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“We’re going to push forward,” says J.J. Picollo after 106-loss evaluation season

J.J. Picollo looks to the future after wrapping up the season

The Royals ended the 2023 season last week with 106 losses, tying a club record for losses in a year, and finishing with the second-worst record in baseball. It was not a season they had expected to contend, with the focus on developing young players. Still, the rough season was “an eye-opener”, according to General Manager J.J. Picollo in his address to the media following the season.

“106 losses is a difficult thing to take. There were a lot of challenges along the way. It’s not what our expectations are. Our expectations are much greater. We accept responsibility for that.”

The team went 27-33 over their final 60 games with a much improved offense over that time, and Picollo would like to see the team carry that play over to next year. Picollo did praise the team for continuing to compete despite the rough position in the standings, commending first-year manager Matt Quatraro for his steady hand.

“It says something about the character of the team, the competitiveness that the played well, and that’s something we can build off of”

While the overall results weren’t what they wanted, Picollo said that the processes they talked about implementing last year were in place. When he was put in charge of the team last fall, Picollo talked of using more data-driven approaches and revamping the pitching development staff. The Royals will return the entire coaching staff for next season, and and will even seek to expand their coaching staff to fill needs.

The team had three goals going into this season - evaluating if Bobby Witt Jr. could become a regular starting shortstop, seeing if Kyle Isbel could handle centerfield, and improving the pitching staff. Witt passed with flying colors, Isbel was a plus defender in center, although Picollo admitted he needs to be a more well-rounded player on offense. The pitching was a disappointment, although Picollo praised pitching coach Brian Sweeney, saying “the pitching department did an excellent job.”

Owner John Sherman said in an interview last week that “the season of evaluation is over”, comments backed up by Picollo in his address this week. Improving the pitching staff will be a top priority this season, and the Royals won’t wait for players to get back on track.

“We’re going to push forward, we’re not going to wait any longer. We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get deeper with our starting pitching...There will be healthy competition in that starting rotation. There may be some other faces in the organization by that time.”

Next year’s starting rotation will include Brady Singer, Cole Ragans, and Jordan Lyles, according to Picollo. Pitchers like Kris Bubic and Daniel Lynch, who missed a lot of action this year with injury, will have to earn spots next year when they are healthy. Expect a lot of changes in the bullpen, which finished with the second-worst ERA in baseball. Picollo said he thought there were a few arms in the pen that could compete for roles next year, but they needed more consistency and would look outside the organization for upgrades, particularly for pitchers that can cover the late innings.

Picollo thought the infield was set, praising the improvement in defense. Vinnie Pasquantino is set to return from injury at first base next year, with Michael Massey at second, Witt at short, and Maikel Garcia at third. Picollo said the team would look to bring in more outfield production, with an eye towards improving the depth of the organization.

“When guys have options, we have opportunities to find players that can beat them out for positions.”

Picollo will look to build an offense that score many different ways. The Royals improved their runs scored-per-game from 3.7 in the first half to 4.5 in the second half. On the other hand, they finished with the lowest on-base percentage in club history, and finished second-to-last in the league in home runs.

“I think we’ll be able to create runs. We’re not going to rely on the home run, we’ve got to execute situationally better than we did.”

The Royals executive said he didn’t know exactly what payroll would look like next year, but that he had a general idea of how much they could spend, noting that $30 million is coming off the books in expired contracts. The Royals currently have a projected payroll of around $66 million for next season.

“Whatever the rules of engagement are, it’s our job to get the most out of it. Whether its $100 million, $120 million, or $80 million, its our job to get the most out of it. Teams have won with lesser payrolls. So that can’t be what I wake up thinking about every day.”

Picollo hinted the team may be aggressive on the trade front, including trading players on the roster, noting that successful teams typically aren’t populated with a roster completely made up of homegrown players.

“One of the things that objective that we should have as a front office is to take pressure off of scouting and player development and international operations and one of the ways to do that is to be more aggressive and trade whether it be prospects or off your major league roster because there are very few teams in the history of the game, if any, that have won a division with 25 homegrown guys.”

One reporter pointed out the redundancies on the roster, such as catcher MJ Melendez playing outfield due to being blocked by Salvador Perez. Picollo was non-committal on where Melendez would play next year, but he highlighted the improvement of rookie catcher Freddy Fermin behind the plate to give them more options. The positional versatility of many young players would allow them to be creative, according to Picollo.

The Royals had hoped that if the young players had performed better this year, there was a chance that 2024 could be a season where they could potentially look to contend. But the 106-loss season may have pushed back the timeline a bit.

“I can’t sit here and say I think ‘24 is the year that we definitely win the division.”

Picollo said he wants to get to a point where the team can win 80-85 games and compete for the division. He wouldn’t put a number on his win-expectation for next year, but insisted he wanted “steady improvement.”

“I don’t believe we’re a 106-loss team....but our record is what it is, we can’t run away from that.”

This will be an important off-season for the Royals, as a 106-loss season six years into a rebuild, an unpopular downtown stadium proposal, and a TV contract that makes games inaccessible have alienated a large portion of the fanbase. The Royals seem to be forward-looking with a goal of building, rather than tearing down, but will the progress be fast enough to satisfy a restless fanbase that is tired of losing?