Throughout 2023, Kansas City owner John Sherman insisted that it was a season revolving around one word: evaluation. After firing Dayton Moore, Mike Matheny, and Cal Eldred, the Royals promoted JJ Picollo and brought in Matt Quatraro and Brian Sweeney. The Royals wanted to see how their collection of young hitting talent worked out, and if the vaunted pitching draft class of 2018 worked out.
To the Royals’ credit, they stuck to the plan. The Royals fielded the youngest position player group in Major League Baseball at an average of 26.3 years of age. They jettisoned veterans like Hunter Dozier, eating a ton of money in the process. They were aggressive at the trade deadline, not shying away from trading players with multiple years of control. And at the end of September, Sherman made a simple statement in an interview with 610 Sports Radio:
“The season of evaluation is over.”
One of the things that the Royals have been much better about this year is talking about the team with a kind of realism that was lacking in the past. Every year of the Moore administration, he emphasized that they expected to win and to compete even when the team was in a clear rebuilding phase. Meanwhile, Sherman and Picollo emphasized since even before the season started that they knew the Royals would not be fighting for a playoff spot; they were looking to 2024 and 2025.
It’s a seemingly small shift, but I am much more inclined to believe them than I am Moore when they say their evaluation is finished and they’re ready to move to the next phase. Still, in the end-of-season press conference, Picollo pumped the breaks on competing in 2024 because, well, the team did lose 106 games.
All this brings us to the main question: if the Royals are done with the season of evaluation, what are they going to do now?
Unfortunately, the 2023 season was an abject disaster for the franchise. For the Royals to compete in 2024 and 2025, they had to see steady improvement in their big league talent. Their farm system had to have a big year. They had to have a big draft. None of that really happened outside of Bobby Witt Jr. cementing himself as a core player. I mean, let’s take a look at some key players:
- After an excellent rookie season, Vinnie Pasquantino regressed significantly and then tore his labrum. He played 60 games.
- After a breakout 2022, Brady Singer regressed significantly by just about every metric.
- After showing mixed results, it was a big year for Kris Bubic and Daniel Lynch. They couldn’t stay on the mound and pitched in a combined 12 games.
- In their sophomore years, Michael Massey, MJ Melendez, and Nick Pratto all hit worse than they did last year. As a group, they were less valuable than they were last year in more playing time.
- While Kyle Isbel and Drew Waters played well defensively, they remain way below-average hitters and aren’t anything more than fourth outfielders at this juncture.
Here we stand, with the evaluation season apparently over, and it’s nearly impossible to argue that the Royals are in a good situation. Their position player core is not good—if it were, the Royals would have lost fewer than 106 games. Their pitching group is so awful that the Royals would improve as an organization if they jettisoned 20 of their 26 pitchers on the 40-man roster (which sounds like an over-exaggeration until you look at the names on that list and their performance).
There’s probably not much help coming from the farm system anytime soon, either. Asa Lacy is MIA and seems unlikelier to pitch a big league inning every single day. Gavin Cross hit a huge wall not at Double-A or Triple-A, but High-A—the same place where Frank Mozzicato got lit up in nine starts after the break. Blake Mitchell hit .147 with a .029 ISO in short season ball. Their depth outside of their top selections over the past few years is just really poor, and the system continues to linger as one of the worst in baseball.
After a season of evaluation, this team does not look like a team poised to take a step out from its rebuild. To me, this is just what a failed rebuild looks like. You cannot compete against the best baseball teams in baseball with Bobby Witt and a prayer. For heaven’s sake, not a single other position player accrued even 2 Wins Above Replacement. The only pitcher who accrued more than 2 WAR was Cole Ragans. That’s...that’s not a core.
Just about the only good thing going for the Royals is that they have a lot of payroll to work with. With a projected 2024 payroll of only $66 million and the combined salaries of Dozier, Jordan Lyles, and Salvador Perez coming off the books in the next few years, they could add $50 million in payroll just for next year and still be in the bottom third of the league. That’s the Texas Rangers approach, and it could power Kansas City past 90 losses, even.
Look—I would rather not be so grim. But for the Royals to be remotely competitive, everything would have to go right for them in 2024. Could that happen? Yeah, sure. But Melendez and Pratto will be in their age-25 seasons, Vinnie in his age-26 season, Singer and company in their age-27 seasons. And as mentioned previously, the Royals essentially need an entirely new pitching staff, and you can’t just drive to Home Depot and pick one of those up.
Realistically, I think the only way towards competitiveness would be to wheel and deal and try to accomplish what the Royals did with Ragans a few more times. I expect Picollo not to sit on his hands in the offseason simply because he can’t. They’ve evaluated and found that this exact group of guys gets you 106 losses. There’s work to be done, and if it isn’t, we’ll see a lot more 2023 in 2024.