Royals eye pitching with No. 1 pick
Strength of past position-player selections opens need for arms
KANSAS CITY -- Look at the Royals' first picks in the First-Year Player Draft recently, and, hey -- the results have been pretty doggone good.
Last year, it was third baseman Alex Gordon from the University of Nebraska, the No. 2 overall choice. He was impressive in Spring Training and is now lighting up the scoreboard for Double-A Wichita.
Outfielder Billy Butler, from 2004, is a high school product of Jacksonville, Fla., and he's been keeping good pace with Gordon at Wichita.
In 2003, outfielder Chris Lubanski left high school in Schwenksville, Pa., and has developed into a productive force, also at Wichita.
Pitcher Zack Greinke, the 2002 selection, became a Royals rotation regular two years later. The club is counting on him to be back soon after dealing with personal issues.
This year's draft will mark the first time the Royals have had the No. 1 overall pick. But, really, their mission hasn't changed much from those previous years under Deric Ladnier, the senior director of scouting.
"We've picked high most of the years that I've been here, except for Butler [at No. 14], so you just try to line them up by ability," Ladnier said.
"Then it's, 'Who do we like as the best player for organization?' Not by positions, but who's the best player who might fit the needs of the organization? The last few years, obviously, we've tried to address the positional needs, and the draft has enabled us to do that. The positional players this year are not as premium as they have been in the past. Pitching is pretty much the strength of the draft -- high school and college."
So, if you're thinking that the Royals might make the No. 1 pick a pitcher, you're probably right. Plus, it's likely to be a college pitcher who could have an impact on the Royals as soon as possible.
And how's the college pitching this year?
"It's OK," Ladner said. "I've seen it better."
That makes it even more essential that the Royals pick the right man. Once they get past the No. 1 choice, they don't get another until No. 45. Then it's No. 77. After that, beginning with No. 107, they come up every 30th time around the Major League clubs.
The Royals have been scanning such prospects as left-handed pitcher and University of North Carolina product Andrew Miller, who has been forecast as the No. 1 pick.
"We've monitored him and all the other ones we've talked about all spring," Ladnier said.
Others include right-handers Brad Lincoln from the University of Houston; Daniel Bard, also from North Carolina, and Ian Kennedy from the University of Southern California.
Right-hander John Chamberlain from the University of Nebraska and another Big 12 pitcher, Missouri's Max Scherzer, have had physical problems that will probably nudge them off the No. 1 radar.
Among the positional players, third baseman/shortstop Evan Longoria from Long Beach State has captured some attention.
With a month to go, the Royals are still weighing their options.
"I don't think anybody has separated themselves, to be honest, at this point," Ladnier said. "There are guys that are obviously desirable talents, but to say a guy is a definite No. 1 pick in the draft is a reach right now."
Picks after the first round can be the most important, though, as long-time scouting director Art Stewart pointed out.
"It's such an inexact science," Stewart said. "If we were so smart, we would have taken George Brett in the first round."
Instead, the Royals took pitcher Roy Branch in the first round of 1971 and selected Brett in the second round. Branch was supposed to be "the next Bob Gibson," Stewart recalled, but he had an arm injury.
"For sheer talent, it was Bo Jackson," Stewart said. "If he'd have been able to keep playing, there's no telling what he could've turned out to be. And we didn't take him until the fourth round."
Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon were not first-round choices, either, and both did all right with the Royals.
"They're both Broadway guys now," Stewart said.
Other down-the-line choices who made good included Mike Sweeney, Joe Randa, Brian McRae, Mike Macfarlane, Tom Gordon and Jeff Conine.
"It's not just the first round -- it's the lower rounds," Stewart said.
So it's instructive to know that some of last year's picks behind Alex Gordon have been making progress for the Royals.
Shortstop Jeffrey Bianchi, the second-round choice, broke in impressively last summer with a .408 average in the Arizona League, but he's out now with a shoulder injury. Third-rounder Chris Nicoll began this season with a rock-bottom ERA for Class A Burlington.
Joe Dickerson, a fourth-round outfielder, hit .294 last year in Arizona and is headed for the Idaho Falls rookie team this season. A seventh-round pitcher, lefty Brent Fisher, rang up 69 strikeouts in 50 1/3 innings last year for Arizona.
"One kid that's interesting that we took was Matthew Kniginyzky, who's pitching in the Midwest League now. Very good arm, good curveball -- so he's done extremely well," Ladnier said.
As Ladnier spoke, Kniginyzky had a 2-1 record and 2.90 ERA in five starts for Burlington.
Yep, a 23rd-round draft choice can pay off, too.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.