The Royals went for a different approach in the draft…but will it pay off?

Dayton Moore and the Royals front office is known for “zigging” when others “zag”, and that has often been the case in the MLB Draft under Moore’s tenure. After going pretty safe and traditional in the early rounds in 2018, 2019, and 2020, Moore and the Royals went down a different path in this year’s draft, deviating from the polished “college” arm selections that they depended on.

That was evidenced especially with this year’s No. 7 pick. The Royals didn’t go for Vanderbilit’s Kumar Rocker, who was widely pegged by most draft experts in the Royals slot, but rather Frank Mozzicato, a left-handed prep pitcher from Connecticut.

The decision caught a lot of Royals fans, and baseball and prospect experts in general, by surprise. Sure, maybe the Royals were looking to go frugal, seeking to employ the strategy they used with Hunter Dozier and Sean Manaea back in 2013 where they “over-drafted” Dozier to save money at the slot, and then use that saved cash to spend “over-slot” on Manaea with their next pick (as Manaea had more value). But Mozzicato bucks that strategy, as that is typically saved for more polished, but less-upside college guys (like Dozier), not projectible, but risky pitchers from cold-weather states.

Even more surprisingly, on draft day, it seemed like the Royals felt that Mozzicato was the best player available in their mind on their board, which is a bit of a head scratcher, as no major publication had Mozzicato getting drafted on the first day of the MLB Draft:

While the day one selection of the Connecticut prep lefty certainly was surprising, Day Two of the Draft provided more surprises and deviations from what the Royals had done the previous three drafts. Let’s take a look at the list of who they drafted on the second day:

As Royals fans can see, the Royals not only went with a lot of high-upside high school players, especially within the first four rounds, but also local guys as well. Ben Kudrna hails from Johnson County. Carter Jensen is a Northland guy, playing high school ball at Park Hill. Even Noah Cameron, who played college ball at Central Arkansas, originally hails from St. Joseph, Missouri. There certainly was a local flair to the Royals’ draft selections, and considering that Kansas and Missouri aren’t baseball “hotbeds” like California, Florida, or Texas, for example, Moore and the Royals’ strategy certainly is an interesting, as well as risky one.

On Day Three, it seemed like Moore and his scouting team reverted back to a strategy that was more akin to what they did from 2018-2020. They drafted a high-upside, athletic prep shortstop in Brennon McNair, who hails from Mississippi. That being said, for the most part, they drafted safe, college prospects who most likely could move quickly in the Royals farm system.

Thus, it was hard to pinpoint exactly what Moore and the Royals were trying to do in this draft. After all, when one has a pitcher like Rocker on the table, why pass, especially if the goal in Kansas City is to start winning? Is there a change of plan? Is Moore now thinking long-term, instead of short-term, which seemed to be the goal in the previous three drafts?

There is a method it seems to Moore’s madness…it will just be interesting to see if he’ll be able to see it through.

At first, my initial inkling was to not like this draft class. The idea of Rocker, a bonafide College World Series legend, joining this talented crew of Royals pitching prospects such as Daniel Lynch, Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, and Asa Lacy seemed too good to be true at the surface level. Rocker would move quickly in the Royals system, and there was hope that he could contribute to the Royals rotation as soon as 2022.

However, I understand why Moore would deviate from Rocker, and look for more under-valued upside in the first two days of the MLB Draft. Rocker was going to come at a hefty price, and at No. 7, I am not sure if that is a slot where a team may feel totally comfortable shelling out the kind of cash, especially a small market one like the Royals. Last year, Lacy fell after being dubbed as the consensus No. 2 pick by most draft experts. However, paying for a Top-3 player at No. 4 is one thing. The fact that Rocker was available in the No. 7 range, especially considering all his hype the past two years, is a more troubling sign, and I can understand Moore and the Royals showing hesitancy. Yes, no player in college baseball was more analyzed than Rocker the past two years. That being said, if he was as “sure-fire” as he was hyped to be, he would not have fallen to the Royals’ range.

Instead of going with the highly-heralded, and probably expensive, option, Moore decided to go an alternative route: young, projectable, and affordable. It seems like every pick, Mozzicato included, matches that profile. It seems like the Royals got great value on Kudrna, who had late first round potential. Jensen has some serious upside as a prep catcher, who perhaps could follow in MJ Melendez’s footsteps in the Royals system. Panzini comes from a cold weather state (New Jersey), like Mozzicato, but like Mozzicato, he has some serious stuff that could get even better with more development, should he project accordingly and stay healthy:

Even in the third day, even though most of the picks are college players, there is an emphasis more on “projection” and “upside” than in the Royals previous three drafts. River Town, in addition to having a great name, appears to be a toolsy player who could fit the “Royals Way” of player that was common during the Royals’ successful period between 2013-2017. He’s got speed, he’s athletic, and was the kind of gamer at Dallas Baptist that Moore and Royals scouts gravitate toward.

Thus, as a Royals fan, when one examines this draft class deeper…well…there’s a lot to like. There’s some upside that we haven’t seen in the past three drafts. There’s potential. There’s balance among the Royals’ draft selections this year, with a great mix of projectible pitchers, athletic infielders and outfielder, and some power upside at key positions (Jensen especially). There certainly is a lot more risk. But sometimes in the draft, one has to go more risky…

It’s the only way sometimes to take that next step at the MLB level.

There’s no question this is an intriguing move by Moore. He’s putting an immense amount of trust in his player development by drafting so many young and projectible players. And honestly, the Royals player development has made a lot of strides the past couple of years. Bobby Witt, Jr. and Nick Pratto, prep prospects, have become highly-heralded phenoms who are knocking at the door of the Major League level. Melendez, who struggled immensely in 2019, now currently leads all Double-A hitters in home runs, as he hit another bomb on Thursday night.

Thus, if Moore really believes in his player development staff and system, then it makes sense why he and his scouting department would go for “ceiling” over “floor” in this draft. After all, Moore’s roots in Atlanta focused on drafting and developing prep talent. He may be ready to return to such a model, especially after such success stories in Northwest Arkansas this season.

But it’s a big gamble by Moore. If Rocker turns out to be a stud at the MLB level, and Mozzicato and the other prep talent in this draft don’t pan out…well…it could mean the end for Moore’s tenure as GM in Kansas City sooner rather than later. John Sherman has a plan, which is to win by investing in infrastructure in the Minor Leagues, which he mentioned in a most recent post with the Athletic’s Alec Lewis. That being said, as mentioned in the piece, Sherman isn’t exactly “thrilled” with how the first half went, and there needs to be serious progress at both the Minor and Major League level soon if Moore wants to see out “Process 2.0” to its full extent.

It will be a challenging road for Moore, especially after a rough past couple of months which may have put the Royals back a bit in terms of developing at the MLB level in 2021 as hoped in the pre-season. This draft class could be one that may not have been the most “heralded” initially, but could be the most productive, especially considering the upside of the prep talent the Royals drafted.

That being said, it’s the riskiest draft we have seen from Moore and the Royals in nearly five years…

Let’s see if the risk will pay off or burn Moore and the Royals in the next few seasons.

Because if it’s the latter…the Royals may be looking for a new GM by 2024.

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