A Last-Place Finish Probably Spells the End for Matheny and this Royals Coaching Staff

The Royals lost 10-3 to the Detroit Tigers, which not only completed the sweep for the Tigers but also put the Royals back in the cellar in the AL Central.

It doesn’t help that the Royals have six games against the Cleveland Guardians in Cleveland to close the year, which probably seals Kansas City’s fate to finish 2022 in the AL Central basement.

The Tigers do have four games on the road against the Seattle Mariners, which will be tough for Detroit, especially with Seattle trying to hold off the Baltimore Orioles in the Wild Card race. However, the Royals have had a rough go against the Guardians this year, as they are 5-8 against them, including an 0-3 mark so far this year at Progressive Field.

In all honesty, it could be a miracle for the Royals to win even one to two games during this six-game road series, even with the Guardians maybe resting players in preparation for the postseason.

And thus, with a 63 to 65-win season realistic for this young Royals team, one has to ask the question: will Mike Matheny and the Royals coaching staff be back in 2023?

With how this road trip, and honestly, 2022 season has gone, it seems quite unrealistic at this point, especially with GM JJ Picollo needing to make a splash in his first full year without Dayton Moore ahead of him in the organization.

As of Thursday, Matheny has accumulated a record of 163 wins and 214 losses in three seasons as the Royals manager, good for a winning percentage of .432.

It was expected that Matheny would struggle more in Kansas City in comparison to his tenure in St. Louis, where he went 591-474 in seven seasons as Cardinals manager. After all, Matheny took over a loaded team that had World Series aspirations in his first year as skipper (and to be fair, he got them a pennant in his second year as manager). However, his winning percentage in Kansas City is 123 points lower than his percentage in St. Louis. That also includes a major regression this year, as the Royals went from a winning percentage of .457 in 2021 to .406 in 2022.

In fact, unless something dramatic happens over the next six games, Matheny will finish his third season with the Royals with the worst winning percentage of his tenure thus far. That is not an encouraging trend for both Matheny and the Royals, who are looking to rejuvenate a fanbase that has pretty much checked out after six-straight losing seasons since 2016, when they went 81-81.

The apathy of Royals fans can be seen in their lackluster attendance at Kauffman Stadium this year. Not only did the Royals ranked 12th out of 15 teams in the American League in attendance, but they also posted their lowest total attendance at Kauffman Stadium in a non-pandemic-affected season in 47 years.

One could credit a lot of other factors that affected attendance at Kauffman Stadium: COVID residue; the high cost of attending a MLB game in general; the MLB lockout which soured relations with the league, players, and fans. It wasn’t like the Royals were the lone club suffering in attendance this season (in fact, the league as a whole was down and tremendously so).

At the end of the day though, Kansas City sports fans expect a winner. That is especially true with the Chiefs, Sporting KC, and even the KC Current (Kansas City’s professional women’s soccer league) finding so much success in the wake of the Royals’ string of losing. Sports fans in KC are finding other ways to spend their dollar, and the Royals experienced the hurt at the gate this year in a considerable way as a result.

Not surprisingly, owner John Sherman wants to turn this apathy around, and not just for Royals fans, but for his pocketbook and to preserve his dream of having a ballpark in downtown Kansas City (which continues to get significant resistance from loyal Royals fans). The process started already with letting Moore go and replacing him with Picollo with two weeks left in the season, in order to get Picollo a “head start” on the offseason (as Sherman put it).

The next logical step for Sherman and Picollo in this “turnaround” process is evaluating Matheny and the coaching staff, including pitching coach Cal Eldred, who has been much maligned in his five seasons in Kansas City in his role.

So far, Picollo has been incredibly mum on the situation, not saying Matheny “won’t” be back, but not necessarily confirming it either, which isn’t a good sign for Matheny’s future with the Royals.

In his most recent interview with 610 AM radio’s Cody and Gold, Picollo continued to emphasize that conversations are ongoing, and there will be a determination made at the conclusion of the season if Matheny and his managing style will “align” with what Picollo and the front office want to do with this Royals organization going forward.

Right now, it’s hard to imagine Picollo and Matheny being on the same page in any conversation after the Royals finish their season in Cleveland next week.

After all, Matheny was Moore’s hire, and also selected as manager during former owner David Glass’ final days with the organization (which unfortunately also proved to be his final days on earth as well). It would be one thing if Matheny was vetted by both Sherman and Picollo, who took over GM roles this past season from Moore when the latter was promoted to President of Baseball Operations. But that didn’t happen, and I wonder if Sherman is maybe disenchanted with Matheny, especially after such a down year in 2022 after a season of improvement and growth in 2021.

Now, Matheny is not responsible for all of the Royals’ woes this season.

It sounded like in the beginning of the year that his hands were tied to play Carlos Santana and Whit Merrifield everyday due to them being “paid veterans” (who knows if that was coming from above Matheny or that was just Matheny’s philosophy; he had a reputation of favoring veterans in St. Louis after all). The pitching woes could be credited more to Eldred and the Royals pitching development in the Minors (especially since nearly everyone in that category has been with the Royals longer than Matheny). And the inconsistency of the young Royals lineup is not necessarily a fault of Matheny: he can’t swing the bat for them when the going gets bad, especially on the road.

At the end of the day though, Matheny is the captain of this ship.

He continued to support Eldred as his pitching coach, even though Eldred had four years of lackluster results prior to 2022. He continued to put out questionable lineups, even though better options remained on the bench and perhaps in Omaha as well (due to Matheny not playing them in Kansas City). And Matheny makes the calls ultimately on pitching changes, and beyond Scott Barlow and Dylan Coleman in the second half, those bullpen decisions have often backfired more often than not.

Matheny is not the sole problem of this Royals staff in 2022.

But it’s hard to imagine him being part of the solution for the Royals in 2023 as well.

Sherman wishes the Royals to be a more “data driven” organization. He saw the success of such an approach as a minority owner in Cleveland, and it’s a big reason why Moore, a “traditional scouting over analytics” guy is no longer with the Royals organization.

Picollo is tabbed to change the culture from a “traditional scouting” one to a more “data and analytics-driven” organization. He has seemed to say all the right things in this regard, which was further demonstrated in a recent interview with Royals beat writer Lynn Worth of the KC Star earlier this week.

If Picollo is serious about changing the culture to a more “data-driven” one, then Matheny can’t continue with this organization. Furthermore, most of the staff should also be on their way as well (with the exception of hitting coach Alec Zumwalt, who made inroads in hitting development with Drew Saylor before ascending to his role as hitting coach in May in the wake of Terry Bradshaw’s firing).

Even though the Royals have shown promise at times this year, especially at home and in the second half, they ultimately have disappointed more often than not. And the trend seems to be the same in those struggles: a lack of preparation combined with a stubbornness to think “progressively” with the lineup and pitching staff.

The Royals should not have lost three in a row after taking two of three from the Mariners and winning four in a row during their last homestand of the year. They should have not gotten swept after three strong to decent performances from Zack Greinke, Daniel Lynch, and Jon Heasley. And yet, despite all the momentum from Sunday’s 11-run comeback and some surprisingly strong starting pitching outings, the Royals and their offense fell flat on their faces at Comerica Park.

That signals a lot of warning signs from a manager and coaching staff, and it’s hard to imagine that getting much better for Matheny and company in 2023, especially with two years together at the helm prior to this season.

The pressure would also be incredibly immense on Matheny in April and May if he came back to manage in 2023.

In all likelihood, he would be let go at the first sign of struggle. It would be a situation akin to Trey Hillman in 2010, and even though the Royals eventually found the right manager to lead them to the promise land (Ned Yost), it took a while for the Royals to get there (Yost didn’t have a winning season until 2.5 years later) .

That is not healthy for a young Royals team that needs to gain some confidence and ability to sustain winning at the Major League level both next year an beyond. The Royals need consistent and fully supported leadership in the clubhouse, not to mention, a voice that can help them take the next step.

It’s hard to see Matheny and this staff do that, especially with the amount of losing that has accumulated since 2018 (many on the staff beyond Matheny have been around since then).

Hence, it makes sense why most Royals fans think Matheny will be gone after the season is done, especially after this embarrassing series against Detroit.

I think Matheny wasn’t a terrible choice in retrospect (I wasn’t exactly thrilled with his hiring when it was announced).

He eventually helped grow the young guys on this roster, especially this season. He was a manager who kept his dissatisfaction in the clubhouse, and always was quick to praise in public. That kind of approach was much-needed for a young group that has seen so much losing over the past three years in his tenure (and Tony La Russa of the White Sox is exhibit A of the opposite approach backfiring with a talented and young group).

Ultimately though, results matter.

They mattered with Moore, as he was let go due to a lack of results. They will matter with Picollo, who probably won’t have 16 years in Kansas City to turn this things around like his predecessor (I expect 2-3 years). And they should matter to Matheny and the coaching staff, who haven’t done much to help this Royals club avoid the basement in 2022.

A last place finish this year, and being behind a club like the Tigers, who were beset tremendously by injuries, is simply the final nail in the coffin for this Royals coaching staff, as painful as that is to write.

It will be interesting to see who Picollo will tab as the next Royals manager to replace Matheny.

Will he go with a veteran guy, like Joe Maddon or Ron Washington, who brought multiple pennants to clubs they managed? Or will Picollo go outside-the-box and maybe look to a former Royals player like Carlos Beltran (who was on pace to be the Mets manager before the Astros scandal hit) or Raul Ibañez, who was part of the Royals 2014 pennant team as a player, and was credited as vocal clubhouse leader who resonated with the young Royals core.

Picollo will have his share of managerial candidates this winter…

Which is further reason why the Matheny era in Kansas City needs to be over shortly after the 2022 season is as well.

Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

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