After a leadership change in both the dugout and in the front office, the Royals are taking their rebuild in a new direction.
- Salvador Perez, C: $64MM through 2025 (includes $2MM buyout of $13.5MM club option for 2026; $2MM of salary is deferred)
- Hunter Dozier, IF/OF: $17.25MM through 2024 (includes $1MM buyout of $10MM club option for 2025)
- Michael A. Taylor, OF: $4.5MM through 2023
Total 2023 commitments: $31.75MM
Total future commitments: $86.75MM
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected 2023 salaries via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Amir Garrett (5.099): $2.6MM
- Adalberto Mondesi (5.088): $3MM
- Brad Keller (5.000): $7MM
- Scott Barlow (4.030): $4.9MM
- Ryan O’Hearn (4.002): $1.5MM
- Nicky Lopez (3.139): $3.4MM
- Taylor Clarke (3.120): $1.5MM
- Josh Staumont (3.072): $1MM
- Brady Singer (2.156): $2.9MM
- Kris Bubic (2.135): $1.8MM
- Non-tender candidates: Mondesi, O’Hearn, Keller, Clarke, Garrett
J.J. Picollo has worked in the Royals’ front office since 2006 and he was promoted to the GM job just over a year ago, so it isn’t as though the Royals made a completely fresh start when he took over the baseball operations department from the fired Dayton Moore back in September. But, if perhaps not a new book entirely, owner John Sherman is at least looking to start a new chapter in the wake of the team’s seventh consecutive non-winning season. Even after the front office spent some extra money during the 2020-21 offseason, K.C. has yet to turn a corner, following up a 74-88 season in 2021 with an even more disappointing 65-97 record last year.
Naturally, Picollo bears some of the responsibility for these results as Moore’s second-in-command. But now Picollo will get a chance to take full control over the Royals’ operations, and many of his initial moves have pointed towards changes. Manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred were fired, while former bench coach Pedro Grifol will also be moving on as the new White Sox manager.
Grifol, third base coach Vance Wilson, and Triple-A manager Scott Thorman were among the interview candidates for Kansas City’s own managerial vacancy, yet as Picollo told MLB.com’s Anne Rogers and other reporters, “after we got through that initial round, able to talk to our committee of people about what we needed, we felt like what we needed at this time was to get a little bit of outside influence. Fresh thoughts. And challenge us professionally.” As such, the Royals hired Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro as their next skipper, with Quatraro taking his first MLB managerial post after years of working in various coaching and instructional roles at both the Major League and minor league levels in Tampa Bay and Cleveland.
With Quatraro and what is likely to be a significantly different coaching staff in place in 2023, it is also possible Picollo might look to make more changes within baseball operations, both on the big league staff and in the scouting and player development departments. Moore’s front office made some similar moves back in 2019, but as illustrated by Rustin Dodd, Alec Lewis, and Andy McCullough of The Athletic, those changes have thus far failed to solve the Royals’ biggest issue — how to develop their young pitchers into viable MLB-caliber starters.
Specifically, the new pitching coach will be tasked with getting Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar on track. Albeit under relatively short sample sizes, none of the trio of former Day One picks has shown much at the big league level. Even with Brady Singer (the 18th overall pick of the 2018 draft) breaking out with a quality season, the struggles of the other young starters contributed to a poor year overall for the K.C. rotation.
While the Royals certainly aren’t giving up on their young arms, the first step might be to put less pressure on them to perform, as Picollo has stated Kansas City is looking to add some veteran pitching to the rotation. To that end, the Royals reportedly have interest in bringing Zack Greinke back for what would be his 20th Major League season. Greinke’s one-year, $13MM free agent deal was the highlight of the Royals’ last offseason, and he delivered a 3.68 ERA over 137 innings during his age-38 season.
Advanced metrics weren’t as keen on Greinke’s work. His 4.78 xERA reflected his subpar hard-hit ball numbers, and his 12.5% strikeout rate was the lowest of any hurler in baseball with at least 130 innings pitched. Greinke’s walk rate remains among the game’s best, but the rest of his numbers are troubling enough that if his control even drops from elite to good, it might lead to a big downturn in results.
Between Greinke’s track record, his long history in Kansas City, and his unique brand of clubhouse mentorship, the Royals might be willing to take the risk on the right-hander’s age-39 season, even at the cost of another eight-figure contract. Even if Greinke does get some interest from other teams (who could offer a chance to play for a contender), his price tag might not reach $13MM again, increasing his chances of a possible return to the Royals.
Singer is essentially the only true lock for the 2023 rotation, as Picollo’s ideal might be a starting five of Singer, Lynch, Bubic, two veterans, and then Kowar, Jonathan Heasley, Max Castillo, Angel Zerpa, and Jonathan Bowlan as depth starters. If a veteran starter is traded at the deadline, that opens up more innings for one of the depth pitchers, if a rotation spot hasn’t already been created by injuries or a lack of production.
Kansas City’s rotation struggled enough last year it doesn’t seem feasible Picollo would just bring the whole group back while hoping a new pitching coach can figure things out. If the Royals did re-sign Greinke, that would seem to hint against a complete reunion of the 2022 staff, meaning Brad Keller could be traded or non-tendered. Keller seemed to be turning into a K.C. building block after a solid first three seasons, yet he didn’t pitch well in either 2021 or 2022, though he did at least seem to be on track last year before a late-season breakdown cost him his starting job entirely.
At a projected arbitration cost of $7MM, Keller might be too pricy for the Royals to retain, as they could pursue another veteran with more upside at a comparable or even lesser cost. Since the right-hander drew some attention before the trade deadline, Kansas City could see if any of those interested teams have more faith in a Keller turn-around, as he has at least shown he can eat innings.
Keller is one of a few familiar names who could be plausible non-tender candidates. Ryan O’Hearn appears to have fallen out of favor, especially with Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto ready for a longer look in the first base/DH roles. Amir Garrett and Josh Staumont both struggled in 2022, but given their ability to miss bats, they could be the types of relievers the Royals hope could be fixed under the watch of a new pitching coach. Like the rotation, the bullpen also struggled last season, yet K.C. is more apt to hope for some turn-arounds or internal solutions rather than make any big expenditures on relief pitching.
The Royals’ difficulties after winning the 2015 World Series could perhaps best be symbolized by Adalberto Mondesi, who has gone from cornerstone to possible non-tender. Since debuting in 2016, however, Mondesi has only 358 Major League games played (the equivalent of a little more than two full seasons) due to a litany of injuries. In 2022, Mondesi played in only 15 games before suffering a torn ACL.
Back in 2021, Moore had already indicated Mondesi might not be any more than a part-time player, and a major injury like an ACL tear only adds further doubt for a player whose game is built around speed and athleticism. Mondesi’s $3MM arb projection isn’t a huge sum, but it is possible the Royals are done waiting on a player who turns 28 years old next season.
Between Mondesi, O’Hearn, and Hunter Dozier, multiple players the Royals once hoped would be part of their next winning team could be replaced entirely by a fresh set of faces. Dozier’s contract naturally gives him some security, and his ability to play both corner infield and corner outfield spots makes him a viable player to be bounced around the diamond as circumstances dictate. With Bobby Witt Jr. expected to resume everyday shortstop duty, Dozier’s best path to regular playing time might be third base, but he won’t get a guaranteed job anywhere if he can’t improve upon his below-average hitting numbers over the last three seasons.
Dozier and defensive standout Nicky Lopez could potentially split time at third base, or perhaps provide cover for younger players at other positions — whether that’s Pasquantino and Pratto at first base/DH, or Michael Massey at second base. Maikel Garcia and Nate Eaton also figure to be part of the infield picture, and could push Dozier more towards outfield than infield duty.
The outfield mix is only slightly more stable, with MJ Melendez, Michael A. Taylor, and Drew Waters tentatively penciled into the starting jobs. Taylor is another player who drew some calls at the trade deadline, and could be moved to a team in need of defensive help if the Royals want to use Waters in center field instead of a corner spot. After being acquired from the Braves in July, Waters’ change of scenery seemed to take, as he hit well at both the Triple-A level and in his first 109 plate appearances in the majors.
Kansas City hopes Waters can play every day in one of the outfield spots, with his specific placement based on Taylor’s status or on how other noted younger players best fit into the lineup. Melendez will continue to get playing time at catcher when franchise icon Salvador Perez needs a DH day or an off-day, but left field is likely Melendez’s best opportunity for more at-bats as he continues to acclimate to big league pitching. Turning 27 in March, Edward Olivares is a little older than most of Kansas City’s young core, but he hit well in limited action in 2022 while battling injuries and earned himself at least another part-time role in 2023.
Kyle Isbel, Brent Rooker, and minor leaguers Brewer Hicklen, Dairon Blanco, and Nick Loftin are also part of the depth chart, and will be competing for jobs during Spring Training. It makes for a crowded outfield mix that perhaps would make the front office lean towards trading Taylor. Moving Dozier would be trickier given his contract, yet Picollo could perhaps explore a trade involving Dozier and another team’s undesirable contract.
With all of these players on hand, is there room for the Royals to add at least one notable player to the everyday lineup? Picollo has said the team is looking for at least one veteran hitter that would preferably hit from the right side, and Kansas City’s multi-positional depth is a plus in that it allows the front office to explore many possible options. Third base or (if Taylor is dealt and Waters moves to center field) the corner outfield might be the most logical areas, or K.C. could add some pop to the first base/designated hitter mix. However, a DH-only player isn’t really a fit since the Royals wouldn’t want to take at-bats away from Pasquantino or Pratto, though Pratto does have some corner outfield experience.
While it remains to be seen how Picollo’s front office will differ from Moore’s leadership, the payroll will remain the same, at least in the short term. The Royals won’t suddenly start splashing around money with a new GM in charge, as Picollo has reiterated Kansas City will spend roughly close to its 2022 levels — so, somewhere in between the $95MM Opening Day roster and the $88MM the Royals were spending by season’s end (as per Roster Resource). With roughly $76.5MM already committed to the 2023 roster, that leaves Picollo with some room to maneuver even without any non-tenders, but the Royals seem unlikely to use the bulk of their spending space on a single player.
“We’re operating right now near capacity with what we want to spend, but that’s where we need to be open-minded in how we can manage and free up some money to change the look of the team a little bit,” Picollo said. “John [Sherman] has told me, ’Let’s understand where we are as a team right now, and when the time is right for us to add to the payroll, we’ll do that.’ It’s going to ebb and flow a little bit, but with where we’re at as a team right now, adding an extra $20 million isn’t going to put us at the top. There are other things we need to take care of first before we make that push with the payroll.”
As noted, non-tenders or trades are logical avenues for the Royals to “free up some money.” Whereas a Keller or a Dozier might have limited appeal on the trade market, however, a player like Scott Barlow also stands out as a possible trade chip, given how teams have tried to pry him away from K.C. in the past. Barlow is projected for a $4.9MM salary in his second year of arbitration, he turns 30 in December, and he is a free agent after the 2024 season. These factors could all make him expendable if the Royals don’t see Barlow as part of their longer-term future, but trading a quality reliever would further set back a Kansas City bullpen that is already in need of help.
The idea of 2023 as yet another evaluation year probably doesn’t hold much appeal to Royals fans, but it does seem more sensible than blowing things up and relaunching another rebuild, or suddenly spending to build around a young core that may not be stable. Since Quatraro is coming from a Rays team renowned for developing young talent and for mixing and matching roster pieces to create a winning lineup, a managerial change alone might help K.C. get a better sense of which players are surefire building blocks.