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The Royals are becoming villains

Maybe I’ve watched too many movies, but this feels familiar.

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General Manager J.J. Picollo Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

We all know the story, by now. A new owner takes over the team. They’re unhappy with the team’s current location and completely uninvested in the team’s success. The GM is allowed only to sign has-beens and never-will-bes. The manager has no proven experience. The catcher is getting up there. The centerfielder can fly and he can field, but he can’t hit. The team’s best power-hitter has trouble with breaking pitches. There is an abundance of evidence of Christian belief inside the clubhouse. The team’s new flamethrowing reliever can’t throw a strike and has a history of questionable off-the-field activity.

Am I talking about the Royals or describing the 1989 film Major League?

The problem here is that things that can often be funny in a movie don’t always prove to be so in real life. It doesn’t help that if the 2023 Royals are attempting to emulate the movie they’ve cast us as the dissatisfied fans desperate for our team to justify all of our past passion and devotion. Also, a cardboard standup of John Sherman with removable clothes is far less likely to motivate a major league clubhouse than the one of Rachel Phelps (as played by Margaret Whitton.)

As we entered the 2022/2023 off-season I don’t think many fans expected the Royals to be particularly busy in the free agency market. Not because the Royals couldn’t or shouldn’t have been, but because new General Manager J.J. Picollo said that it wasn’t going to happen. Still, we were excited about the all the debuts we had witnessed in 2022 and dreamed of the progress that might be made in 2023. If the Royals just got a couple mediocre starters plus a couple relievers who could throw strikes, maybe magic could happen!

Instead, the Royals have spent the majority of the off-season - we are now closer to the first pitch of 2023 than the last pitch of 2022 - doing everything they could to make the team seem less appealing than it did after the Houston Astros completed their World Series victory. They’ve refused to pay fan-favorite Zack Greinke the salary it would require to bring him back and replaced him with a pair of particularly uninspiring pitchers with little upside in Jordan Lyles and Ryan Yarbrough. They canceled the annual Fan Fest which saw members of the team bus around the broadcast area to meet and greet with fans and replaced it with a one-day event that only fans near Kauffman Stadium can attend. They placed an emphasis on building a new stadium - complete with related real-estate development so the ownership can further line their own pockets, regardless of the quality of the team - and have lied and otherwise attempted to intentionally mislead fans as to how the new stadium might just be a great bargain for them.

And then, in what for many may be the straw that broke their fanhood’s back, the team handed a guaranteed major league contract to a relief pitcher who has combined his recent ineffectiveness with a callous disregard for his own success or that of his teammates which led him to fail to report a serious infection and later to refuse to attend a workout that would have allowed him to pitch in the postseason. Oh, yeah, and he admitted to firing a gun in anger while fighting with his then-girlfriend.

One of the big issues the 2022 Royals faced was a declining clubhouse culture. They invigorated it by trading away Whit Merrifield and promoting a bunch of rookies. It’s still a fragile thing, though. Introducing someone Aroldis Chapman to the mix does not seem in the best interests of anyone involved. Still, that’s exactly what J.J. Picollo has done.

And so I feel I must offer a mea culpa. At the beginning of the off-season, I expressed excitement for the regime change from Dayton Moore to J.J. Picollo. While many feared Picollo would be too similar to Moore, I suggested that his words were so distinctly different that his actions must surely also be different. That has not proven to be the case.

Offering arbitration to Ryan O’Hearn was a very Dayton Moore kind of move. Overpaying for Jordan Lyles was a very Dayton Moore kind of move. Overvaluing Michael A. Taylor (an aging, backup outfielder on the last year of his deal for whom the Royals are asking a young, league-average starting pitcher with multiple remaining years) is a very Dayton Moore kind of move. Signing Aroldis Chapman because no one else wants to touch him and therefore he’s a bargain is a very Dayton Moore kind of move.

(CW: abusive behavior, pedophilia) Moore somewhat infamously tried to float the idea of signing disgraced pitcher Luke Heimlich after he confessed to molesting his then-six-year-old niece. When Moore received pushback he suggested everyone deserved second chances by comparing Heimlich’s behavior to Jarrod Dyson, who was busted for marijuana usage as a minor league player.* Heimlich was far from the only player Moore attempted to give a second chance to without any reason to believe that player was remorseful at having wasted their first chance.

*This just highlights how poorly our society as a whole handles issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. When someone can earnestly argue that molesting a six-year-old girl is equivalent to smoking some weed, something is badly wrong with their ability to assess harm done. I could go on at length about the massive scale of this problem and how it causes massive damage to everyone in an attempt to benefit a scarce few. However, I’ll endeavor to keep it short and say simply that the end result is that there is no room for Aroldis Chapman to pitch on a major league baseball team. That may seem unfair to you, but it’s matched up against a large set of other, much worse inequities that are the reality until our society’s approach to these issues undergoes a complete overhaul.

The stupidest part is that, as with so many decisions Moore made, it seems like an unforced error. We all questioned who was possibly bidding so high on Ian Kennedy that the only way the Royals could get him to join their World Series roster was to offer $70M and an opt-out. Most of us wondered how Dayton Moore could possibly decide the first-baseman who constantly mashed the ball into the ground was the player to keep out of the 2015 core and marveled that San Diego saved him from his own bad idea. What benefit does Aroldis Chapman even offer to this team? Whether he’s good or bad, he won’t be enough to move the needle on making this competitive team. If he’s bad, he’s likely to become an issue in the clubhouse because even the winning ways of the Yankees couldn’t convince him to truly invest in his teammates. If he’s good, the Royals might be able to flip him at the deadline but people aren’t paying much for reliever rentals. So they’ve added someone who is a very high risk to cause problems one way or another for a best-case outcome of some other team’s 29th-best prospect.

If Picollo is just going to be the second coming of Moore as the General Manager of the Royals, then the team is in dire straits. Either Sherman is happy with what Moore was doing and is content to see Picollo continue down that path while he focuses on his real estate acquisitions or he was as completely bamboozled by Picollo’s words as I despite having much more intimate knowledge of the man and situation. Whichever scenario proves to be correct, this team is unlikely to be able to complete the large, systematic changes necessary to become competitive in anything but short bursts surrounded by 100-loss seasons. But at least Sherman and Piccolo will gain quite a bit of wealth from we dimwitted fans who will continue paying to watch them utterly fail to produce a quality on-field product.