Take a bow, Danny Ontiveros. You played this one beautifully.
One of the persistent cries of Royals fans and commentators alike voices a desire to see a coherent plan for roster building by the Royals front office. As outsiders, it’s often difficult to know if the Royals have a good plan (unlikely given the team’s performance over the last six years), a bad plan, or no plan at all.
The same cries persist for a coherent plan as it relates to draft strategy and player development. The Royals have offered explanations as to why they’ve done certain things in particular drafts (focusing heavily on college pitching in 2018 for example), but until the 2022 MLB Draft, there was no discernible identity as a player acquisition and development system.
That made seeing this tweet from MLB.com’s Royals beat writer Anne Rogers a little troubling.
Ontiveros’ comments were clearly more nuanced than this one line, but it’s understandable if this sentiment worries the Royals faithful. In the past, the biggest issues with the Royals’ draft strategy has been an inconsistent targeting of particular traits, especially in pitchers. Recently, the Royals have had success drafting productive college hitters in later rounds and turning their solid hit tools into professional production. On the pitching side, it has looked more like they’re throwing spaghetti against a wall to see what sticks.
In 2021, for example, the Royals selected three pitchers with three of their top five picks who don’t fit any clear profile that might pair well with their pitching development system. Frank Mozzicato is a projectable lefty with good spin but not great velocity. Ben Kudrna is a flame thrower who is pretty tapped out physically but has a feel to pitch. Shane Panzini is a thrower more than a pitcher at this point with decent stuff but a long way to go command-wise.
What’s the thread there?
Teams that are good at developing pitching start by targeting traits they feel they can’t teach. They then help those players grow in the areas they teach well. Cleveland, for example, targets athletic players with projectable or present command and the potential for more velocity. Then, Cleveland helps them gain velocity, lets their bodies develop, and optimizes their pitch mixes. This has produced a stable of good to great pitchers for Cleveland (Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Triston McKenzie). Bieber is the textbook example. He came out of UC Santa Barbara throwing 88-92; Cleveland got him up to 93-94 in his Cy Young year. And though his velocity has dipped this year, they’ve also added to his arsenal so he’s a five-pitch pitcher with a 3.24 ERA and 2.73 FIP.
So, what about the Royals 2022 draft? Does it hold any signs of hope? Signs that the Royals under Ontiveros will have a coherent draft strategy that fits their development strengths and weaknesses?
If someone showed me a generic organization and said “This is a small-market team with a good track record of developing hitting but a terrible track record developing pitching,” I’d advise that team to do exactly what the Royals did in the 2022 draft. Use their most valuable draft resources to take hitters they can maximize and try to find pitching later. The Royals have actually had some success developing backend starters and bullpen pieces. Jon Heasley looks like he may stick at the back end of their rotation. Jonathan Bowlan looks like he may be an effective starter once he fully recovers from Tommy John. Rounds 3-10 are for finding effective backend and bullpen guys, and that’s exactly what the Royals did in rounds 3-10.
They took guys like Hunter Patteson, Steven Zobac, and David Sandlin—guys who may be long shots but who have upside if you can develop them. Patteson looked lights out before he needed Tommy John this spring. That’s a great pick in round five. Zobac was a two-way player who became a starting pitcher this year. Full time pitching may see him develop better stuff. Sandlin is the gem of the pitchers taken, as he has mid-rotation potential with two good secondaries and a projectable fastball.
All of a sudden, a little pattern may be emerging in terms of the types of arms the Royals are interested in taking. Many of the pitchers they took are good athletes who are in some way still projectable. Maybe they’re recovering from TJ; maybe they were recently converted into a full time pitcher. Or maybe, like Sandlin, they just emerged with potential many saw in them previously. The Royals still need a better pitching development program to get the most out of these guys, but the 2022 draft has a chance to be a significant step toward creating a more cohesive pitching development system.
Follow Marcus on Twitter @RoyalsWeekly