The Royals were often referred to as “the model for expansion teams” during their first decade of existence. But during the later part of the 1990s they could serve as the model for how not to build a franchise.
Just about the time the team started losing traction on the big league level, it also started a series of whiffs with its first round draft choices. The team was accused of drafting players of lesser talent, particularly collegiate pitchers, to avoid large signing bonuses.
Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t working.
The culmination of the futility seemed to be 2001, when KC tapped two phenomenal high school talents with their first two picks – players who barely saw the field as professionals. Colt Griffin and Roscoe Crosby cost the team a fortune and epitomized the Royals’ futility of the era.
That devastating swing and miss capped a six-year era of utter failure with high draft picks. By 2002, the talent-less big league team had absolutely nothing in the farm system to build upon.
Here is a five-year rundown of first round picks by the Royals from 1996 to 2000 and who they could have had instead (you might want to look away, rather than consider the players the Royals passed on):
1996 – Dee Brown #14
Brown hung around the club for nine years, making frequent trips between KC and Omaha. He hit just .233 with 14 homers when far more than was expected. Compared to the list of first-rounders that followed, however, Brown looks like an all-star.
The Royals could have drafted Eric Milton, Jake Westbrook or Gil Meche instead of Brown.
1997 – Dan Reichert #7
Drafted from Pacific University, Reichert worked as a starter and out of the bullpen during four seasons in KC, finishing with a 21-25 record and an ERA of 5.55.
Instead of Reichert, the Royals could have drafted Michael Cuddyer, Jon Garland, Lance Berkman or Jason Werth.
1998 – Jeff Austin #4, Matt Burch #30, Chris George #31 (supplemental)
Taken from Stanford University, Austin pitched in just 31 games as a Royal during 2001 and 2002, all in relief.
Burch was even worse. Drafted from Virginia Commonwealth, he never reached the big leagues, and the Royals gave up on him in 2003.
George was drafted out of high school. He made it to the bigs by age 21, but couldn’t take advantage of the many opportunities given to him. From 2001 to 2004 he posted a record of 14-20, almost entirely as a starter, with an ERA of 6.48.
Rather than Austin, the Royals could have taken J.D. Drew, Austin Kerns, Carlos Pena, Brad Lidge or C.C. Sabathia. Instead of Burch or George, they could have drafted Adam Dunn or Brandon Inge.
1999 – Kyle Snyder #7, Mike MacDougal #25, Jay Gehrke #32 (supplemental) Jimmy Gobble #43 (supplemental)
Snyder pitched in college for North Carolina. He didn’t reach the big leagues until age 25, where he went 2-9 over parts of three seasons with the Royals. Snyder did get a second shot with the Red Sox and actually contributed to their bullpen in their World Series run of 2007.
MacDougal, a Wake Forest product, was star-crossed from day one. His success was derailed by freakish incidents. He was drilled in the head by a stray bat in 2001. Then a mysterious sickness in 2004 caused him to lose a ton of weight and the heat off his fastball. He tore up the league for the first half of 2003 and was named an All-Star. But he’s bounced around the minors ever since the Royals gave up on him in 2006.
The Pepperdine product Gehrke never made it above A-ball in three seasons.
Gobble was a high school draftee that pitched very well in the minors. He made it to the big club by age 21 and was a starter in 2003 when the Royals posted a winning season. He pitched primarily out of the bullpen during his six seasons in KC, with mild success.
Instead of Snyder, the Royals could have had Barry Zito or Ben Sheets. Instead of the other three first rounders, the team could have chosen three of the following: Chris Duncan, Brian Roberts, Carl Crawford, Ryan Ludwick, or John Lackey.
2000 – Mike Stodolka #4
Stodolka’s is a sad story. Drafted out of high school, he struggled with arm issues for six seasons. Finally, at 24 he converted to first base. He hit well in three minor league seasons, but was trapped behind the logjam of Ryan Shealy, Billy Butler and Kila Ka’aihue in the minors from 2006 to 2008.
The Royals could have drafted Chase Utley or Adam Wainright instead of Stodolka.
While it would appear the Royals were doing something (everything?) wrong during this five year period, it’s unfortunate that the Royals have traditionally done little with high draft picks. Even in their best years, most of the players they were drafting didn’t contribute to the success. (Hugh Walker – 1988, Tony Bridges – 1986, Dave Leeper – 1981, Frank Wills – 1980, Ben Grzybek – 1976. Do those names ring a bell with anyone?)
The results of these drafts serve as a cautionary tale in 2011. Nearly every player mentioned above was ranked among the top prospects by scouting services while in the Royals system.
Before we start sizing Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas for World Series rings, we better recognize what it takes to build a champion. The Royals weren’t the only team drafting busts during that five-year period. There are no guarantees that the current crop of Royals farm hands, currently rated #1 by those same scouting services, won’t be washouts, flops and injury casualties as well.