I have a confession to make about the 2023 Kansas City Royals: I’ve been looking at the season all wrong and you may be too.
The 2023 season as an evaluation year isn’t entirely about evaluating if these players can be big league players. It is also about evaluating how good the players can apply the ideology behind what the Royals' new coaching staff wants to create. This may leave players that were once shoo-ins for the future in a different place long term. Sure, current General Manager J.J. Picollo had a hand in selecting these players and bringing them into the organization but that doesn’t mean the players still fit the future roster in the same way.
The Royals have completely reshaped the way they view pitching at an organizational level just a season after they began to do the same thing with their hitting process. Last year they promoted Alec Zumwalt to hitting coach. This year the team hired manager Matt Quatraro and pitching coach Brian Sweeney. With so many changes at the top in such little time, there are bound to be players that — although they may very well be good major leaguers — don’t fit the mold of this team any longer.
How did the Rays build the blueprint for the Royals?
It may seem like an overstated assumption, but the best glimpse into what the Royals’ front office would like to create is the current state of the Tampa Bay Rays. The reasoning goes beyond the simple fact that Matt Quatraro was the bench coach in Tampa Bay for five seasons. The Rays’ payroll for the 2023 season ranks 28th in baseball — and comes in $18 million under the current Royals mark of $92 million. The Rays’ farm system was ranked sixth in the preseason by MLB Pipeline, and of course, the major league team currently boasts the best record in the entire league.
Tampa Bay has created a small-market winner without breaking the bank and without sacrificing their long-term building blocks in the minor leagues. However, despite the current success, it didn’t happen without some struggles at first. In October 2014, then-GM Andrew Friedman left the Rays’ front office to become President of Baseball Operations in Los Angeles. With the departure of Friedman, long-time Manager Joe Maddon also opted out of his contract.
The 2014 Rays finished 77-85, followed by 80-82 in 2015, and then 68-95 in 2016 under new manager Kevin Cash. In fact, the Rays missed the playoffs in each of Cash’s first four seasons as manager. Erik Neander became general manager in 2016 and then both he and Cash got to work. How’d they do it? The Rays focused on finding players that would follow their coaching and do the things well that they prioritized — things like throwing first-pitch strikes.
After two seasons of evaluating and giving prospects time to adjust, the Rays made the decision to move on from some notable players. These players weren’t all “failed” prospects. Tim Beckham was worth 3.0 fWAR in 2017 when he was traded. Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer were all young pitchers in their prime and with a track record of major league success when traded.
In total, many of the team’s former top prospects on the major league roster were either traded or left in free agency. The Rays weren’t just trading players to rebuild — they were trading players to make their roster better fit their system.
Notable Rays Departures
|Tim Beckham||Traded, 7/31/17|
|Nick Franklin||Waivers, 4/5/17|
|Mikie Mahtook||Traded, 1/18/17|
|Chris Archer||Traded, 7/31/18|
|Jake Odorizzi||Traded, 2/17/18|
|Matt Moore||Traded, 8/1/16|
|Erasmo Ramirez||Traded, 7/28/17|
|Drew Smyly||Traded, 1/11/17|
|Steven Souza Jr.||Traded, 2/20/18|
While the Rays re-shaped their major league roster, they also rebuilt their farm system. It ranked 20th in 2014 and then 24th in 2015. The trades above helped the Rays re-stock their farm system — this time with young talent that better fit their new organizational system. The system would rank 13th in 2016, followed by 11th in the winter of 2017, and all the way up to 2nd in baseball in 2018.
How does this translate to the current state of the Kansas City Royals? For starters, it could explain the team’s unwillingness to extend young players on their roster. It’s also a bit of apples and oranges. For starters, the Royals don’t have a trio of top-tier, young starting pitchers to trade at this year’s deadline. Instead, they have a massive crop of struggling young arms that have failed to reach their potential. The early returns from the minor league pitching development have been impressive so far this season. Can the Royals continue that? If so, it’s possible that a young pitcher like Brady Singer may offer more long-term value to the Royals in a trade than he’d offer on the Major League roster.
What’s next for the Royals and how do they take the leap?
The Royals are two years out of contention. They’ve told us as much, and that would fit right in with the timeline of this process. The Tampa Bay Times covered the reconstruction of the Rays’ farm system back in 2019 and laid out the “three-pronged approach” taken by the front office.
* Adjust and advance their drafting process and performance as years of fallow return had caught up to them;
* Expand their financial commitment to the international market, where they could compete more evenly with higher-revenue teams;
* Increase their pro scouting effort, especially at the lower levels of the minors, to be positioned to maximize the return in every trade.
This is what’s next for the Royals. They’ve brought in a new hitting development team, a new pitching development team, and a new manager to lead it all at the major league level. However large those changes may be, it’s still just surface-level when it comes to fixing the problems facing Kansas City. Many of the same scouts remain from the Dayton Moore era, which creates cynicism regarding whether improvements in the draft process are being made.
On the international market, the Royals have struggled recently to sign and develop impact talent. There’s still some potential in the system, like Lizandro Rodriguez and Luinder Avila. Carlos Hernández has made his way to the majors but struggled often. Instead, players like Noel Arguelles, Elier Hernandez, Seuly Matias, and Erick Peña are better characterizations of the Royals' international scouting ability in recent memory. That’s not a great group of headliners.
Finally, looking at pro scouting efforts, the Royals have a mixed bag of results. They did well in acquiring Andrew Hoffmann, Drew Waters, and CJ Alexander from the Braves. All three players have looked good at their respective levels. Samad Taylor — acquired in the Whit Merrifield trade — is another positive. On the flip side, both Beck Way (15.19 ERA) and TJ Sikkema (5.63 ERA) have struggled since joining the system in the Andrew Benintendi trade.
It’s clear that the Royals have only scratched the surface when it comes to improving the organization as a whole. Beyond the “three-pronged” approach laid out, the Tampa Bay Times expanded on more measures taken by the Rays when they revamped their organization.
“They provided additional resources in player development, such as adding staff, improving nutrition, increasing off-season programs, to turn the prospects, projects and occasionally a few suspects into impact players.”
For a franchise that hasn’t seen the playoffs for seven seasons (soon to be eight), “just scratching the surface” isn’t quite what fans want to hear. Still, fans in Kansas City should brace themselves for a lengthy process as the overhaul continues. It takes more than one offseason for the deep-rooted issues plaguing the Royals to be resolved. More realistically, it may take three or four seasons, much like it took the Rays from 2015-2019. While it’s not what the success-starved fanbase wants to hear, it should at least be understood in the grand scheme of things.