Sam Mellinger

Royals' draft haul of five pitchers could be a nice start, but that's all

The Royals got better late Monday night. They got more talented, more athletic, more capable. They have been mostly dismissed by the baseball industry lately, and rightly so. The big-league team stinks, but the real problem is that the minor-league system might be worse. Before this season, Baseball America ranked the Royals' system the second-worst in baseball.

Well, that will change now. An influx of talent from five of the top 58 picks in last night's amateur draft will do that. The ranking will improve, but no matter what you think of the specific picks — and, if we're honest, any definitive reaction to any baseball pick is by definition an overreaction — the following sentence is more important.

This is not enough.

This must be only the beginning.

This must be only step one, with many to follow, but step two is approaching fast and could be as critical as Monday night's draft picks.

Because no sport holds truer to routine than baseball, and the routine of executives across the sport is to first obsess over the draft and then obsess over trades ahead of the July 31 deadline — now 55 days away.

The Royals' future largely depends on those trades.

Look, the draft class should be productive. Better be productive. If it's not, some might lose their jobs. If it is, the Royals might be back in contention. These are the stakes of big-time sports.

"We didn't settle for anything," general manager Dayton Moore said.

If you're an optimist, you might look at the Angels' 2009 draft. They had five picks in the top 48 and got Mike Trout, Garrett Richards, Randal Grichuk and Tyler Skaggs. Patrick Corbin was taken in the second round, 80th overall, which means three starting pitchers, a starting left fielder and the best player of his generation.

If you're an old head, you might look at the Royals' 1992 draft. They had five picks in the top 44 and got Johnny Damon, Jon Lieber and Michael Tucker. Damon is one of the best players in team history, Tucker was traded for Jermaine Dye, and Lieber was a productive starting pitcher for 14 big-league seasons.

This class could be defining. Brady Singer is a 6-foot-5 college right-hander from Florida with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s with plenty of late life. His slider is strong, his changeup improving. He won a national championship and was named Baseball America's college player of the year. He was projected to be selected in the top five and fell to the Royals at No. 18. Presuming signability was an issue, the Royals are a good fit with the largest draft pool ($12,781,900) and a soft spot for hyper-competitive players.

Jackson Kowar is another 6-foot-5 college right-hander from Florida with a mid-90s fastball and a changeup that's said to be among the best in the draft class. Many who study the draft projected Kowar as a top 20 talent; he fell to the Royals at No. 33, and now he'll need to develop a better breaking pitch to be in a rotation.

Daniel Lynch is a 6-foot-4 left-hander from Virginia with four pitches and a lot of what scouts sometimes call project ability. He touches 94, with room for more velocity, and is said to be a good athlete. He was, realistically, likely overdrafted at No. 34 to help sign Singer and Kowar.

Kris Bubic is a 6-foot-3 left-hander from Stanford who is said to have a high floor and went No. 40, and Jonathan Bowlan is a 6-foot-6 right-hander from Memphis whose fastball is said to touch 97; he was taken 58th overall.

So, you know. Maybe the Royals just drafted their next championship rotation. They have dozens more picks to add to the haul. A franchise in need of it can dream.

"We feel like they'll continue to get better and better," Moore said. "(You want to) put together a high-quality pitching staff in the minor-league level, and once you do that, you have a chance to get them to the major leagues. That's the plan."

But the Royals also know this draft class — even in in the most optimistic view — is more like starting the manuscript than publishing the book.

The farm system needs to be flipped, from among baseball's worst to the best. Remember how this happened before. The Royals built baseball's best farm system in years and still needed to nail two blockbuster trades to climb to the top.

That means being creative to squeeze the most juice from Mike Moustakas' trade value in a market that will include two better third basemen in Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado (who is playing shortstop this season).

That means trading Kelvin Herrera, who is pacing for the season of his life and should have multiple suitors as a lockdown reliever with a championship history.

Trading those two would bring back multiple prospects, further injecting talent into a farm system in desperate need, but even that can't be enough.

The Royals are in a position that demands they consider everything. That means at least being open to trading Whit Merrifield, perhaps the best player on this team. He is versatile, a terrific athlete and should be in his prime. He's also 29, which means he'll be into his 30s by the time the Royals are ready to win again. If the Royals deem a package of prospects will be more valuable in four years than Merrifield, they owe it to their future to think hard.

That's not all. The Royals need to listen if teams call about Jorge Soler, and even Sal Perez.

Depending on how you look at it, five of the Royals' best seven players have been named in this column. Jakob Junis is left out because his age and club control mean he's part of the future, and Danny Duffy is out because his first 10 starts torpedoed his trade value.

We'll talk more about this as the summer goes on, but this is what building looks like, and at this point, the Royals are either all-in on building or they're fooling themselves.

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