Entering play Thursday at just 22-58, the Royals have the second-worst record in Major League Baseball, narrowly leading an Athletics team that has aggressively torn down its roster amid payroll cuts and efforts to restock the farm system. Unlike their floundering AL West counterparts, Kansas City did not enter the season in the early stages of a rebuild and with such minimal expectations. The Royals did recently push for a somewhat accelerated retooling period, but they added several veterans for a second straight offseason and at least hoped to keep afloat in a weak division. No one viewed the Royals as contenders heading into the year, but this level of struggle was not expected either.
Brutal as the Royals’ season has been, owner John Sherman today voiced “total confidence” in first-year general manager J.J. Picollo and rookie manager Matt Quatraro, per Anne Rogers of MLB.com (Twitter links). Of course, that doesn’t mean Sherman considers the 2023 season acceptable — far from it. Said the Royals’ CEO: “I feel accountable for where we are right now with our baseball team. We are committed to do what it takes to return to form. … This is a real year of evaluation, and that evaluation right now is painful.”
Picollo is still new to the top spot in the baseball operations hierarchy but has been with the Royals organization since 2006, when he was hired as the team’s director of player development. Quatraro, meanwhile, is in his first year with the club after previously serving as an assistant hitting coach in Cleveland and as a third base coach and bench coach with Tampa Bay.
The Royals fired president of baseball operations Dayton Moore back in September and elevated Picollo in his place. Moore had been one of the longest-tenured baseball operations leaders in the sport, originally ascending to the position of general manager in 2006. The Royals gave him a title bump to president of baseball ops in 2021, simultaneously promoting Picollo from assistant general manager to GM.
Picollo has had baseball operations autonomy for less than a year, but the moves made this past offseason generally haven’t panned out. A two-year deal for Jordan Lyles has thus far produced disastrous results (6.68 ERA in 91 2/3 innings). Zack Greinke again returned to Kansas City on a one-year deal and had been pitching as a capable innings eater, though a recent trio of rough starts has pushed his ERA north of 5.00. The signing of lefty Ryan Yarbrough is tougher to judge, as he’s been out nearly two months after being struck in the head by a comebacker.
To Picollo’s credit, the Royals’ low-cost investment in former Yankees stopper Aroldis Chapman has worked out as well as one could’ve hoped. The 35-year-old’s fastball velocity has rebounded to its highest level since 2017, and his 42.9% strikeout rate is his highest mark in a 162-game season since 2018. The southpaw’s 16.8% walk rate is still far too high, but command issues have long been an part of the Chapman experience. As it stands, he’s a slam-dunk trade candidate and could net Kansas City some minor league talent of note between now and the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
Lackluster performance from the Royals’ offseason additions are only a small part of the team’s 2023 woes, of course. Much of their recent rebuilding effort staked its hopes on developing polished college pitchers — with a heavy emphasis on that in the 2018 draft — but those efforts have yet to bear fruit.
Brady Singer looked like he’d broken out with an outstanding 2022 season, but he’s regressed in alarming fashion this year, pitching to a 5.88 ERA with worrying negative trends in his strikeout rate, walk rate and velocity. Fellow college arms Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, Jonathan Heasley and Asa Lacy haven’t developed as hoped. On the position-player side of things, youngsters like MJ Melendez, Michael Massey, Nate Eaton, Samad Taylor and Kyle Isbel have all struggled at the big league level in 2023.
As for Quatraro, while Royals fans surely can’t be pleased with the on-field results in his first year on the job, the roster composition is such that no skipper could be reasonably expected to have coaxed passable results from this group. Managers are evaluated based on far more than sheer wins and losses anyhow — arguably more so than ever in today’s game.
Based on recent history, Sherman’s comments are wholly unsurprising. There’s little to no recent precedent for a general manager or first-year manager being on the hot seat just three months into his first season on the job. Details of Picollo’s contract remain unclear, but the organization signed him to a multi-year extension late in the 2021 season. Granted, Moore was also extended and promoted at that point, but he’d had a 16-year runway as baseball ops leader by the time he was dismissed; Picollo has been in his current role for just nine months. Quatraro, meanwhile, signed a three-year deal that runs through the 2025 season and has a club option for the 2026 campaign.
If the Royals are to turn things around in the near future, they’ll need a lot of help from a farm system that entered the year ranked in the bottom half of the league — as low as 29th at both Baseball America and MLB.com. Picollo will have the opportunity to add to that system over the next month when he markets Chapman and presumably closer Scott Barlow, but the underwhelming performances from many of Kansas City’s veteran players leaves the Royals without many trade chips to dangle to contending clubs.