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Trade deadline reveals Royals’ data-driven approach, but Picollo has yet to put his stamp on the team

The big moves could come this off-season.

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

J.J. Picollo completed his first trade deadline untethered from Dayton Moore as an active participant. The trades he completed this summer indicate how the team seems to be following the data-driven approach he promised when he took over, a marked departure from how the club has operated over the last decade and a half. He still has yet to make the big moves to put his own stamp on this ballclub, but his comments indicate a willingness to do so this off-season.

First, let’s review what J.J. has done this summer with a team that finds itself with the second-worst record in baseball.

  • June 30 - Traded pitcher Aroldis Chapman to the Rangers for outfielder Roni Cabrera and pitcher Cole Ragans
  • July 30 - Traded infielder Nicky Lopez to the Braves for pitcher Taylor Hearn
  • July 30 - Acquired pitcher Tucker Davidson from the Angels for cash considerations
  • July 31 - Traded pitcher Jose Cuas to the Cubs for outfielder Nelson Velázquez
  • July 31 - Traded pitcher Scott Barlow to the Padres for pitchers Henry Williams and Jesus Rios.
  • July 31 - Traded pitcher Ryan Yarbrough to the Dodgers for infielders Derlin Figueroa and Devin Mann.

The Royals traded two rentals in Chapman and Yarbrough that will be free agents in a few months, a valuable reliever in Barlow who is only under contract for one more year, an ineffective reliever in Cuas, and a utility player in Lopez who has been bypassed in favor of younger players. They come out of this with a MLB-ready lefty who has looked impressive and could be a mid-rotation Ragans, a young MLB-ready outfielder with some power potential in Velázquez, a high injury-risk/high-reward arm in Williams, a 26-year-old utility player who has raked in Triple-A in Mann, two intriguing lottery ticket-type high ceiling players in Rios and Figueroa, and the more puzzling pickup of Hearn, a MLB lefty who was available basically for free a week ago.

Let me start with my negative takes first. On the one hand, the move this summer are the bare minimum of what any general manager of a really bad team should do - move short term players that have no future with your club. Simply trading guys like Chapman, Yarbrough, Lopez, and Barlow doesn’t make Picollo any more transactional than his predecessor. This still isn’t the scorched-earth philosophy teams like the Astros and Orioles used to become contenders. The Royals are tinkering at the edges, relying on their homegrown core that has stumbled out of the gate.

Then there is the Nicky Lopez trade. Look, it’s not a huge deal, Lopez wasn’t going to net a big return. I’m sure Picollo is well aware he could have received Taylor Hearn for near-free a week ago, but he insisted that this trade was the only offer they received.

I would be a bit more sympathetic to that perspective if Lopez hadn’t been traded some 24 hours before the deadline. Would a desperate contender have offered something better in the waning minutes before the deadline? Maybe not. But several teams ended up acquiring infielders with numbers that weren’t appreciably better than Lopez including the Red Sox (Luis Urias), Phillies (Rodolfo Castro), and Diamondbacks (Jace Peterson). Ultimately it won’t matter much, but it did leave the impression of a green general manager panicking he would be left with no return for a player he intended to cut ties with at the end of the season.

But overall I was pleased with what the Royals did at the deadline. The first positive takeaway I had is that the Royals are finally looking for the right things in player acquisition. The Royals are no longer led by someone that praises the high character of a fastball, “plus hands”, or the quality of person they have acquired. Instead Picollo praised the spin metrics of Jesus Rios, the OPS of Devin Mann, the chase rates of Nelson Velázquez, and the walk rate of Derlin Figueroa. The Royals seem to be focused on data to drive player acquisition more than ever before. Whether their analysis will be at the cutting edge with teams like the Rays, or they are simply catching up to where those kind of teams were five years ago remains to be seen, but the Royals do seem to be moving into the modern era of baseball analysis.

Another positive is that the Royals are thinking long-term. There was some gnashing of teeth at comments Picollo made about focusing on MLB-ready players in trades. But he had no qualms about acquiring longer-term players with higher upside in his trade deadline deals. Henry Williams is in his first pro season in A-ball, but he has the kind of upside where once he is healthy, he could be a top 100 prospect. Figueroa is the kind of young, but raw “lottery ticket” prospect Royals fans have been asking management to acquire in a rebuild. Odds are he turns into nothing, but there is at least a chance he turns into Yordan Alvarez or Fernando Tatis Jr., both of whom were once “lottery ticket” prospects from Latin America acquired in trades.

The final positive takeaway from the trade deadline is that while Picollo has only tinkered at the edges so far, he is talking about making some big moves, including trades that hurt.

“We were open-minded with some names that would hurt to trade,” Picollo said. “We let teams know that that’s something we would do. But we’re going to have to win the deal. Long term, we’re going to have to win the deal.”

We shall see if he backs up that talk with action, but he seemed to confirm he was prepared to move All-Star catcher Salvador Perez in the right deal. Picollo said they had two big trades in the works, one that fell apart in the afternoon, and one that just ran out of time. Salvy was reportedly willing to accept a deal with the Marlins, and it with all the complicated logistics of moving him and working out the financials, it is not hard to imagine that was the deal that ran out of time.

That sets up an off-season where Picollo can really put his stamp on the team. Of the 34 players currently on the active roster or Injured List, only eight have been acquired by Picollo since Moore was dismissed. He has been on the job less than a year, so it will take some time, but he has an opportunity this winter to really shake up an organization that has hit rock bottom.

“Our approach will be the same in the offseason. Any deal with a player that’s talented and has a lot of control, we have to stick to what we think is the right return and get the most impact in return that we can.”

While this may not have been a big impact trade deadline for the Royals, it was still a positive one. The team is slowly inching in the right direction, and Picollo’s eyes seem to light up at the prospect of bigger deals as a possibility. He will have a lot of pressure on him to improve a team that will almost certainly lose well over a 100 games. But this trade deadline gives me a bit more hope he is up to the task.