Down On the Farm: The 10 Best Draft Picks in Kansas City Royals History
The 41-year history of the Kansas City Royals is a story of a meteoric rise to contention in the franchise's first 21 years, followed by a titanic fall to baseball's cellar in the last 20 years.
As an expansion team in 1969, the Royals became a winner after just two seasons and was a title contender for two decades. In fact, all seven of the team's playoff appearances occurred during a 10-year stretch from 1976 to 1988, making it to the World Series twice, winning it once in 1985.
The Royals early success hinged almost entirely on the team's ability to find, draft, and then develop young players in it's farm system.
In addition, the Royals were able to develop their players into winners, and then retain them.
In the early 1990s, all that changed. After an era where players spent their entire career with a single team, free agency sent salaries through the roof and players began leaving small market teams like Kansas City for the Bostons and New Yorks of the league.
Unfortunately for fans, the main issue in Kansas City the last 20 years is that as soon as the stars of players like David Cone, Johnny Damon, or Carlos Beltran began to rise, they were either lost in free agency or traded away to teams willing and able to pay millions of dollars more for their services.
Here is my list for the top 10 Royals draft picks of all-time. For younger Royals fans whose only taste of winning was a 2003 team that won just 83 games, there may be names of Royals greats that they are seeing for the first time.
For older fans, this list represents a flashback to the glory days of this franchise, with a few younger players mixed in, all of whom are players that any general manager in baseball would love to have on their team.
No. 10: OF Bo Jackson, 1986-fourth round
The late Buck O'Neil, on more than one occasion, would talk about the first time he heard the great Josh Gibson hit a baseball.
In all his years, Buck claimed to have only heard a sound like that on two other occasions: when as a child he heard Babe Ruth hit, and much later in life when he heard Bo Jackson hit.
Bo Jackson, a Heisman Trophy winning running back from Auburn, also played a little baseball.
A raw baseball talent who everyone thought would make his living in the NFL, decided to play both sports after the Royals spent a fourth round pick on him in the 1986 draft.
Stated simply, when you watched Bo Jackson play, it was very possible you would see something you'd never seen before.
After signing with the Royals, he asked if he could take batting practice before the game in Kansas City. On the first pitch he saw, he crushed it over 450 feet off the base of the Royals scoreboard.
When co-owner Avron Fogelman yelled to someone to "get me that baseball," Jackson promptly drove the second pitch he saw to almost the exact same spot.
Fogelman got that ball, too.
Bo's first major league home run went 475 feet to left center field at Royals Stadium, it was also the furthest ball hit in the history of the park.
Bo hit monster home runs, and on many of them, he broke his bat. Even when he didn't make contact, he'd break his bat, like when he snapped the bat over his thigh like a toothpick after striking out.
He was the first player to lead off an All-Star game and hit a home run on the game's first pitch, with a 448 foot shot to straightaway center field that great Tony Gwynn described as "unbelievable."
Perhaps Bo's greatest feat was "the Throw," when on a double to left, Bo wheeled and threw flat-footed to home plate from 300 feet away to gun out Harold Reynolds who was running on the play from second base.
Reynolds was one of the fastest players in baseball at the time, and with any other player in left field, he could have crossed the plate easily without even a slide. Bo wasn't any player in left field, to many he was Superman.
Despite a career .250 average, and a hip injury sustained in football that limited his superhuman exploits and shortened his career, Bo was quite simply one of the best players to ever don a Royals uniform.
His 109 homers in five seasons as a Royal rank him tenth in club history.
No. 9: OF Willie Wilson, 1974-first round
The best leadoff hitter in Royals history was their first round pick in 1974. His name was Willie Wilson.
If not for being overshadowed by a guy named Rickey Henderson, who played in Oakland and New York, Wilson could have very well been considered the best leadoff hitter in the American League from 1979 to1988.
During that span, Wilson led the league in triples five times ('80, '82, '85, '87 and '88) and averaged 51 stolen bases.
Many fans don't realize that during teammate George Brett's run at batting .400 in 1980, when he finished at .390, that Wilson actually outhit Brett.
That season, Wilson led the league in hits (230) and singles (184), both club records that not even Brett could break. And just a year earlier, in 1979, Wilson became the club's single-season stolen base leader, swiping 83 bases.
Wilson was the perfect example of an unselfish era when players used their greatest assets, in Willie's case his speed, to get on base and produce runs.
No. 8: RHP Zack Greinke, 2002-first round
The 2002 first round selection of former General Manager Allard Baird, Zack Greinke was a near bust after stepping away from the game in 2006 for a social disorder.
At one point, Greinke even contemplated quitting the game in favor of getting a job mowing grass.
Not only did Greinke recover from his disorder and put his lawnmowing career on hold, but he turned himself into the hottest young pitcher in baseball at just 26 years of age.
In 2009, after signing a long-term deal before the season began, Greinke went out and won 16 games and he did it in spite of run support that was the poorest in the league.
He finished with a league-best 2.16 ERA, and was under 2.00 until his final start. He also became just the third Royals pitcher in team history (with Saberhagen and Cone) to win the American League Cy Young award.
Blessed with near flawless mechanics, Greinke has become a master at changing locations and speeds, keeping hitters off balance.
For Royals fans who have endured through a horrendous past several years of baseball, Greinke has quickly become the cornerstone and shining star of a rebuilding team.
No. 7: RHP Kevin Appier, 1987-first round
One of the often overlooked players in Royals history, Kevin Appier owns the club record for career strikeouts with 1,458.
Drafted two years after the team's 1985 World Series title, Appier was one of many pitchers drafted by the Royals in an effort to reload what was once one of the league's most dominant pitching staffs.
Unfortunately for the Royals, until the selection of Zack Greinke in 2002, Appier was by far the best pitcher to come out of the draft during that span.
In his 13 seasons in Kansas City, Appier utilized a herky-jerky delivery and an excellent slider to win 115 games while posting a very respectable 3.49 ERA. His 8.82 strikeouts per 9 innings in 1996 is still the club's single-season record.
No. 6: 1B Mike Sweeney, 1991-10th round
Back in 1991, General Manager Herk Robinson decided to use his 10th round pick on a heavy hitting high school catcher from Ontario, CA.
That player was Mike Sweeney.
While Sweeney would break-in to the majors as a catcher, it was his ability to drive in runs that kept him there.
A liability behind the plate, Sweeney would spend his best days in Kansas City splitting time between designated hitter and first base.
In his 13 seasons as a Royal, the five time All-Star hit .299 with 197 home runs while driving in 837. Sweeney hit 20 or more home runs in six of seven seasons from 1999 to 2005, and set the team single-season mark for RBI in a season with 144 in 2000.
If not for injuries that forced him to miss time in almost every season he played for the Royals, Sweeney's numbers would be even more impressive.
No. 5: OF Carlos Beltran, 1995-second round
When major league scouts and general managers look for players to build franchises around, they look for five-tool players.
The team's second round pick in 1995, Carlos Beltran, is arguably the best five-tool athlete to ever wear a Royals uniform.
In his seven seasons in Kansas City, Beltran turned in many highlight reel performances in Kaufman Stadium's spacious center field.
The American League Rookie of the Year in 1999, in four full seasons as a Royal, Beltran hit .294 averaging 25 homers, 103 RBI, and 33 stolen bases.
Unfortunately for Royals fans, the business side of baseball forced the Royals to trade Beltran before he became a free agent, as the team wasn't willing to pay the more than $15 million per season that the New York Mets would give him after the 2004 season.
At just 32, Beltran is a five time All Star, two time Silver Slugger winner, and a three time Gold Glove winner.
No. 4: LHP Paul Splittorff, 1968-25th round
Back in 1968, the Kansas City Royals hadn't even put a team on the field yet, but they did participate in the major league draft.
And the best player to come out of that draft was selected in the 25th round, and would go on to pitch 15 seasons in a powder blue uniform, becoming the winningest pitcher in franchise history with 166 wins.
That player was left-handed starter Paul Splittorff.
After becoming a full-time starter for the Royals in 1971, Splittorff won 10 or more games in 10 of the next 13 seasons, with a career high 20-win season in 1973.
Splittorff would never win a Cy Young or lead the league in strikeouts, but he was a staple in the Royals rotation for more than a decade, and the best left-handed pitcher in team history.
No. 3: RHP Dennis Leonard, 1972-second round
When the Royals used their second round pick in 1972 on a pitcher from small Iona College, they didn't know they were drafting a future workhorse who would become the team's only three-time 20 game winner.
In fact, during the team's winningest era from the mid '70s into the early '80s, righthander Dennis Leonard was the Royals best pitcher, becoming the team's second-winningest pitcher in team history with 144 wins.
While pitching 12 seasons in Kansas City, he was at his absolute best during a seven-year stretch from 1975-1981. During that span, he averaged more than 17 wins per season with a 3.50 ERA and 1,111 strikeouts.
Leonard owns several Royals records including 103 complete games and 23 shutouts in his career. He also set the high-water mark for Royals pitchers with 244 strikeouts in 1977.
His record of 21 complete games, which he also set in 1977, because of the advent of middle relievers in today's game, is likely to be a record that he holds for a very long time.
No. 2: RHP Bret Saberhagen, 1982-19th round
Most of the players on this list, with the exception of pitcher Paul Splittorff (25th round) and Mike Sweeney (10th round), are players that were drafted in the first couple rounds of the annual June baseball draft.
The second-best player ever drafted by the Royals, like Splittorff before him and Sweeney after, was a late pick as well.
With Splittorff and Dennis Leonard entering the twilight of their careers in the early '80s, second-year general manager John Schuerholz took a flyer in the 19th round of the 1982 draft on a lanky high school kid from Reseda, CA.
That lanky kid, named Bret Saberhagen, would become the youngest player to ever start a major league game for the Royals, making the big league club in 1984 at just 19 years of age.
At just 21 years of age, Saberhagen would win the Cy Young award and lead the 1985 Royals to its only World Series Championship by notching his first career 20-win season and posting a 2.87 ERA.
Saberhagen would win another Cy Young in 1989, becoming the only Royal to win the award twice, winning 23 games and posting a league-best 2.16 ERA.
In total, during his eight seasons in Kansas City, the youngster from Reseda won 110 games, two Cy Youngs, and the hearts of tens of thousands of Royals fans everywhere.
No. 1: 3B George Brett, 1972-second round
If you've made it this far and were still wondering who the all-time best draft pick in Royals history was, then here's a hint: he's the team's only Hall of Famer.
A high school kid from El Segundo, CA, George Brett was selected by the Royals in the second round of the 1971 draft.
In his 21 seasons, all as a Royal, Brett put up prototypical Hall of Fame numbers with a career average of .305, 3,154 hits, 1,583 runs, 317 homers, and 1,595 RBI.
A 13-time All-Star, Brett is perhaps best known for being the player who came closest to joining Ted Williams as baseball's only .400 hitter, when in 1980 he hit a major league best .390.
And even if today's younger fans don't remember him going for .400, they will almost certainly remember Brett's highlight-reel tirade in 1983's "Pine Tar Game."
After hitting the go-ahead two-run homer against the Yankees in the top of the ninth inning in hostile Yankee Stadium, Brett's homer was disallowed for having too much pine tar on his bat. Brett flew out of the dugout in an absolute rage in what is perhaps the most memorable umpire-charging incident in baseball history.
In 1973, Brett began what would become the career by which every future Royals player would be judged.
Here we are 37 years later in 2010, and no other Royals player has even come close.