Analysis: MLB belt tightening will force KC Royals to change
Major League Baseball and MLB Players Association reached an agreement during the early weeks of the ongoing coronavirus delay that allowed for the annual draft to be shortened to as few as five rounds.
Multiple reports now confirm the draft will last exactly that: five rounds. It will include just 160 selections — its fewest since 1965. The changes were made in large part to alleviate financial burdens clubs are experiencing during the pandemic.
But even before baseball’s unforeseen work stoppage, momentum seemed headed toward less is more. MLB will also likely be reducing its number of minor-league clubs from 160 — not including teams based out of major-league training complexes — to 120, and limiting organizations to four full-season affiliates at the Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A levels on top of their Dominican academies.
Moves to curtail the number of players in MLB organizations via a shortened draft and potential contraction stand directly opposed to the way the Royals have operated during the front-office regime of general manager Dayton Moore.
While the Royals don’t need to be dragged along kicking and screaming as these changes are implemented, they could portend new ways of doing baseball business in Kansas City.
“I think you know where we stand,” Moore said during a recent Zoom call with reporters. “I mean, we like that there’s a lot of opportunity to sign and develop players, because we believe in players. We believe in giving players opportunity.”
Indeed, Moore’s Royals have been an organization of multiple chances. They’ve exhausted all paths in recent years with players who’ve struggled through injury or other adversities — recent examples include Bubba Starling, Kyle Zimmer, Cheslor Cuthbert, Terrance Gore and Jorge Bonifacio.
Moore’s Royals have found value in keeping those players in the fold and continuing to use minor-league roster spots for them.
This regime has also prided itself on developing players regardless of draft position or international signing-bonus price tag. KC’s World Series teams of 2014 and 2015 enjoyed crucial contributions from late-round picks such Jarrod Dyson (50th, 2006) and Greg Holland (10th, 2007), and pitcher Kelvin Herrera initially signed as an international free agent for just $15,000.
The Royals’ current big-league club includes ninth-round pick and All-Star outfielder/infielder Whit Merrifield, first baseman Ryan O’Hearn (eighth round, 2014) and starting pitcher Jakob Junis (29th, 2011).
Moore’s approach has long been to spread the game of baseball as far and as wide as possible, into as many communities as possible. It has guided his work with the Royals’ Urban Youth Academy as well as his C You In The Major Leagues charitable foundation.
The Royals’ farm teams have also served as vehicles to bring the game to people in far-flung communities throughout the country, including some relatively removed from major-league markets.
Right now, the Royals field seven affiliates, including three rookie-level teams, as well as their Dominican Academy squads.
They’re not anxious to rock the boat publicly; Moore has been fairly circumspect about potential contraction since the topic first received attention in November.
But baseball’s movement towards a streamlined farm system could ultimately force the Royals to change their approach, at least for the short term and perhaps longer.
“We do realize … that Major League Baseball certainly has changed from an economic standpoint, and we may have to make some necessary reductions,” Moore said. “I don’t know for certain, but we’ll be prepared to do whatever we need to do going forward. … We’ll accept whatever rules are in place at this point in time and will operate accordingly.”
The financial implications of the pandemic on baseball are not negligible. The Royals ownership group headed by John Sherman just forked over $1 billion in November and still hasn’t played host to a single home game.
By shortening this year’s draft to five rounds and freezing signing-bonus pools at 2019 levels, MLB teams will save approximately $29.5 million in signing-bonus pool money. The Royals’ estimated signing bonus pool for this year sits at $12,521,300.
TicketIQ.com estimates the Royals’ lost revenue from ticket sales for the first half of this season will exceed $52 million. They, like many other clubs, have committed to paying full-time employees through the end of May.
MLB will also restrict signing bonuses for undrafted free agents to no more than $20,000, a decision that figures to drive some players to the junior-college and college ranks instead of pro baseball.
Notable Royals picks
Here are most notable Royals draft success stories in Round 6 or later:
Tom Gordon, RHP
“Flash” Gordon, drafted in the sixth round out of Avon Park High in Florida, debuted in the majors in 1988 and went on to spend parts of 21 years in the big leagues as both a reliever and a starter. He finished his career with 203 games started and 890 games played. He won 17 games for the Royals in 1989 and recorded six seasons of 11 wins or more from 1989-96. A three-time all-star, he also won the Rolaids Reliever Award as the top relief pitcher in the AL in 1998.
Greg Holland, RHP
Holland, a 10th-round pick in 2007 out of Western Carolina University, has gone on to become a three-time All-Star and lead the NL in saves in 2017 (41). He was a crucial part of the Royals’ success in 2014 and 2015. The Sporting News AL Pitcher of the Year in 2013 and the AL Mariano Rivera Reliever of the Year in 2014, he left KC via free agency after the 2015 season. He re-signed with the Royals on a minor-league contract this offseason.
Whit Merrifield, IF/OF
Merrifield, drafted in the ninth round in 2010 out of South Carolina, debuted in the majors in 2016. He led baseball in hits and stolen bases in 2018, and last season he became the first right-handed hitter to lead the majors in hits in back-to-back years since Kirby Puckett in 1988-89. He also earned his first All-Star selection in 2019. Since entering the majors, he’s posted a slash line of .296/.344/.445.
Mike Sweeney, 1B/C
Sweeney, a right-hander drafted in the 10th round in 1991 out of Ontario High in California, earned a place in the Royals Hall of Fame. He spent 13 seasons with the Royals (16 in the majors), serving as captain from 2003-07 and earning five All-Star selections. He posted back-to-back 29-homer seasons in 2000 and 2001, and his .340 batting average in 2002 is the second-highest for a Royals player in a season behind George Brett’s .390 in 1980. He ranks among the top six all-time in franchise history in 17 offensive categories.
Others: The list of notable Royals who went on to play more than 10 years in the majors after being drafted in the sixth round or later includes shortstop Mark Ellis (ninth round, 1999), third baseman Joe Randa (11th, 1991), third baseman Kevin Seitzer (11th, 1983) and catcher Don Slaught (seventh, 1980).