Royals

The Royals are wagering their future on college kids, and here’s why

The Royals scouted every game of Bobby Witt Jr.’s season in person, their front-office staff combining to make more than 40 trips to a high school baseball field in Texas.

The remainder of the Royals’ early-round draft picks required visits to less obscure locations. To more prominent programs.

To college.

After using their first-round pick this month on Witt, a high school shortstop, the Royals employed their ensuing 15 selections on college players.

A purposeful strategy. Well, sort of.

“We desire a better blend of high school and college talent,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “We go into a draft looking to take the best player available. Ideally, that’s a blend of high school and college players. The difference today is a lot of high school players are pricing themselves out of the draft. It has nothing to do with their ability. Their expectations financially exceed what we are allowed to pay.”

The operative word there: Allowed. Teams are trapped into the structure of the collective bargaining agreement that fell into place in 2012. They’re allocated a bonus pool of money to spend on draft picks from the first 10 rounds.

The Royals’ selections from the initial 10 rounds totaled $13,108,000 in bonus pool money, the third most in the league, in part because they drafted at No. 2 overall. If a team eclipses its allotment but by less than 5%, it must pay a luxury tax. It it exceeds the allotment by more than 5%, the penalty involves the forfeiture of future top draft picks.

In the new era of bonus pool money, there’s little wiggle room for negotiations. Thus, drafting a high school player invokes such considerably more risk that it swayed the balance of this year’s draft.

Why? Leverage.

With extremely few exceptions, the top high school baseball players in the country receive college scholarship opportunities. If they don’t like their professional contract offers — typically hovering around their assigned slot values — they simply pass, head to college and wait until they become draft eligible again.

And the team is out a top pick.

Arkansas pitcher Isaiah Campbell, an Olathe South graduate, told The Star that’s why he rejected a previous draft offer and stayed in school an extra year, and it paid off this month when the Seattle Mariners took him before the third round.

“I knew what I was worth,” he said.

The Royals don’t spend time attempting to persuade kids to accept contract offers rather than head to college. Instead, they target those who they believe have already made up their minds about turning professional.

Moore had no qualms about taking a high school player on the first day of the draft. Witt Jr. signed for full slot value at $7,789,900. The sum does its own persuasion.

But as the rounds get later and the accompanying slot values decrease, the pendulum of a high school player’s decision swings further toward college. In 2018, the Braves, Diamondbacks and Dodgers sacrificed first-round picks because they could not reach an agreement with a high schooler.

Relatively speaking, a college player offers more security, particularly a college senior. That became an overriding factor in the 2019 draft. For the Royals. And for their counterparts. There are still teams who prefer the upside of high school players, whose analytic departments have nudged them in that direction. The Royals are content to draft them, too. They’re not neglecting high school talent.

But the trend is to take a player you at least know will join your farm system, and the Royals are fully engrossed in it. According to Baseball America, 65.4% of the selections before this year’s third round derived from four-year colleges, the highest rate since 1981.

Enhanced by its run on college talent, the Royals have already agreed to deals with all of their picks from the first 10 rounds, with the exception of Florida State pitcher Drew Parrish, whose participation in the College World Series prevented the team from making contact with him until the season concluded. They signed their top 17 picks in 2018.

They will couple that with their continued investment into the international market, adding another 15-20 players annually. Those signings will occur next month. And therein lies the proof of the club’s willingness to be patient with a prospect. The international signings will include a heavy does of teenagers.

But for now, the draft pool will not.

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