The Royals made some big changes in the front office and the dugout, with general manager J.J. Picollo now in charge, and Matt Quatraro coming over from the Rays to lead the field staff. But aside from that and some other coaching changes, it was a quiet off-season for the Royals. They have staked their future on a core of young players that began to emerge in the past year. We convened our writing staff to get their sense of how this season will play out with the young, new-look Royals.
The Royals have a new executive in charge with J.J. Picollo, a new manager with Matt Quatraro, a new pitching coach with Brian Sweeney, and a change at hitting coach since last Opening Day with Alec Zumwalt. What, if anything, do you expect to change?
Matthew LaMar: I think Royals fans will be pleasantly surprised with how differently the team will operate. This current brain trust was given a very difficult situation that forced a “wait and see” approach for the time being, and while I understand fans’ frustrations, taking stock of inventory was the only viable move. I expect the pitching philosophy to change drastically, and by what accounts we have right now it seems to have done so. Additionally, I expect the Royals to be less sentimental and act more like a Cleveland Guardians or Tampa Bay Rays from a roster management perspective.
Max Rieper: I do like that the hitting approach is drastically different under Zumwalt. We are finally seeing an emphasis on plate discipline and hitting the ball hard. I do expect the hitting to improve, and I think this core has a chance down the line to give us the best offense we’ve seen in some time in Kansas City.
The pitching is another matter. Picollo has insisted that the issue with the Royals was not minor league development, but Major League instruction. The Royals seem to be putting their chips on Sweeney and his staff to get the most out of what they see are talented pitchers. So we should expect results pretty quickly, and if we don’t, the franchise may have major issues because there isn’t a lot of help on the way in the minors.
Jeremy Greco: The biggest change I expect to see is that pitchers will be throwing more strikes and more effective pitches in general. The overhaul of the pitching coaching staff should be able to achieve those two goals relatively quickly; if they can’t then the larger goals will not be able to be achieved. The hitting changes I think came around last year and we should expect to continue to see guys making better choices at the plate and making quicker adjustments than they used to.
I was hoping we’d see a front office that was more inclined to bring in higher-quality free agents, stop overpaying for retreads and never-weres, and cut bait on sunk costs. It hasn’t worked out that way so far and I’ve quickly lost hope that there will be a significant change in the kinds of transactions the front office makes.
Jacob Milham: The biggest change will take some time. I expect so many new minds in the coaching staff and front office will cause a more transactional approach. Look at Josh Staumont. The previous regime, he would have been a roster lock for 2023. But, he was not performing at a high level, and still needs refinement and stretching out. I expect that nothing is given and everything is earned for most of the Royals players this season.
sterlingice: Has anyone used the phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, yet? It also remains to be seen how much different Picollo is from his mentor. Also, is the pitching side of the organization all that different from top to bottom? I know there was a change at the top, but it seems like that whole structure needed to be gutted and replaced and I’m not sure it was.
Generally, the organization is going to look like a more modern major league org, but it’s going to take time for that to filter on down. In the end, a lot of these moves look good on paper. However, this assumes that all these “prospects” pan out. Every single name in the question: Picollo, Quataro, Sweeney, and Zumwalt - this will be their first time in the big chair they’re in now. There’s going to be some learning curve and some aren’t going to work out.
Greg Walker: I expect the front office to be more proactive in terms of making changes to the roster, and less wont to block younger, cost-controlled players with random veterans. We saw that to some extent this offseason with the Michael A. Taylor and Adalberto Mondesi trades. I think we could also see some changes in how the pitching staff is deployed. This could be the year we see the Royals use openers or run out bullpen games with somebody like Yarbrough pitching three innings.
What is the best case scenario for the Royals this year?
Greg Walker: Bobby Witt Jr. goes 30-30 and gets down-ballot MVP support, MJ Melendez hits like a proper middle-of-the-order bat and plays good enough defense to avoid tanking his value, and several of the other youngsters (Nate Eaton, Michael Massey, etc.) prove themselves to be viable major league players. Brady Singer gets Cy Young votes, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic establish themselves as competent starting pitchers, and Jackson Kowar plays some sort of role on the big league staff. Matt Quatraro pushes all the right buttons in-game, minor league arms like Asa Lacy, Alec Marsh, and Frank Mozzicato take steps forward, and Kansas City plays meaningful games in September.
Jacob Milham: The best case scenario is that the young core of players separates themselves from the rest. Players stuck in the middle like Nate Eaton, Drew Waters, and Michael Massey and more are locks to be in Kansas City long term. The roster needs to round out with Witt, Melendez, and Vinnie Pasquantino as the centerpieces. Wins would be nice, but this is a building season.
sterlingice: The kids really can play! Witt, Pasquantino, and Melendez formed a heart of the order that looks like it could power the team for years to come, especially after two of them got contract extensions that bought out a couple of free agents years. Sure, it may be that Sherman wants to splash some cash to get people to buy into the downtown stadium but that’s better than the alternative. Lynch’s injury wasn’t as bad as first feared and, when he came back, he pushed Bubic out of the rotation and was Robin to Singer’s Batman. Fellow 2018 draftees improved, as well - Bubic, with his stuff is never going to be much more than a #5 starter, but he did a (cheap) yeoman’s job as swing man and Jackson Kowar has resurrected his career as a lights out arm in the back of the bullpen.
The team finished over .500. The more balanced schedule hurt the team a little as they weren’t able to beat up on the Central, which looked bad and may continue to be down for years. Coming into this year, it looked like a season where the Royals had to figure out who to keep and what they needed to supplement. It went better than could be expected and next year they could be a contender with the right offseason moves and continued growth.
Matthew LaMar: The best case scenario for the Royals is that they come away confident that they’ve got their core players in place. In practice, this means that Brady Singer continues to solidify into a top-of-the-rotation starter and the Royals get at least three reliably above average players out of their hitting group that includes Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Kyle Isbel, Nick Pratto, Drew Waters, Maikel Garcia, Michael Massey, and Nate Eaton. Put it this way: in 2015, the Royals got a combined 16.1 Wins Above Replacement out of Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer. That seems like a lot, but good playoff teams have good cores to build around.
Max Rieper: The best case scenario is something akin to the 2012 Royals, which lost 90 games, but had a young core of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain that had some inconsistencies, but you could project a good future ahead. The Royals need to know the pieces they have in place for the future, and which spots need to be filled through other means.
Jeremy Greco: The best case scenario for the Royals is, like every other team, a World Series win. Ideally on the backs of their young up-and-comers. It’s not a particularly likely outcome, but then, it never is for anyone but the Dodgers and the Astros.
What is the worst case scenario for the Royals this year?
Matthew LaMar: There are a couple of ways for this season to go poorly, but one of the worst options is if, a year from now, the Royals are no closer to understanding who on their roster is worth keeping or extending. For 2024 to be successful, the Royals must have confidence in where they are. If they get injuries and mediocre performance with moments of greatness, that’s arguably a worse long-term result than if a few key players clearly flame out.
Greg Walker: Witt continues to hamper his offense by swinging too much, Melendez hits .180 and bleeds runs on defense, and the other youngsters are replacement-level or worse. Singer regresses to looking more like his 2021 self, Lynch and Bubic continue getting hit hard, and Kowar looks nothing like a major league pitcher. Quatraro finds the depth of the roster isn’t good enough to manage the team like the Rays, minor league arms continue to flounder, and Kansas City joins Oakland in the basement of the American League.
Jeremy Greco: The worst-case scenario is that the team loses another 100 games because none of the pitchers are able to make any adjustments that matter and all of the hitters revert to swinging at anything and everything and making weak outs. Alternately, if all of the guys the Royals are betting their future on get hurt so that they can’t even tell if the team will actually be able to count on them or not.
sterlingice: The players they have just aren’t any good. The previous regime and their “scouting heavy” approach was like that guy in fantasy football who was picking name players who just aren’t that good. Sure, Bobby Witt Jr still looks like he could be the real deal. I mean, not some surefire HOFer, just a guy who probably makes the team HOF, if he sticks around long enough. Well, at least until he got hurt. Singer, too. But, unlike Witt, he could miss next year, too, after surgery. Pasquantino had a bit of a sophomore regression, but still looks to be pretty good. Melendez’s K rate is regressing back to where it was in the minors now that there’s a book out on him and he’s still without a position, though he did play some more catcher after Salvy got hurt. Every other hitter in this org is just a spare part, castoff, or never will be. Michael Massey? Nick Pratto? Drew Waters? It wasn’t that long ago that Hunter Dozier or Nicky Lopez had one good season. Singular. And where are they now? At least the new regime is fine with jettisoning players that weren’t their mistakes, their guys.
And let’s not even talk about the pitching. The optimism about the new org approach lasted until mid-May when the bats thawed and the ERAs went into the stratosphere. We were naive to think “oh, these are good toolsy guys, the Royals just don’t know how to develop them”. Hey, remember those Spring Training stories about how Keller is just a few sessions at Driveline away from being a good pitcher again? Best shape of his life, indeed. There’s a reason all those young pitchers were available for the Royals to pick as they’re all broken in one way or another - not enough easy velocity, not enough spin, not enough movement, no third pitch, heck, no second pitch. If it were that easy, every org could do it and pitching wouldn’t cost a fortune. It’s back to the drawing boards and time for another rebuild. The major league team is a disaster and there’s no help on the way. Sell off anything that isn’t bolted down and try to get a little head start on the next one. Good luck selling the city on that downtown stadium and tax hike when the minor league team hasn’t sniffed a winning season in close to a decade.
Jacob Milham: Worst case is not only do the Royals STINK, but there is no progression on the roster. The pitching stays the same, Witt’s glove remains suspect, and there is no plan for Melendez in the field. Royals fans need to see some results on an individual level at least in 2023.
Max Rieper: The worst case scenario is that the core just doesn’t look like much of a core. That would entail Bobby Witt Jr.’s low on-base approach and poor defense limiting his upside, defensive issues with Pasquantino and Melendez, and no other hitters stepping up to become regulars (Kyle Isbel, Nick Pratto, Drew Waters, Michael Massey). The pitching remains thin, with little help on the way. Picollo just took over, but you have to wonder how patient John Sherman will be if this core doesn’t get off to a good start - there is some pressure to start winning soon if they want a downtown stadium.
Give me one bold prediction for the year.
sterlingice: A lack of playing time during the WBC doesn’t really hurt Witt or Singer at all. They started slightly slow, especially Singer, who had to be stretched out. But it was more like being two weeks behind. And it pays dividends as they look strong down the stretch and benefited from the experience.
Matthew LaMar: Kyle Isbel establishes himself as a regular, MLB-caliber outfielder. Isbel has a strong minor league track record and did well in 2021, and I think that he had a bit of a sophomore slump in 2022 that was also affected by inconsistent playing time. I think that the pendulum has swung too far in the negative direction for him.
Max Rieper: Brady Singer goes to his first All-Star game with a six-year contract in hand from the Royals.
Jeremy Greco: Kris Bubic will win double-digit games as a starter.
Greg Walker: The Royals set a franchise record for home runs hit in a season, breaking the 2017 team’s mark of 193.
Jacob Milham: I think Edward Olivares plays less than 70 games in Kansas City this year. The defense has not been there, I was not impressed this spring, and he has more promising competition for at bats. I was once on the Olivares hype train, but his inconsistent availability the past two seasons hurt his progression more than most realize.
How many games do the Royals win?
Greg Walker: 70. I think they’ll be better than last year, but I don’t expect the revamped coaching to fix the pitching staff overnight, and I’ll always take the under as long as Hunter Dozier is a starter.
Matthew LaMar: The 2023 Royals win 75 games, a 10-game improvement over 2022 and perhaps enough to eke out a fourth place finish in the American League Central.
Jeremy Greco: 74.
sterlingice: Optimistic me says they are on pace for about 75 wins and then sell off what they can at the deadline and stumble home to 67. That’s optimistic me this year? Ouch. Fortunately, pessimistic me says they play at a 67-win pace all year. So... 67!
Jacob Milham: I bet the Royals win less than 69.5 games in 2023, and I am sticking with that. If I have to pick a specific number, it is 67 wins. The team has to prioritize player progression over team wins this season.
Max Rieper: Like the 2012 Royals, I have this team at 72-90. The hitting will be better than people think, but I’m still skeptical on the pitching, particularly with Lynch out a month. But it will be the most fun season we’ve had since this rebuild began.