Royals Rundown: Hitting in the draft imperative for struggling Royals' future

Todd Fertig
Special to The Capital-Journal
Vanderbilt's Kumar Rocker could very well be a target for the Kansas City Royals, who have the No. 7 pick in this year MLB Amateur Draft, which begins Sunday. The Royals have needs all over the field and hitting in the draft is imperative.

As hollow consolation for yet another bad season in 2020, the Kansas City Royals own the seventh pick in Major League Baseball’s Amateur Draft that begins Sunday.

As a small market team without the resources to spend on free agents, the Royals must draft effectively. They need to stock their farm system with talent, then develop those prospects into a competitive unit. 

With the exception of the group that moved together to the big leagues a decade ago — Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Greg Holland, etc. — the Royals have failed in this mission.

The team must hit on draft picks, and Sunday marks another opportunity to do so.

Traditionally held in June, the draft was moved to July this year, in part to make it more of a media event, and in part to allow more time for scouting. A residual effect of the pandemic is that less is known about the current crop of amateurs than in normal years.

For that reason, and because there doesn’t appear to be that one uber-prospect available, the top of the draft is more muddled than normal. Unlike most years, it’s anyone’s guess how the first round will shake out.

There are four elite high school shortstops predicted to go within the top seven picks. There is a good chance one of them will be available when the Royals draft at No. 7. While it would seem Kansas City has its shortstop of the future in minor leaguer Bobby Witt, Jr., baseball teams typically disregard their current inventory, picking the best player regardless of position.

One of the problems with taking a high school player is that they require several years to develop. Recently, the Royals have drafted a surprising number of college pitchers. No one would be surprised if they continued the trend.

There are a couple of elite college hurlers available, both from Vanderbilt. Jack Leiter, arguably the better of the two, probably will have been taken before the Royals’ turn comes around.

But the prospect most linked to the Royals, Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker, might still be on the board. Rocker was a hero of previous college seasons and just a few months ago was considered one of the very best prospects available.

But Rocker’s star has faded a bit this year. The velocity of his fastball has dropped, and he was hit hard late in the college season.

The Royals have long coveted Rocker, the son of an NFL star, Tracy Rocker. But will his recent struggles cause the Royals to look elsewhere with the seventh pick? 

The franchise’s greatest area of need is probably in the outfield. None of the top prospects is listed as an outfielder, but any of the top shortstops could conceivably wind up there.

The Royals don’t draft again until the 43rd selection. So while good players are drafted in later rounds, most attention Sunday will be on the player taken at number seven.

K-Stater Likely to Go Early

Although he’s probably not being considered by the Royals at No. 7, a Kansas State Wildcat will likely hear his name called somewhere in the first round Sunday.

Jordan Wicks, who just completed his third year in Manhattan, was named All-American. Arguably the best college lefthander in the draft, Wicks is projected to be taken somewhere in the teens.

Wicks will depart Manhattan with a career 15-6 record, a 3.24 ERA, and 230 strikeouts in 203 innings.

Recent Royals Picks

Mired in yet another losing season, the Royals have their fingers crossed that their recent draft classes will turn the big league club around. Here is an update on a few picks from recent drafts:

2017 — Two high school position players were taken to restock the cupboard. First baseman Nick Pratto struggled for a few years, but is rejuvenated at Double-A this year.

The same is true of catcher MJ Melendez. They both spent the pandemic working at the Royals’ alternate training site, and it appears to have done them a lot of good. After dropping out of prospect rankings, Pratto and Melendez are both back in the Royals’ future plans.

Pitcher Tyler Zuber is the only member of the 2017 draft class to reach the big leagues. He looks to be a contributor in the bullpen for years to come. 

2018 — The Royals were blessed with five of the first 58 picks. Employing a somewhat surprising strategy, they used every one of those picks on a college pitcher. The haul was supposed to set the team up with hurlers on the fast track for the big leagues.

Up until May of this year, it looked like a brilliant move. Brady Singer and Kris Bubic claimed spots in the big league rotation in 2020 and held their own. But both have struggled in 2021. And when the Royals tried to bring up elite prospects Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch, both were battered and embarrassed.

No one is giving up on the 2018 crop of pitchers, but the expectation on them to save the franchise has been tempered. 

2019 — With the second pick in the draft, the Royals nabbed what they hope to be a franchise cornerstone in Witt. The high school shortstop has all the tools, and is the son of a longtime major leaguer. After working at the alternate site during the pandemic, Witt electrified the club’s spring training camp before being sent to Double-A.

So far, so good. He’s hitting for average and power and may get promoted to Triple-A before long. 

2020 — The Royals’ scouting department was ecstatic to find Asa Lacy available at No. 4 last year. Lacy worked out at the alternate site during the pandemic, but is having trouble getting things going this summer. Despite starting out at the A-Ball level, he is just 2-5 with a 4.96 ERA.