February 25, 2002
Rany On The Royals
Draft DeficienciesAllard Baird has been an all-too-frequent target of my wrath since this column started several months ago, and he's deserved it. While Baird has shown a greater willingness to gamble and to entertain new ideas than his predecessor, Herk Robinson, the bottom line is that in less than two years as general manager, Baird has made a decade's worth of mistakes.
Today, though, I don't want to talk about any of the blunders that Baird has made. Instead, I wanted to concentrate on the very first meaningful decision that Baird made after he was promoted to GM, one that yielded only a brief mention by the media at the time, but that has the potential to be among the biggest mistakes Baird will ever make.
In the summer of 2000, just weeks after that year's amateur draft, Baird sacked his scouting director, Terry Wetzel, and replaced him with a well-regarded Braves scout, Deric Ladnier. This decision has already hurt the Royals significantly, and has the potential to completely derail their rebuilding process for years to come.
Terry Wetzel supervised four drafts during his tenure as scouting director, from 1997 to 2000. More talent was brought into the Royals system in those four drafts than in any other four-year span in the past 25 years. Using a philosophy that was more focused on collegiate players, Wetzel oversaw the capture of an impressive collection of talent each year.
There is no question that he was helped by the addition of numerous free-agent compensation picks during his tenure. The Royals lost Jay Bell to free agency in 1997, and Dean Palmer and Jose Offerman in 1998. For the loss of each player, the team was compensated with a pair of high draft picks. As a result, in 1998 and 1999 the Royals had a combined ten draft picks in the first two rounds.
The Royals used all ten picks on pitchers. This is a very high-risk strategy, even though eight of the ten pitchers were drafted out of college, and sure enough the Royals picked a number of turkeys, including Matt Burch, Jay Gehrke, and Wes Obermueller, all of whom have seen their 24th birthdays come and go without getting out of A ball. Robbie Morrison, a second-rounder in 1998, made it to Double-A before missing all of last season following shoulder surgery. Brian Sanches hit a wall in Double-A last year, leaving his future very much in doubt.
Among the eight collegiate pitchers selected, only three still figure prominently in the Royals near-term plans: Jeff Austin, Kyle Snyder, and Mike MacDougal. Austin has resurrected a future for himself in relief after bombing as a starter, and Snyder is only now ready to start a pro career interrupted twice by elbow surgery, including Tommy John surgery last fall. Essentially, the only one of the eight collegiate pitchers taken whose prospect luster hasn't dimmed at all is MacDougal. He throws in the upper 90s and reached Triple-A last year, then acquitted himself nicely in three starts with the Royals in September.
Overall, the Royals didn't get a great return on their investment, although the yield is improved somewhat if we include Dan Reichert, a first-round pick in 1997. Despite being overdrafted thanks to his signability, not to mention having to adjust to the onset of diabetes, Reichert reached the major leagues in barely two years.
Ironically, though, the two best pitchers selected by the Royals during this run were the two drafted out of high school. Chris George, taken with the first supplemental pick in 1998, was a top-20 prospect a year ago and, at age 21, became the fourth-youngest pitcher in team history to make at least ten starts. Jimmy Gobble, taken with a supplemental pick a year later, is almost George's equal as a prospect.
Even with the additions of George and Gobble, it would be difficult to argue that Terry Wetzel did a great job with his high-round picks. He didn't. Where he made his mark was in the later rounds, where the Royals procured as much talent as any team did in those four years.
In the ninth round alone, the Royals snagged excellent prospects three years straight. In 1997, they took Kris Wilson, who was a competent swing-man as a rookie last year. In 1998 they took Paul Phillips, a college outfielder who was moved behind the plate and who reached Double-A in less than a year. In 1999 they grabbed Mark Ellis, a college senior who was so advanced as a shortstop that the Royals were able to deal him for Angel Berroa--who is now their best prospect--last winter.
The '99 draft was probably Wetzel's most productive one. In the fifth round the Royals snagged Ken Harvey, who led the NCAA in batting average his junior year but turned off scouts with his lack of athleticism; Harvey has a career .359 average as a pro and made the Baseball Prospectus Top 40 Prospects list this year. In the sixth round the Royals took Ryan Baerlocher out of an NAIA college, and Baerlocher was taken by the Padres in this winter's Rule 5 draft. In the 12th round the team took Tony Cogan, a barely-used middle man on a very deep Stanford staff, and in less than 18 months Cogan was (ill-advisedly) thrown into the Royals bullpen as a situational left-hander.
So why was Wetzel fired? Baird cited "philosophical differences." That is literally true, as best as I have been able to ascertain. Wetzel's philosophy is to take baseball players, while Baird's philosophy is to take athletes with raw tools and teach them how to play baseball. You know, the same philosophy that has destroyed innumerable farm systems over the past 50 years. Baird wanted the Royals to use their first-round selection in 2000 on Scott Heard, a high school catcher with tremendous defensive skills. Wetzel was reluctant to draft Heard because of concerns that he would never learn to hit, and selected high-school lefty Mike Stodolka instead. This decision was a big reason, if not the main reason, why Wetzel was fired.
It's worth noting that Heard hit just .228 with little power in full-season ball last year. Stodolka, who was plagued by arm soreness and made only 20 starts last year, was hardly more impressive. Even if he tanked his first pick, though, Wetzel made up for it by grabbing Mike Tonis and Scott Walter, both collegiate catchers, with the Royals' second- and third-round picks. Tonis, in fact, is one of the five best catching prospects in baseball. In the 11th round, the Royals grabbed Ryan Bukvich, who had dropped out of college the year before, and since being drafted Bukvich has struck out 129 batters in 100 innings and has already reached Double-A. Wetzel even grabbed a couple of nice prospects during the draft's second day, selecting Marco Cunningham in the 27th round and Ruben Gotay in the 31st.
Still, Baird let Wetzel go and replaced him with a man whose drafting philosophy mirrored his own. Deric Ladnier was hired away from the Braves' organization, and the Braves have been one of the most aggressive teams in baseball when it comes to selecting high-school talent. The success of the Braves at the major-league level has cast a soft light over every aspect of their organization, bolstering the reputation of a domestic scouting department that has done little to merit it.
I wrote about this last June, but to rehash, here are the Braves' first-round draft picks since 1991:
I don't know about you, but to me that looks like one awful draft record. After the Braves hit it big with Chipper Jones in 1990, their next six top draft picks (incidentally, five high schoolers and one very toolsy college outfielder) were unqualified busts. Adam Wainwright is headed in the right direction, but he's still four levels away from the major leagues.
Keep in mind, this is the Atlanta Braves, a team that has otherwise been a model of execution for the other 29 teams in baseball for the past dozen years. If the Braves, with an enormous scouting budget (at least before AOL entered the picture) and some of the brightest minds in the game working for them, couldn't parlay their tools-heavy strategy into success in the first round, what chance do the Royals have?
That was meant to be a rhetorical question, but unfortunately, we're going to find out. Colt Griffin, who's rawer than steak tartare but became the first prep pitcher to break triple digits on the radar gun, was the team's first pick. Roscoe Crosby, a tremendous athlete who 1) played high school ball against weak competition in South Carolina and 2) spends eight months a year as a wide receiver for Clemson, was drafted second.
Both players have outstanding upside, no question. I've been told that Griffin gets outstanding movement on his fastball when he throws in the low-90s, and that Crosby really does love baseball and may commit to the sport full-time if he gets a whiff of success in the minors. But they were probably the two riskiest selections made in the first two rounds, and they were both taken by the same team. If even one of them makes it to the major leagues and has a productive career, the Royals will be have come out better than they have any right to expect.
Making the situation worse is that the Royals have to rely on them (or third-round pick Matt Ferrara, who signed late and has yet to debut) to keep this draft from being a disaster, because the remainder of the team's draft was just horrific. It isn't an exaggeration to say that not one of the Royals' 2001 draft picks had a promising debut. Okay, maybe one: Curtis Legendre hit an empty .321 while masquerading as a third baseman and as a catcher. Legendre was the team's 45th-round pick. Aside from him, and 11th-rounder Danny Tamayo, nobody in this draft looks like a prospect.
The easiest way to get a read on just how well a draft class plays in their debut is to take a look at the combined records of an organization's short-season teams. The Royals' bottom two affiliates, in Spokane and in the Gulf Coast League, combined to go 42-94. Both teams ranked among the five worst teams in organized baseball last year.
The Royals are not a privileged team. They can't compete with their opponents on the basis of payroll, so they have to compensate in other ways. They have to use their resources more wisely, avoid unnecessary risks, and recognize that they can not afford to blow draft picks on one-in-a-hundred gambles when the draft offers them the most cost-effective way to obtain talent.
By firing a highly competent scouting director and replacing him with one who is unable to resist the fools' gold of athleticism and radar-gun readings, Allard Baird has made a difficult task nearly impossible.
Rany Jazayerli, M.D. is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.