To be polite, the Hal Baird era with the Kansas City Royals could be described as “forgettable.” An organization that had never finished in last place prior to 1996 and never lost 100 games until 2002 did so three times in a four-year span.
The Kansas City Royals were at its nadir, the undisputed bottom feeder of Major League Baseball. That also meant several high draft picks, and a slow lurch back into respectability.
Chris Lubanski has a pretty complicated story for a bust. A consistent All-Star at every level of the minors, the Pennsylvania-bred prep phenom was never quite impressive enough to make it to the majors. A nagging hamstring injury was the final nail in the coffin, and nowadays Lubanski is an academic with political aspirations.
The Royals’ other first-round pick also underwhelmed. Like Lubanski, Mitch Maier was a three-tool outfielder with intriguing upside. Where Lubanski walked away, Maier became a baseball lifer. After parts of six seasons playing for Kansas City, Maier is now a Royals coach.
Country Breakfast! The Royals’ rampage to the 2014 AL pennant began one decade earlier with the 14th overall pick. A fan favorite, Billy Butler was also the rare player who had a sharp decline in productivity after leaving KC. (Butler has not officially retired yet, but the writing is on the wall.) James “J.P.” Howell, a supplemental pick, has enjoyed a long, respectable career as a middle reliever. J.P. has pitched mostly with the Rays and Dodgers, but most Royals fans remember him as the first player Dayton Moore ever traded.
In typical Royal fashion, their other picks had a sharp decline after going pro. Matt Campbell had shoulder surgery seven months after the draft, left baseball altogether in 2006, then went back to USC. A promising lefty, Campbell never threw a pitch in the pros. Billy Buckner –no relation to that Billy Buckner— was selected in the second round.
The 2005 amateur draft was the strongest in recent memory and perhaps the best ever. There were 11 future All-Stars in the first 48 picks, and 26 out of 30 first round picks saw MLB action.
One of those 11 was Alex Gordon, hands down the best left fielder in team history. Originally drafted at the hot corner, Gordon was dismissed as a bust before a fateful position move in 2010 altered both his and the Royals’ fortunes.
The last draft of the Hal Baird era played out in a very Hal Baird way. Second round pick Jeff Bianchi was the only other Royals pick to see MLB action. Do the math: fifty picks… two major leaguers… nothing after the second round.
With the first overall pick for the first time ever (thanks, Hal) KC selected another 2014-15 puzzle piece in Luke Hochevar (thanks, Scott Boras). Hochevar was a thoroughly average, injury-prone starting pitcher who shined briefly and belatedly as a middle reliever.
Hochevar was still a good pick in a brief, awkward time period where the Royals didn’t even have a GM. Dayton Moore and the land of milk and honey started on June 8, one day after Kansas City selected another puzzle piece, Jarrod Dyson, in the 50th round.
In between Hochevar and Dyson, the only Royals middle-round picks to see MLB action were Blake Wood in the third round and Everett Teaford in the 12th round. Wood is still hashing it out as a relief pitcher. Teaford won a ring with the 2017 Astros… working in player development.
Everyone say it all together: “MOOOOOOOSE.” Five first-round picks in four years, four home runs, and a whiff. Regardless of whether or not Mike Moustakas gets traded, his place in Royals lore is set. All in all, Dayton Moore’s first draft was fairly deep: Danny Duffy in the third round, Greg Holland in the 10th, and journeyman David Lough in the 11th. Alas, after Lough only one pick played in a major league stadium (Clint Robinson, 25th round).
After all the dark times and drafts for the Royals, this is were the tides shift. The upswing continues with Part 9 when the Royals draft and development produce something that changed Kansas City.