When the off-season started General Manager J.J. Picollo said that the team’s evaluation period had ended and that they would not be waiting around for guys anymore. He went on to say that the team would seek out bullpen help, an outfield bat, and a couple of starters - preferably at least one who could slot into the number one or two slot in the rotation and another who could eat some innings.
That all sounded pretty good to me. I’ve been pretty adamant that the Royals’ roster wasn’t entirely bereft of talent, but needed more higher-end talent to take the pressure off of guys. For example, Michael Massey can be a viable starting second baseman in the big leagues, but he needs to be batting no higher than seventh instead of the sometimes third or fourth spot he occupied last season. I decided that for Christmas all I wanted was for the Royals to give us what they had promised.
A little more than a week before Christmas, they’ve mostly followed through and while some are still unhappy, I am grateful for what we’ve got.
I was dreaming more on Jordan Montgomery and Teoscar Hernandez than the signings we got, but the Royals also might not be done. The last thing J.J. Picollo hinted at that hasn’t been checked off is a big trade sending one or more homegrown guys to another club in a big trade.
That’s an area where you have to be careful what you wish for, because one trade possibility that was allegedly discussed would have involved sending Vinnie Pasquantino, my current favorite position player, for Jesús Luzardo of the Marlins. I like Luzardo a lot, but I like Vinnie more.
With Christmas less than a week away, however, the Royals have given us Garret Hampson, Chris Stratton, Seth Lugo, Will Smith, Nick Anderson, and a Kyle Wright to be claimed in 2025. We’ve also gotten a peek at two more presents we’ll be able to unwrap later (at least as of this writing, Monday 12/18/2023): Hunter Renfroe and Michael Wacha. Also, we’ve been given gifts by subtraction; no longer will we have to witness the adventures of Edward Olivares in left field. Jackson Kowar, Taylor Clarke, Collin Snider, and Dylan Coleman can be shelled in relief for other teams as well.
Hunter Renfroe is the only real head-scratcher of a move there, for me. He seems like an older, right-handed version of MJ Melendez. I’m not sure that he really upgrades the outfield in any significant way. Still, perhaps he frees up the Royals to deal Melendez (as I have been assuming will happen the entire off-season after Picollo suggested that the outfield needed to be improved even though he was happy with Kyle Isbel and Nelson Velázquez) as part of a trade to improve the roster in some other way.
Still, as a whole, it would seem hard to argue that the 2024 Royals are not a better team than the 2023 Royals even if no more significant moves are made. Simply plugging in these new players and removing the ones who were cut should lead to more wins next season. But I think there’s a strong case to be made that the improvements could go beyond that.
Last week, I wrote that the Royals had not only raised the floor of their team but also potentially their ceiling, That seems even more likely now. When Brad Keller was hurt and ineffective last season, the Royals were forced to largely fill his rotation spot with bullpen games simply because they didn’t have any other starters. Other pitchers who struggled for huge chunks of last year couldn’t be challenged or removed because there were simply no other options. Now, however, at least one of Daniel Lynch IV and Jordan Lyles will not be in the opening day rotation. If anyone struggles, one of Alec Marsh, Anthony Veneziano, Jonathan Bowlan, and Kris Bubic can potentially take their spot and allow for a demotion to wake up the struggling pitcher or give them a chance to work on things in a lower-pressure environment as appropriate.
These signings also protect what little the Royals have in the way of pitching prospects. In recent years the Royals have been forced to promote pitchers aggressively - none of Lynch, Singer, Bubic, Carlos Hernández, and more pitched above AA. before making their big league debuts. Sometimes that can be a sign that guys are just that advanced, but it seems obvious in the Royals’ case that they simply didn’t have any other options. Sometimes being thrown into the deep end can still work out, but more often than not, guys waste years of their rookie deals trying to get a grip on things and some never manage it at all.
The lineup should get quite a bit longer as well. Even if Renfroe doesn’t work out, the team should get full years out of Pasquantino, Velázquez, Freddy Fermin, and the superstar version of Bobby Witt Jr. Guys like Massey and Isbel will bat further down in the order where their defensive skills can more easily make up for any lack of batting production. All of that, of course, assumes that no one takes their demotions or the reduction in pressure to be the guy and has a breakout year. Michael Massey went on a little hot streak in the second half of the season and was suddenly asked to bat cleanup because no one else could manage it. He immediately went into a tailspin. It seems like keeping him lower in the order could not just allow his defense to shine, but could actually lead to him hitting better, as well.
The Royals might still be not very good next year. Every free agent they signed is over 30 and the aging curve doesn’t favor them. But they also shouldn’t be nearly as bad as they were in 2023. And, if you squint, you could see an opportunity for the Royals to compete for the division since the AL Central is so weak. The Twins took the division with just 87 wins last year, and they’ve lost their Cy Young Award-winning ace in Sonny Gray, a solid pitcher in Kenta Maeda, multiple bullpen pieces, and a couple of their starting position players without adding anything of note. The Tigers are making some moves but the Guardians and White Sox have similarly stood pat, so far. That could all change as the off-season continues, of course, but if you’re a Royals fan and you’re not dreaming a little you’re just wasting your time.
I’ve spent most of the year bashing team ownership and the front office. They still got me almost everything I asked for this Christmas. It’s only fair that I praise owner John Sherman for authorizing these expenditures and General Manager J.J. Picollo for being more transactional.
Maybe Sherman just thinks this is necessary for getting the support he needs for the new downtown stadium and maybe Dayton Moore would have made these exact same moves if he was still around. Maybe another owner would have authorized even more spending or another GM would have been slightly savvier with his deals and improved the roster even more. And sure, it would be nice if the Royals traded some player(s) not among my favorites and added one more really impressive talent to this roster.
But during the holiday season the refrain is always, “It’s the thought that counts!” and it sure seems like the Royals are thinking about actually providing us a watchable baseball team in 2024. And I couldn’t be more grateful.