The Rays always love going after high-upside high school players in the early rounds of the draft. With their second round pick in 2009, they believed that they had found a perfect example of that: Menlo High School infielder Kenny Diekroeger. Diekroeger showed tremendous athleticism at 6’2″, 170 along with above-average speed, and although he was somewhat raw at the plate, he flashed outstanding bat speed and gave scouts glimpses of raw power. Defensively, he didn’t have great hands, but he moved well to go along with an above-average arm strength, and adding that to his offensive potential gave Diekroeger a chance to be a well above-average major league shortstop or centerfielder. Even more impressive was that Diekroeger’s baseball abilities were matched if not bettered by his academic talents as he was a straight A’s student who did unbelievably on his SATs. Combining his athletic prowess with his intellect made Diekroeger a dream recruit for Stanford University, just 15 minutes away from home for Diekroeger, and undeniably a tough sign for whichever major league team decided to draft him. But knowing just how good Diekroeger was, the Rays were willing to take the chance. The negotiations went down to the wire and knowing that their first round pick, LeVon Washington, was not going to sign, the Rays offered Diekroeger 2 million dollars to sign. But Diekroeger shut the Rays down and headed to Stanford, and the rest is history. The Rays ended up with a draft class that fell far below expectations. And although he would deny it every time, Diekroeger has to be wishing that he took that offer from the Rays.
Going to college, Diekroeger’s biggest areas that he needed to polish up were his approach at the plate, specifically developing better plate discipline and tapping into his raw power. But he had gone to the wrong school to make that happen. The Stanford coaching staff has prompted plenty of criticism over the years by developing all of its hitters to have compact swings and gap-to-gap approaches. That works fine for a lot of hitters, but Diekroeger had the ability to be more than that. In any event, Diekroeger appeared to have made the right move going to college after he managed a great .356/.392/.491 line with 5 home runs in 55 games as a freshman. But even as he filled out from 170 pounds to 190 and lost a step in the process, his power simply never came as he hit just .292 with 2 home runs as a sophomore then .275 with 2 home runs as a junior. What could Diekroeger still do? He still showed the same great bat speed, but he was too aggressive at the plate and had not developed much pitch recognition. His speed had become only average and his range in the field had decreased, making his chances of profiling as a shortstop or centerfielder slim and his most likely destination second base, a corner outfield spot, or a utility role. At least his arm had stayed strong and his hands had improved, but Diekroeger’s stock was undoubtedly far below where it had been before entering the 2012 MLB Draft. The Royals selected Diekroeger with their 4th round pick, a far cry from where Diekroeger thought he would end up by the time his career at Stanford was through although he did sign for $500,000 compared to the $346,600 slot value as the Royals paid him extra to tempt him to sign with their organization and not go back to Stanford for his senior year. In his pro debut, Diekroeger finally brought out his power at the Royals’ Rookie Burlington affiliate, slamming 8 home runs in 52 games, one less than he did in his 168-game college career. However, he managed just a .208/.275/.366 line and struck out 60 times versus 18 walks even against younger competition, and his future is very much in question.
Would things have turned out the same way had Diekroeger signed with the Rays out of high school? Maybe they would have. Maybe his lean frame filling out and his sub-par pitch recognition skills were going to make his development a struggle even if the Rays had found the right hitting approach for him after signing him out of high school. But after the way his career has started, Diekroeger is left to ponder what could have been as the Rays shake their heads at what he’s become and move on.