would at least find a potential bullpen arm who could perhaps be a low-risk, high-reward option in 2021. However, Moore passed on both rounds of the Rule 5 Draft, which may have some Royals fans puzzled, especially since there seemed to be some intriguing options available.
That being said, the Royals absence from participating may not necessarily have been a bad thing for the organization. Here are three things Royals fans learned from this rendition of the Rule 5 Draft.
The Royals draft order may not have done them any favors
Much like the Rule 4 (first-year player) draft, the Rule 5 draft order is based on the inverse record of teams from 2020 (hence, last place goes first). Due to back-to-back 100-loss seasons in 2018 and 2019, the Royals held pretty good position in previous renditions of the Rule 5 Draft (No.2 and No. 4, respectively). However, the Royals improved to 26-34 this past season, and thus, they held the 7th position in the Draft, which is not necessarily bad (it is still Top 10, where a lot of talent could be had), but it isn’t exactly ideal either when it comes to acquiring top-level talent.
That lower position in the draft in comparison to years past seemed to hurt the Royals especially this season. Prior to the draft, rumors seemed to swirl that they were eyeing former Yankees pitcher Garrett Whitlock or Twins outfielder Akil Baddoo. However, the toolsy Baddoo, and hard-throwing, groundball-inducing Whitlock went third and fourth to the Tigers and Red Sox, respectively. And thus, with both of their main targets off the board, it seemed as if the Royals were willing to sit this draft out, rather than sign a guy that they weren’t entirely thrilled on (team do not have to select in the Rule 5 Draft should they not want to).
In many ways, the Royals passing in the Rule 5 Draft, despite having three roster spots open, may show that the Royals have more free agent payroll flexibility in comparison to years past. In the Rule 5 Draft, teams can get a potential Major League contributor for only $100,000. That kind of number is peanuts for a Major League club when it comes to acquiring talent outside the organization. Thus, it’s not surprising that the Royals utilized the Draft from 2017-2019 to acquire cheap, potential lottery tickets, not a bad strategy for a club that is rebuilding.
However, after signing Mike Minor, Michael A. Taylor, and Carlos Santana this off-season, it appears that owner John Sherman is giving Moore and the Royals front office a deeper pocketbook to sign potential free agents then what Moore has been used to the past few years. And thus, with the Royals’ main targets off the board, they may have felt less pressure to make a selection, feeling that they could improve the roster through free agency this Winter, even if it may be a bit more expensive.
The Royals did not lose any of their heralded prospects
Even though the Royals seemed to be high on outfielders Seuly Matias and Brewer Hicklen and their development this past season, and were expecting pitcher and former Braves prospect Yefri Del Rosario to have a bounce back campaign in 2021, the Royals left them off the 40-man roster this Winter. Thus, there was a chance that they, among other players in the Royals organization, would be selected in the upcoming Rule 5 Draft, thus negating the gains these important prospects made in player development in 2020.
However, there was some thinking among Royals fans that many prospects’ values would be deflated in this draft due to the lack of a Minor League season in 2020, and Moore seemed to be banking on that by not protecting Matias, Hicklen, and Del Rosario. In this case, his hunch proved to be right, as Matias, Hicklen, and Del Rosario went un-drafted, much to the Royals’ relief. While Matias, Hicklen, and Del Rosario still have some work and development to do in the Royals farm system, they will get a chance to prove that they have come a long way since 2019 with Minor League ball coming back (seemingly) in 2021.
(I’m especially excited for Matias, especially if his Dominican Winter League performance is a sign of things to come, as evidenced by the Tweet below…)
That being said, the Royals did lose two players in the Minor League portion of the Rule 5 Draft, as Orioles drafted catcher Chris Hudgins, and the Twins drafted left-handed pitcher Josh Mitchell. Backup catchers and pitchers tend to be in high demand in the Rule 5 Draft, and that seemed to be a big reason why Moore protected catcher Sebastian Rivero and left-handed pitcher Angel Zerpa by adding them to the 40-man roster this off-season. While Hudgins and Mitchell are losses, they were lower-level prospects, as Hudgins primarily played in Lexington and Mitchell repeated in Wilmington in 2019. Since they were Minor League Rule 5 picks, however, they will not have to be on the Major League roster in 2021.
The Royals will continue to explore free agency more in the coming weeks
The Royals still have three spot available on the 40-man roster, and it seems likely that they will fill those spots through free agent deals of differing levels. By not selecting anyone in the Rule 5 Draft, it seems likely that the Royals will probably pursue something with Greg Holland, who seemed to rejuvenate his career as the Royals’ closer down the stretch. Again, the Royals are in win-now mode, and with Sherman seeming to have a bigger checkbook, it would not be surprising to see Moore prefer a veteran like Holland to boost the bullpen, even if it may be a little more expensive, instead of a Rule 5 pick who may not even stay with the club by the end of Spring Training. The list of Major League Rule 5 picks after the Royals was not impressive, and many teams toward the end of the round passed as well, which goes to show how “thin” this Rule 5 pool of players was this draft.
At this point, it seems likely that Holland will make 38 on the roster, which leaves roughly around two other spots to fill for the Royals. It will definitely be interesting to see what path Moore will take to fill these two spots, as it is likely that he will fill the remaining 40-man spots with at least one reliever and one position player, preferably a utility one in terms of the latter.
In regard to the pitcher, Trevor Rosenthal is a popular name being brought up, and it would make sense, considering he is from Lee’s Summit and had tremendous success as the Royals closer in 2020 before being traded to San Diego. That being said, Rosenthal will have his fair share of suitors across the league, which may also include the Padres or even the division rival White Sox, who need to improve their bullpen this off-season. Thus, while it would be nice to get Rosenthal back, it is probably more likely that the Royals will look for a rebound pitching project who could come on the cheap, but have some upside, much like in the Jesse Hahn or Rosenthal/Holland mold a year ago.
As for position players, the Royals probably should look for a non-tender type that could come at a decent price, but could have some long-term value. Hunter Renfroe may not be a realistic option in Kansas City, especially in the wake of the Santana deal, but I think the Royals should be thinking of acquiring a player in that kind of mold: a promising, but flawed, non-tendered player who has showed some signs of productivity and may be benefit from a change of scenery. If the Royals can find a cheap free agent in the $1-3 million range on a year contract, that could boost this lineup, and make the Royals an even deeper team for 2021. This depth, especially in the field, will be much needed, especially if this Royals team wants to take the next step up in the standings next season.