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The Royals are putting a lot of eggs in the big league coaching basket

How much impact can a coaching team have?

Manager Matt Quatraro #33 of the Kansas City Royals speaks to the media during the Spring Training Cactus League Media Day at Arizona Biltmore on Wednesday, February 15, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Manager Matt Quatraro #33 of the Kansas City Royals speaks to the media during the Spring Training Cactus League Media Day at Arizona Biltmore on Wednesday, February 15, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The 2023 Kansas City Royals will be primarily defined by what makes them different from past seasons. Dayton Moore, who had been in charge of baseball operations since before the midterm elections of George W. Bush’s second term, is gone. Mike Matheny, who had managed the Royals for each of the last three seasons, is gone. So, too, is pitching coach Cal Eldred, who had been in his position since before Patrick Mahomes played his first regular season game.

But, paradoxically, the 2023 Royals will also be defined by what makes them similar to previous seasons. JJ Picollo is now the big cheese in charge of baseball operations, but Picollo, too, has been with the organization since 2006. And while a new baseball ops leader is a key opportunity to bring in new talent, the core brain trust remains almost entirely unchanged: Dr. Daniel Mack, Scott Sharp, Gene Watson, and Rene Francisco have maintained their titles of Assistant GM; Lonnie Goldberg remains as VP of Player Personal; and Paul Gibson remains as Senior Director of Pitching Performance.

This front office personnel consistency serves to highlight where the Royals have indeed overhauled personnel, and where they are putting a lot of proverbial eggs in one basket: the big league coaching staff. These are the big new hires:

  • Manager: Matt Quatraro, formerly of the Rays
  • Bench coach: Paul Hoover, formerly of the Rays
  • Pitching coach: Brian Sweeney, formerly of the Guardians
  • Assistant pitching coach: Zach Bove, formerly of the Twins
  • Infield coach: José Alguacil, formerly of the Nationals

The change in pitching coaching was sorely needed, as Eldred wore out his welcome quickly. Eldred had a strained coaching relationship with some pitchers on his staff, and nothing much in Eldred’s professional background or on-field results suggested that he should have kept his job for as long as he did. Reading between the lines, it seemed that he was covered by his longtime relationship with skipper Mike Matheny and the double-edged sword of Moore’s unrelenting loyalty to his personnel.

So, too, was a change needed at the manager position. Matheny was a bit of a controversial choice when Moore selected him for two reasons. One was that Moore’s decision was premeditated: he brought in Matheny to an advisory position to the front office before the season and then didn’t really entertain much of a search afterwards. Second was how Matheny’s time in St. Louis ended when he was fired, with an incredibly tense clubhouse and preferential treatment of veterans that resulted in rookie hazing.

Set in contrast to Matheny’s criticisms and reputation, it’s hard not to read the Royals’ praise of Quatraro as a direct rebuff to the Matheny clubhouse (emphasis mine):

“[Quatraro] just shows up, and you don’t really notice he’s there until he’s there,” said Nicky Lopez, one of many position players already at the Royals’ facility. “He just lets us be ourselves, and it’s very loose. We have a really young team with guys with a lot of personality. He lets them show it. Be who you are. It’s been really nice.

Quatraro spent the winter months calling players not only to introduce himself and learn about his new team but also to listen to what they wanted from a manager and coaching staff. Those calls resonated with the younger players especially, who feel like they can have a voice on the team.

“He just kind of says, ‘It’s y’all’s team,’” Bobby Witt Jr. said. “So whatever we think we need, just reach out to him, which really says a lot. Just to say that, asking younger guys what they think, is really cool.”

And, again reading between the lines, the Royals’ search for someone who could help with inter-department communication implies that such communication was lacking previously. After all, if Matheny could have provided what they were looking for, he would probably still have his job—just like many in the front office and coaching staff from the Moore administration still do.

“Most teams have the same amount of data,” Quatraro said. “And it’s a matter of opening up the lines of communication between field staff, front office, R&D, strength and conditioning, everybody. That’s what I plan to do and what [I want] our staff to do.”

The Royals see Quatraro as the ideal fit to bridge all those departments into one cohesive unit focused on progress on the field. Over and over in this manager search, “collaborator” and “communicator” were the criteria we kept hearing when we asked what the Royals were looking for in their new manager.

But how much difference can five new faces on a coaching staff make? Especially when a player spends years in the minor leagues under a different coaching apparatus? That, really, is the main question here. Fascinatingly, Picollo and the Royals front office do not think that they have a problem with their minor league pitching development.

I think what needs to happen is mostly at the major league level. We’ve examined what we’re doing developmentally. And by no means do we think we’re perfect in developing pitchers, but I believe we had the third-highest number of pitchers from the 2018 draft in the major leagues. When you compare what they’ve done to other teams, we’re a top-five development system. It’s just that they haven’t had the success at the major league level, as a group, that is needed for us to compete at the top of the division.

...Pitching development in the minor leagues is a different narrative. I don’t get asked about the minor leagues very often. I get asked about the major leagues, and that’s where a lot of the criticism has come.

Picollo is probably right that the big league coaching needed a big improvement. However, Picollo is also playing with fire here, because the Royals minor league pitching development in 2022 was nothing short of a disaster. Asa Lacy, Alec Marsh, Frank Mozicato, Jonathan Bowlan, Angel Zerpa, Ben Hernandez, Ben Kudrna—not a single one of the Royals’ top pitching prospects established themselves or took a meaningful step forward in 2022, and the Royals’ utter lack of pitching prospects spurred the team to focus on acquiring pitchers at last year’s trade deadline. And yet, not any of those players were affected by the big league coaching staff.

For those who are concerned that the new baseball operations regime isn’t different enough from the last one in terms of baseball philosophy, you can put that to bed. Between the public statements of Picollo and owner John Sherman as well as my own conversations with the front office, I’m convinced that the way the Royals will operate now is in many ways a night and day difference from how it did under Moore.

Where I am not necessarily convinced is that the coaching staff is the only problem in the Royals’ pitching development pipeline. We will see what a full year with the Picollo & Sherman baseball operations vision can yield, as changing the heading of an organization as large and as public as the Royals takes time. I just hope that, if it does turn out other changes need to be made, the Royals have the feedback loop calibrated well enough that they figure it out in a reasonable amount of time.