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Lesky’s Notes: Let’s see if a change does the Royals good

It was certainly time, but now we’ll see how different they really are.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday was a big day in the Royals franchise. That’s a pretty obvious statement, but firing the man who had been in charge of baseball operations since mid-season of 2006 is something that certainly moves the needle. And I think what’s the most interesting about it is that firing Dayton Moore two days ago isn’t something that is the beginning, middle and end of Royals changes. I can safely say at this point that I would be shocked if Mike Matheny and Cal Eldred are back in 2023. I don’t know if I’d say I’ll be shocked if they don’t make any wholesale additions to the front office, but I think I’d be surprised if there isn’t at least a new assistant general manager or even a general manager brought in after the season comes to a close. Moving on from Moore was the start of a period of huge change for this organization. The phrase that we keep coming back to is “data driven” and there’s a reason that’s exciting. The best organizations let data drive their decisions. I think there is certainly a large scouting element to finding the best players and all of that, but teams that don’t utilize their data are the teams that fall behind and we all know the Royals have fallen behind. But it’ll be interesting to compare conversations we had a week ago vs. conversations we’re having in September 2023.

And I’ll still be having those conversations in September 2023 on Inside the Crown where you can subscribe for FREE!

JJ Picollo isn’t Dayton Moore

I think the biggest criticism of what the Royals have done that is certainly a fair one is that they made the necessary move to dismiss Moore, but on the surface, the only thing they’ve done is rid themselves of one person and simply elevated the guy who had been with him since the start in Kansas City (and even before that). And look, I may end up being wrong here, but I believe there is going to be a noticeable difference between what we see from Picollo as he builds out the team the way he wants to do so and the way Moore has done for so long. I’m not sure that would have been the case five, six, seven years ago or whatever, but I believe Picollo has evolved with the game more than Moore did in his time at the helm and while he isn’t necessarily the guy with the mathematics degree who went to Princeton and then Yale for his post-graduate work, he is someone who has not only developed a deep understanding of the analytics but has embraced them.

Sam McDowell wrote in The Star on Wednesday a note about how when Picollo travels to scout players, he does so with Daniel Mack along for the ride. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a statistically driven evaluator, but I think it does tell you quite a bit. In the past couple of days, I’ve spoken with people both attached to the Royals and to other organizations who steadfastly believe an organization run by Picollo will look far more like the Guardians, Rays and Brewers than those who question the decision to elevate Picollo probably believe. I also lean on trusting John Sherman, who has been a savvy businessman throughout his life. I can’t imagine he would make a decision to fire Moore, something that was certainly beyond just a passing whim, and then would keep his top lieutenant without feeling fully comfortable that it wouldn’t just be more of the same. What I hope for is that Picollo’s role at the top of the baseball operations for the team (and maybe they end up bringing in a president in the end anyway) is a combination of what we want to see statistically but with the continued caring for the people around him. I’d like him to not make decisions based on that, but I think there’s room for loyalty in different ways. So I believe it will be different, but I also understand why some may not.

What to do with the pitching

We’re now a week plus removed from that article in The Athletic that may very well have been the final piece to change up what the Royals are doing. And in regards to it, I keep coming back to the same thing in my head. Do the Royals have the pieces in place without the ability to develop them? Do they have the wrong pieces and are better in development than we realize? Or are both sides of it just an absolute mess and not only do they need to blow up the development side, but they need all new players as well? And I return to the article and the quote where a scout said that if these young pitchers were on teams like the Guardians, Rays or Dodgers, they’d be studs. That’s incredibly comforting. It is worlds easier to fix a group of coaches than have to bring in all new pitching in order to find some success. You can revamp a development team in an offseason. It takes literally years to continue to add enough pitching to have some at all levels of the organization.

That’s not to say that the players are simply a tweak away from all being stud starters, but it’s comforting. The same article said that the Royals took pitchers with bad fastballs, but I don’t think that’s an argument that they took the wrong players. It’s not anything different than some things I feel like we’ve talked about so many times before. It’s okay to take a pitcher who needs work here or there. The problem with the Royals is that we’ve known for awhile that if a guy isn’t a finished product, he’s simply not going to get there with this organization. So maybe once the changes on the pitching side in the minors are complete, we can find ourselves more optimistic about that. Because I think that if they can work some of the magic that you see in those organizations that are clearly better run than what we’ve seen from the Royals for a long, long time, things could turn a heck of a lot quicker than it may seem like at this moment.

Let’s not forget Edward Olivares

It’s pretty easy, I think, for a player to be forgotten. When Vinnie Pasquantino was on the injured list for a couple of weeks, I wouldn’t say I forgot about him, but there were moments when I was thinking about the 2023 roster that I had to work harder to remember him than I would have while he was playing. And with Edward Olivares, that’s been very true as he’s missed quite a bit of time twice now with those quad injuries. Now, since he’s been back, he’s hitting .316/.350/.632 with three doubles and a homer in five games. It’s probably not a complete coincidence that the Royals are 4-1 in those five games. For the season, he’s hitting .305/.357/.466 with seven doubles and four home runs. He doesn’t walk a ton, but he also doesn’t strike out and he does damage to the baseball. But I also think he helps to make the lineup work a little bit better given how left-handed leaning it can get with some of the young bats.

I can’t stop thinking about the scout last year telling me that he feels like Olivares made a Teoscar Hernandez-like transformation and was going to be a legitimate big league bat. He was jerked around too much last season in the big leagues and didn’t get to show it, but he did hit .313/.397/.559 in Omaha with 30 extra base hits in 292 plate appearances. On his most recent rehab appearance, he hit .311/.340/.422 down there. I don’t think he’s necessarily a guy you pencil in to the four spot or whatever and call it good, but I think his ability to break up some lefties and be an above average bat is something the Royals need moving forward if they’re planning to compete. They do have a crowded outfield picture with him, Drew Waters, Kyle Isbel and MJ Melendez already at the big league level and Tyler Gentry close, but it goes back to being a good problem to have. I don’t know if Olivares is a five-year answer or a stopgap until some prospects can work their way to the big leagues, but I think he’s an answer. And he’s a perfect example, to me, of how this organization may be different. The Royals have a potential surplus. Maybe they don’t move Olivares now, but if it’s July and Gentry is raking at AAA while Waters and Melendez are playing well in the big leagues, maybe Olivares is sold high. Or maybe they’re so happy with him that they move Gentry. I don’t know what the answer is, but I can tell you that the old Royals would just keep both and figure it out (probably poorly), so how they handle this situation will be telling.

The bullpen might be…improving?

September stats can be deceiving. We know that all too well. But they just finished a series where the bullpen was needed for 11.2 innings and gave up no runs on five hits with two walks and 12 strikeouts. You might look at that and think they really pushed Dylan Coleman and Scott Barlow, but no. Both those guys were used to secure the first two wins, so they were unavailable yesterday and Collin Snider, Carlos Hernandez and Brad Keller teamed up to preserve the win. Now, the Twins came into the series circling the drain and fell down it after they gave up a three-run lead on Tuesday night, so let’s just say they weren’t exactly feeling it. But the bullpen has been excellent in September. Now this month, they’ve thrown 67 innings with a 3.09 ERA, 25.8 percent strikeout rate and 8.5 percent walk rate. And they’re doing it with, yes, Barlow and Coleman pitching quite well, but others too.

Anthony Misiewicz has struck out 15 batters in 8.2 September innings while walking just one. Amir Garrett has six strikeouts in 4.2 innings with just two hits allowd. Jose Cuas has shown improved control and struck out eight in 5.1 innings. Brad Keller has looked pretty good at times as well and has a reasonably fine 3.48 ERA out of the bullpen. Remember, they’re doing this with both Josh Staumont and Taylor Clarke on the shelf too. Staumont was pretty bad most of the year, but Clarke had entered the circle of trust and rightfully so. My point here isn’t to say that the bullpen is fixed and they’re good to go for next year, but I think you can squint and see a way that the bullpen does flip from a weakness to a strength next season, particularly with a pitching coach and bullpen coach in place that can help take some guys up a level. And that’ll be really big for this team because we’ve seen it in Kansas City. One of the easiest ways for a team to overperform is to have the kind of bullpen that allows you to shorten games. I’m not going to say they’ll be a top-five unit in 2023 or anything, but it’s easy to see how they can improve a lot by focusing on the final third of a game next season, which they’ve at least done well with in September.