Fans of the Royals are certainly no stranger to the worst-case scenario. The nearly three decades without a playoff appearance — anchored toward the end by a historically bad 2005 season that saw the team lose a franchise-record 106 games — is a good frame of reference. 2005, of course, was only two decades into that dreary lifetime of Royals baseball. Not long after, however, changes started to take place. A new front office built a new farm system, a historic one even, and things were looking up. That culminated in a World Series and a new flag out in left field. Now, on the backend of a decade later, we’ve come full circle. 106 losses is again a reality and the Royals are undoubtedly back to rock bottom.
Despite the steep decline, there’s another new front office in town, this time led by general manager J.J. Picollo. Sure, he’s been in the organization for quite some time, but 2024 will be just his third season as general manager and his second leading the show without Dayton Moore. No matter how much we’ve heard that “it’s all the same” or “Dayton Moore 2.0,” one thing is growing more clear every day: J.J. Picollo is no Dayton Moore. The Royals have made a handful of fantastic trades over the last calendar year. Then this winter they seem to be among the most active teams in all of free agency. Kansas City has been linked to at least a half-dozen of the best starters available this winter. They’ve been busy in ways we haven’t truly seen in quite some time.
This week came the signings. On Monday, they signed reliever Will Smith to a one-year, $5 million deal. On Tuesday, they added starter Seth Lugo to a three-year, $45 million contract and reliever Chris Stratton to a one-year deal. There have been other more middling signings (with good upside) and a promising Rule 5 pick as well. In all, the Royals have done something very important for 2024. The team has built a very nice foundation. The floor is higher than it once was. A floor isn’t enough to carry you to the playoffs, however. So what comes next for the Royals?
The hard part comes next for the Royals in their quest for contention
I’m not so sure that easy is the best word choice, but I'll still say that the easy part is behind us. The Royals have done the “easy” part of building a good roster. Picollo and co. have brought in a handful of established veterans who can provide steady innings and reliable results. Up next, the team has to determine where they can acquire a ceiling. A team with a high floor and no ceiling is an improvement, but not ideal. It’s probably somewhere around last year’s San Francisco Giants, who finished the year 79-83. That’s a substantial improvement over 106 losses, but it certainly isn’t the end goal.
Raising the ceiling is what the Royals should be focused on now. There’s plenty of optimism that Michael Massey and MJ Melendez can help some in that regard. Cole Ragans raised the ceiling of the Kansas City roster perhaps more than any one player last season. We already knew that Bobby Witt Jr. would arrive eventually but there wasn’t much confidence in the rotation. Outside of Witt, Ragans, and Vinnie Pasquantino, who else is raising the ceiling? Sure, Maikel Garcia was pretty good as a rookie last year, but it shouldn’t be ignored that he had a measly 84 wRC+ on the season. He offers no power at a normally power-premium position.
The Royals will have to find more upside outside of the organization. There are some free-agent options, such as Lucas Giolito or Jack Flaherty. Both pitchers are relatively young (a year or two from 30) and former top prospects. At the same time, both have struggled immensely in their most recent work on the mound. If the Royals decide to go that route, it could work. That path would be better than no path at all, but there’s a lot of risk involved. Buying low can work out, but sometimes you end up with what you paid for.
Instead, the Royals have to do the dirty work and make the tough decisions. Ace starting pitchers rarely land on the open market because they’re rare. Teams don’t usually let those types of arms go for nothing. Once it’s clear they won’t re-sign, they’re traded and extended. For once, the Royals need to be the team acquiring the frontline starter — not trading him away. There have been reports that the Royals engaged in trade talks with both Miami and Seattle. That’s a great start, but not if it's for Emerson Hancock or Edward Cabrera.
It’s time to think bigger. Aim for Sandy Alcantara or Logan Gilbert instead. A trade should return a proven commodity with more to come. Maybe you laugh or instantly disregard the idea that the Royals could acquire either of those players, but that is exactly the issue that’s led to the consistently bottom-dwelling Royals. The Mariners potentially held trade talks with numerous teams for Gilbert. The Red Sox, Cardinals, and Orioles were all linked to him in some fashion since last year’s trade deadline. Why not the Royals?
No one is getting fleeced so just pick your guys and let’s go
Major League front offices are stocked full of very smart people. Behind those very smart people are teams of other very smart people. The notion that you can “fleece” a team isn’t a smart one to use in trade talks. Picollo echoed that very sentiment in an interview on 610Sports during the Winter Meetings.
Picollo, on potential trade matches:— Preston Farr (@royalsminors) December 6, 2023
“Every good trade is going to hurt in some respect. You’re going to have to give up something to get something. Our problem is we have a lot of young players with really good control.”
The Royals have to understand that having a lot of young players with really good control isn’t a problem. The problem is being so scared to be wrong that you wait it all out incessantly. Just make a damn decision and roll with it. Trust the scouting, trust your instinct, and make the tough decisions. Young players with really good control have value, especially if they offer great upside. That’s the case for both MJ Melendez and Maikel Garcia. To a lesser extent, that’s the case for Brady Singer and Kyle Isbel as well. We’ve already seen what the Royals look like with these band members. The sound sucked and no one’s buying tickets to see that concert again.
It won’t be easy to give up what could potentially be an All-Star caliber player like Melendez or Garcia. Even if that turns out to be the case, it won’t matter if you’ve built a winner as a result. Trades like the one that netted future stars Yordan Alvarez for the Astros or Fernando Tatis Jr. for the Padres aren’t common. They’re the clear exception, not the rule. It takes valuable talent to acquire valuable talent. Once the Royals worry less about being wrong and worry more about winning, then the results will follow.
I’m not sure that Dayton Moore thought that way. J.J. Picollo, on the other hand, just might. Much of his early tenure as general manager centered around the idea of “becoming more transactional.” He’s found at least fair value in a few trades, including the Whit Merrifield and Andrew Benintendi trades. Other trades have been huge wins, like the obvious Aroldis Chapman and Jose Cuas deals. Perhaps what showed the best side of Picollo was the Kyle Wright trade in November. It was time to give up hope on Jackson Kowar the prospect, and although Kyle Wright may never be himself again, a shiny bird in the bush is worth more than a dull bird in the bush.
To raise the stakes, Kansas City needs to turn the transactional up to 11. It’s a lot easier to be wrong about a return for Jackson Kowar (who wasn’t going to offer you value anyway) than a return for MJ Melendez. For all that risk, the potential payoff becomes that much higher. Trading away players who succeed after leaving town isn’t a bad thing if you succeed as well.