How the Royals Hijacked the Undrafted Free Agent Market

By showing their minor leaguers basic decency and support, undrafted players flocked to the Royals.
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Last week’s MLB draft opened the doors to an unusual wave of player acquisition.

The draft was the shortest in history—five rounds, instead of its usual 40—thanks to an agreement finalized last month as owners sought to cut costs amid the coronavirus. It came with a framework to address the slew of players who would be left as undrafted free agents: Teams could extend unlimited offers with a maximum signing bonus of $20,000. As a result, hundreds of young men who otherwise would have been drafted with far more substantial sums (between $200,000-300,000 for sixth rounders) were instead left on the market, getting offers from teams who could not differentiate themselves with extra cash. When the signing window opened Sunday at 9 a.m. ET, clubs had to try to woo this group with anything other than money.

It may have seemed reasonable to assume that the winner would be a team like the Yankees, or Dodgers, or Red Sox, one with a storied tradition and a name that sells itself. But it wasn’t so.

It was the Kansas City Royals.

Within the first 24 hours, a dozen players had signed off Baseball America’s Top 500. (The five-round draft involved 160 players, which left 340 on the list to sign, return to school, or figure out another path to pro baseball.) No one team nabbed more than two of those players—except Kansas City, which had five. The Royals ended the day with four of the top five overall signings. So how’d they pull it off?

“You want to go to a club that’s going to take care of not only their very top valued players, but also their lower ones,” says catcher Kale Emshoff, No. 174 on the BA 500, who signed with the Royals on Sunday. “You want to know that when you’re in the organization you’re going to be taken care of... That plays a huge role in the decision-making process.”

The Royals declined to make executives available for comment while there are undrafted free agents still weighing offers. But, from some who signed with the team on the first day, the primary motivation was straightforward: The players wanted a club where they felt like they’d be supported.

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It’s been a chaotic few months for minor league players. Hundreds were cut from their clubs at the end of May, thrust into an environment where leagues aren’t playing, teams aren’t signing, and outside jobs aren’t hiring. The future is uncertain for those who remain; some teams have agreed to pay weekly stipends through the end of summer, regardless of what happens, and others have not.

The Royals were one of the teams that stood out. In May, the club announced they would not cut any players while the season was halted and committed to paying all of their minor leaguers through the end of the season. The decision came with a statement of support from general manager Dayton Moore: “Understand this,” he told reporters. “The minor league players, the players you’ll never know about, the players that never get out of rookie ball or High A, those players have as much impact on the growth of our game [as] 10-year or 15-year veteran players.”

This sort of vocal commitment wasn’t the only motivation for undrafted players to sign with the team this weekend. (A recently overhauled player development system helped, too, as did the old standby of relationships with individual scouts.) But players say that it certainly contributed.

For Emshoff, in the top tier of undrafted players, Sunday was a whirlwind. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock junior decided to take a moment to himself right at the start of the signing window (9 a.m.) figuring he wouldn’t miss anything. He returned at 9:02 a.m. to 15 missed calls, each from a different team, and that was just the beginning. By the end of the day, he’d lost track of just how many clubs he’d fielded offers from. (A total of 25 reached out, but he spoke directly with “about 20”—by the time the last few rolled in, he was so overwhelmed that he didn’t have a chance to return their calls. “It blew my mind,” he says. “You should see my voicemail inbox.”) All offered the same bonus of $20,000. But their packaging varied. There were texts, calls, and Zooms; scouts, directors, and GMs.

The Royals’ pitch was delivered by scout Matt Price. It was modest but memorable.

“He said, ‘we’re not going to try to sell you, you know a lot about us, you know what we do, you know what we preach,’” Emshoff says. “And that’s really all he had to say.”

By 4 p.m., after hours of back and forth, Emshoff and his family had narrowed it down to four teams. Kansas City, however, had been his “gut feeling,” and he made the decision official a little after 6 p.m.

The process lent itself to an emphasis on values–the foundation of organizational philosophy–which established a different framework than can be seen with major league free agents. The question here was not “Where can I win?” (And forget “Where can I get paid?”) Instead, it was a bit more existential: “Where can I grow and develop?”

“It reminded me of college recruiting all over again,” says Chase Wallace, a pitcher from the University of Tennessee. “They’re selling the organization.”

Wallace, No. 440 on the BA 500, signed with the Royals after weighing offers from 11 teams on Sunday. He had a series of calls across the organization—at least seven people, but on a hectic day, he lost track of the total number—and ultimately, his decision came down to much of the same material that had convinced Emshoff.

“We looked deeply at minor league development and how they treated their minor leaguers,” Wallace says. “It just made my decision a lot easier.”

The sentiment was a theme from the team’s signees.

“It’s just because of the way they treat their players,” says Louisiana State catcher and DH Saul Garza, who also signed with the Royals. “Once you’re in the organization, they treat every player the same, and that’s something that speaks volumes about the front office and how they run things.”

Garza, No. 379 on the BA 500, had assumed he could sleep in a little on Sunday. Surely, he figured, teams wouldn’t start to reach out exactly at 9 a.m. But he miscalculated. When he awoke, he had a flood of missed calls and texts, led by three separate calls from the Royals. It was welcome—he’d originally been drafted by the team in the 32nd round last year, before he decided to return for one more season at LSU, and he’d paid close attention to their treatment of minor leaguers this spring.

He went on to talk with five other teams, but by the end of the day he’d settled on the Royals.

“In minor league baseball, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole,” says Garza. “But it’s still nice to know that they care about you and they’ve got your back.”