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After a season this bad, the front office still needs shaking up

No new talent in the front office is bad news

Nov 3, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals general manager J.J. Picollo talks with media during a press conference at Kauffman Stadium.
Nov 3, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals general manager J.J. Picollo talks with media during a press conference at Kauffman Stadium.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

There were a lot of things about the 2013-2015 Kansas City Royals that were wonderful. Yes, there was the American League Pennant, the World Series Championship, the Wild Card Game. The on-field play was exciting, enrapturing, joyful. Every pitch represented infinite possibilities. It was baseball at its best.

Perhaps my favorite thing about those years, though, was what happened around the city. A buzz surrounded the team. Everyone in the metro caught Royals fever, and it was more than just baseball—it was a communal experience. I remember friends and acquaintances of mine who had never before showed any interest whatsoever in baseball proudly wear their Royals gear, posting about the Royals on social media and making trips to the K.

But 2015 was a long time ago, and those casual fans simply do not care about the Royals anymore. Attendance in baseball in 2023 is higher than it was in 2015 thanks to popular rule changes, but Royals attendance this year is less than half what it was at its 2015 peak, down to about 16,500 per game from about 33,000 per game.

Why? Because the Royals have been a disgrace, that’s why. In Major League Baseball, losing 100 games is a sign of a truly terrible team. It’s surprisingly difficult to do, and one hot month is all it really takes to prevent a team from crossing that triple-digit border. The Royals, though, have somehow and nearly inexplicably averaged 99.7 losses over their last six seasons, a span that has involved 840 games.

This year, the Royals were never in it. They lost their 38th game before Memorial Day, their 60th game before Independence Day, and lost their 90th game a full week before Labor Day. The 2023 Royals are some kind of awful; they have combined the second-worst offense in baseball with the third-worst pitching staff in baseball. It is entirely possible that the Royals end up with two players with 2 or more Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs. Meanwhile, 18 Royals have generated negative WAR for the team.

All these losses are mounting towards a historically inept big league result. Since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, only five big league teams have finished with a winning percentage below .300. Should trends continue, the Royals would be on pace for 112 losses—the seventh-worst MLB record in three quarters of a century.

Worst teams in modern baseball history

Season Franchise Wins Losses Win %
Season Franchise Wins Losses Win %
1962 New York Mets 40 120 0.250
2003 Detroit TIgers 43 119 0.265
1952 Pittsburgh Pirates 42 112 0.273
2018 Baltimore Orioles 47 115 0.290
2023 Oakland Athletics 38 93 0.290
2019 Detroit Tigers 47 114 0.291
2023 Kansas City Royals 41 91 0.311

It is not going much better on the farm. Team records aren’t everything, especially in Minor League Baseball, but they do an alright job at providing a rough sketch of the overall talent at each level. Relative to other organizations, the talent level is poor. Throughout the entire organization, only the Single-A affiliate Columbia Fireflies have a winning record at 61-58. The Omaha Storm Chasers (Triple-A, 55-56), Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A, 54-65) and Quad Cities River Bandits (High-A, 52-68) all have losing records.

Being so regularly incompetent at the big league level has blessed the Royals with the ability to consistently pick highly in the draft, and they have responded by pissing away their recent chances. They selected Asa Lacy fourth overall; his career ERA in the pros is 7.09 and he hasn’t pitched a single inning this year. They selected Frank Mozzicato seventh overall; he currently owns an 8.13 ERA in High-A and his fastball barely clips 90 MPH. They selected Gavin Cross ninth overall; Cross has struggled all year at High-A and hasn’t played in weeks. They drafted Blake Mitchell eighth overall in a ridiculously risky draft move and, lo, he’s hitting .147 in short season ball while most college hitters ahead of him in pre-draft rankings are crushing High-A.

Moving on from Dayton Moore was the obvious, right move. It had to be done. Moving on from Mike Matheny and Cal Eldred was the obvious right move. It had to be done. But you cannot look me in the eye and tell me that the front office, as currently constructed, is the best version of the Royals front office.

If it was frustrating to watch the Moore baseball ops administration fail to change with the times, it was equally frustrating to watch, in a golden opportunity, the Royals decline to bring on new talent into key positions in the front office. Instead, the Royals have elected to promote from within and maintain the same group of individuals who presided over the awful situation the club occupies. The result is this list of names of the vice presidents and/or assistant general managers on the baseball operations side of the department and, importantly, when they first joined the front office:

  • Jin Wong, VP & AGM: 2000
  • JJ Picollo, EVP & GM: 2006
  • Scott Sharp, SVP & AGM: 2006
  • Gene Watson, VP & AGM: 2006
  • Rene Francisco, SVP & AGM: 2006
  • Lonnie Goldberg, VP: 2011
  • Daniel Mack, VP & AGM: 2013

All this losing, and yet you can see that the core leaders in the front office are entirely unchanged from the Moore administration. Indeed, four of them—Picollo, Sharp, Watson, and Francisco—were some of Moore’s very first hires. Goldberg was an old college buddy of Moore and Picollo.

This is not to say that every member of that list deserves to have been fired yesterday. Rather, it’s a snapshot of an organization whose core decision-makers have stayed consistent even after the team’s performance has cratered following a collection of poor baseball decisions made, at least partially, by this group of leaders.

See, it’s not enough to modernize operations and incorporate analytics into a decision-making process. To credit Picollo, he has done just that—the Royals are in a better spot than they were before. Unfortunately, this is a zero sum game: every other team in baseball is trying to do the same. For the Royals to succeed, they need to change processes and improve organizationally faster than other organizations.

Let’s say that Picollo has the correct, optimal vision for the team, which itself is not a given. How are the Royals supposed to be better than other teams with the same people that got them into this mess in the first place? Without any new blood? This is a results-oriented business. The results suck. They suck up and down the organization, objectively, in the kind of way that makes it depressing to look at the next three to five years. And you’re telling me that every member of the baseball operations team right now is doing great at their job? That no other outside talent might do a better job or, God forbid, have a clearer and more objective view of the team?

I might believe it if the Royals were winning more games than they did last year, and if their Minor League teams had any semblance of winning records and top individual prospects. As it stands? I just don’t buy it. It would be deeply, incredibly embarrassing to annihilate the franchise’s worst ever season—one of the worst in the history of modern baseball—and to roll into next year with the status quo of internal leadership.

The Royals are bad enough that owner John Sherman would be well within his rights to clean house right now. It’s an option on the table. There is an alternative: to further shake up the front office and part ways with those why aren’t getting with the program. This is an evaluation year, yeah? That should extend to the architects of the team and of the organization.

It’s either that or win a hell of a lot more games up and down the organization. That seems unlikely.