Royals take high school first baseman Nick Pratto with No. 14 pick in MLB Draft

Nick Pratto of Huntington Beach High School in Huntington Beach, California played first base at the Under Armour All-American Game presented by Baseball Factory on July 23, 2016, at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois.
Nick Pratto of Huntington Beach High School in Huntington Beach, California played first base at the Under Armour All-American Game presented by Baseball Factory on July 23, 2016, at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. AP

By virtue of their draft position — No. 14 in the first round — and long-held philosophy of taking the best player available, the Royals’ brass entered the first night of the Major League Baseball draft on Monday expecting some uncertainty.

They waited out 13 selections, watching the picks come off the board, wondering who might still be available in the middle of the opening round. As the dominoes began to fall, the Royals looked at the boards inside their draft room and made a final decision: Nick Pratto, a high school first baseman from Huntington Beach, Calif., a left-handed hitter with polish and potential, was the best talent remaining in the draft.

“It’s too unpredictable to do it any other way,” Moore said on Monday night. “We’re just going to take the guy that we think has got a chance to be an All-Star.”

The Royals followed their first-round pick by selecting high school catcher M.J. Melendez of Palmetto Bay, Florida, with the 52nd overall pick in the second round. With their final pick of the night, they drafted left-handed pitcher Evan Steele of Chipola Junior College in Florida. The pick, 73rd overall, was part of the Competitive Balance Round B.

But first, they placed a bet on the potential of a high school infielder. The Royals believe that Pratto, a 6-foot-2, 200 pound prospect, possesses the ability to be a difference-making talent. So one year after not owning a first-round pick, the organization opened the draft by taking a corner infielder from southern California. The pick harkened back to the early years of the Moore regime, when the franchise spent top picks on Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, two high school corner infielders. Yet Moore said the pick was not predicated on any specific strategy.

“In the first round, you want to take the player or pitcher that you think has the highest upside,” Moore said. “That’s our philosophy. That’s what we feel is important.”

Pratto fit the description in a variety of areas, Moore said. The Royals believe he will be an above-average defender at first base. They believe in his bat. They believe he will develop power in time.

“Young hitters, the most important attribute is they learn to center the ball on the bat in different areas of the strike zone,” Moore said. “He has the ability to do that. He also has the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

Rated as the 17th best prospect in the draft, according to Baseball America, Pratto starred at Huntington Beach High School, the alma mater of former Chiefs star Tony Gonzalez, while excelling for the Under-18 Team USA team. As his senior season began, he commanded attention from scouts as both a left-handed pitcher and first baseman. But most clubs saw greater upside in his work as a position player.

The Royals had scouted Pratto for years, Moore said. Royals area scout Rich Amaral, a former major-league player, had a close relationship to the Pratto family through his own children. He had known Nick Pratto since he was star Little League player, leading a collection of southern California players to the Little League World Series championship in 2011. Pratto delivered a walk-off single in the title game against Japan.

“He’s an absolute winner,” Moore said.

In a pre-draft scouting report, Baseball America described Pratto as a “a left-handed hitter with strike-zone awareness and plate discipline well beyond his years."

"Pratto stands close to the plate and covers it well,” the scouting report continued. "He has exceptionally loose wrists and creates separation in his swing, giving himself time to adjust to pitches late and keep himself alive in counts. Pratto has advanced pitch recognition and timing.”

The skill set has led to comparisons to Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto, a perennial All-Star with terrific plate discipline. The Royals also believe that Pratto has the ability to play the outfield, though the organization plans to keep him at first base.

"He’s an advanced high school player," Moore said. "We’re highly confident that he’ll go out and adjust quickly."

For the Royals, the selection comes as the franchise’s major-league club sits at a crossroads of sorts. With a large percentage of their championship core set to reach free agency at the end of the season, including Hosmer, the Royals stumbled out of the gates in April, suffering through a nine-game losing streak. As the team enjoyed a day off in San Francisco on Monday, they sat at 28-34 on the season, 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins.

Yet Moore said the state of the franchise had little to do with its draft strategy. Pratto is years away from the majors leagues. However unlikely a long-term contract with Hosmer remains, the club could pursue that deal and still have Pratto in the pipeline, years away from contributing in a meaningful way. The system requires projection, Moore said. The draft is filled with uncertainty. So on Monday night, the Royals let their draft boards guide them.

“It’s unpredictable,” Moore said. “You want to take the best player available.”

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