Let’s get the obvious, no-brainer statement out of the way right at the start: Drafting amateur players for professional athletics is an inexact science. Then, we’ll follow it up with another pretty evident one: Nowhere is this truer than in Major League Baseball.
Part of this stems from the fact that teams are drafting high-school kids, young men barely removed from the throes of puberty who would just as soon be playing Xbox with all of their derelict friends or trying to talk the wheelchair bound vet outside of the Gulp-N-Blow to buy them a six-pack of Mickey’s. High school kids are stupid, unpredictable antelopes living on hormones and energy drinks. And this is before you pay them several million dollars to do something that almost anyone else would kill to do: play a game for a living.
The other thing is, you just never know. High school baseball studs dominate. They bat .600 and average a homerun per game, or they strike out 20 while walking nobody. They are boys amongst men, post-apocalyptic warrior-children with aluminum swords, a sense of entitlement and just enough sagacity to not ruin their brains taking concussive hits in football.
College kids are a bit less risky. The competition is better, and their numbers (usually) less inflated by natural selection. Often, they’re a bit more mature and polished.
The draft used to work like this: in the early years, most picks were snot-nosed high school kids and the college selectees were few and far between. The curious thing, though, was that the college kids outperformed the high-schoolers by leaps and bounds. Slowly, the worm turned and teams began drafting the more proven commodity. By the early 2000’s, college players made up over 60% of draftees.
Armed with this knowledge, and the fact that the Kansas City Royals were looking for someone who could theoretically make it to the Show in short order, with the 5th overall selection of the 2012 Draft, they chose right-handed pitcher Kyle Zimmer from the University of San Francisco.
Zimmer, a converted third baseman, is apparently everything the Royals want: 6’4”, 225 lbs. A fastball that licks the underbelly of 100 mph, a wicked curve and a changeup in progress. He’s 20, and seasoned—you know, in a Ramen noodle/Natty Light kind of way—and could be in the rotation within year or so. Well, could. You know, if he had pitched before college, maybe.
I’m not going to pretend that I know anything about Zimmer, other than what I’ve read, or the small sample of highlight videos I went out and watched shortly after hearing the pick. What I’ve seen LOOKS good, but come on—I could make a flashy highlight video of me… I don’t know… browsing the internet with unparalleled aptitude, and come across as pretty cool.
That’s where the trust in your scouting and development departments come into play. And so far? With the Dayton Moore regime? It’s still a work in progress.
5th overall is a hard swath to mow. For every Vernon Wells (Toronto, 1997), J.D. Drew (St. Louis, 1998), Mark Texeira (Texas, 2001), Ryan Braun (Milwaukee, 2005) or Buster Posey (San Francisco, 2008), you’ve got what the Royals have done when picking in the 5 spot.
Last year, the Royals picked Gardner, Kansas native Bubba Starling (above right). “Derek,” as his momma probably calls him, is 19, enjoys underage drinking and is currently serving time in extended spring training, an anonymous, stat-free land of never-ending fundamental skill work. Obviously, it’s far too early to see what kind of player Starling will turn out to be; for now, he’s just a multimillionaire teenager perfecting his swing and living off of Chipotle burritos.
In 2003, they picked outfielder Chris Lubanski. Lubanksi—a career .259 hitter with 11 different minor league teams—blasted 28 HR and 116 RBI in 2005 for High Desert, but petered out after that. Last year, he was part of the Blue Jays’ organization and now, he’s in Reading with the Double-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. He is 27 years old and has never gotten closer to the Major Leagues than the time he spent in Omaha.
With the 5th pick in 1993, the organization selected LHP Jeff Granger. Another “polished” college arm, Granger quite impressively made his debut in the year that he was drafted. The following Spring, he started in AA, made it back to KC, was just okay, got sent back down to “work on stuff”, shined, came back up, got rocked, and was eventually returned from whence he came.
This cycle continued for a few years before he was sent to the Pittsburgh Pirates (with Joe Randa!) for grouchy Jeff King and the sneakily decent Jay Bell.
By ’97, Granger was in the perpetual purgatory of minor-league shuttling, where old arms go to die. After a last heroic attempt with the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball’s Long Island Ducks, Granger saw the writing on the wall and hung up his cleats.
Finally, the Royals first 5th round selection—all the way back in 1971—was RHP Roy Branch. Though he never saw the field with the Royals, Branch DID get a sip (a cup is much too generous) of coffee with the Seattle Mariners in 1979, before ending his two-game, major league career with an ERA of 7.94.
Roy Branch, we hardly knew ye.
Hopefully, the same fate will not hold true for Mr. Zimmer. And it seems unlikely. As time progresses in this modern era of advanced crazyrobotscience technology, less antiquated scouting techniques and thorough research– when coupled with the ability to measure the previously immeasurable intangibles– make things a lot more foolproof.
I’m not promising a winner here, good Lord no, but I bet the people who drafted Zimmer know a whole hell of a lot more about him than anyone ever knew about Jeff Granger.
And that’s a really good thing.