JJ Picollo Can Make A Major Mark on the Royals…But It Could (And Should) Feel Different From Dayton Moore

It’s been seven years since the Royals last played in the postseason, which doesn’t feel too long for some Royals fans who lived through the Royals’ initial 29-year playoff drought from 1985 to 2014.

Granted, the baseball world isn’t focusing on the Royals’ current postseason drought.

The story for baseball fans now is on the newly revised format of the postseason, especially in the wake of 100-plus win teams such as the Mets, Dodgers, and Braves all failing to make it past the divisional rounds. Furthermore, a sub-story this postseason has also focused on multiple teams approaching playoff baseball “differently”, as many clubs are showing that what may work over 162 games doesn’t necessarily “guarantee success” over a three or five-game series.

On the other hand, the Cleveland Guardians constantly patting themselves on the back for playing “small ball” to find postseason success has definitely earned a chuckle and eye-roll from many Royals fans, especially on Twitter.

Playoff baseball can still be enjoyable for the most passionate Royals fan, regardless if Kansas City is in it or not. After all, the Royals have only made the playoffs twice since 1985, so this isn’t an entirely new feeling this October.

Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that with the newly revised format, making the playoffs is slightly easier than it was in the pre-COVID-affected era (i.e. pre-2020).

Which is the main reason why Dayton Moore is no longer in charge of baseball operations for the Kansas City Royals.

Simply “rebuilding” with the idea that lighting could strike twice again like it did in 2014 and 2015 was no longer good enough for John Sherman and this Royals organization and fanbase.

In the press conference that announced Moore’s firing back on September 21st, Sherman specifically mentioned that he wanted to see what a “Wild Card team would look like” in Kansas City and also pointed out that he was tired of picking high in the draft as well.

For now, JJ Picollo has been appointed the task:

Turning this Royals squad from a 95-loss squad to a “Wild Card” team in the next couple of years.

Picollo may be able to do that, and perhaps even more, should he make the right decisions, hire the right people, and acquire the right players, via the draft, international scouting, free agency, or trade.

In order to make that progress, to make the Royals a “small market” club that can compete consistently in this current MLB landscape like Tampa Bay and Cleveland, he’s going to have to do a lot of things differently from his predecessor.

Which may be tough for some Royals fans to stomach, especially initially this offseason.

The first sign that showed Royals fans that Picollo may be different than Moore was how he handled the dismissal of manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred at the conclusion of the season.

Not only did Picollo move on immediately from the two after the final game of the year (Matheny and Eldred didn’t even make it 24 hours into the offseason), but he kept news of the decision under wraps, even though it appeared that after the Tigers series, the Royals had made up their minds.

Picollo in the press conference mentioned that third base coach Vance Wilson and bench coach Pedro Grifol would be internal candidates for the Royals’ vacant managerial position. And yet, neither has interviewed with the Royals yet, even though Grifol has already done so with the Chicago White Sox and has emerged as a possible favorite for the job along with Astros coach Joe Espada.

The fact of the matter is that the Royals will not rush this decision, even if Grifol may be qualified and probably deserved the job over Matheny the first time around. Additionally, Picollo and the Royals will make whoever is hired as manager an active part of the Royals’ search for a new pitching coach to replace Eldred.

That seems to hint that an outside candidate may be a better fit for the Royals managerial position, especially since it is unlikely that Grifol or Wilson have that connection to a premium pitching coach candidate.

If this was Moore, the Royals’ manager would already have been selected a year ago, as Moore had a habit of hiring potential coaching “successors” in special “advisory” roles before they eventually moved into their “chosen” spot in the organization. Matheny, Eldred, and even Ned Yost held such roles before they eventually assumed their roles on the Royals’ bench.

Picollo doesn’t seem to embody his successor’s approach. In fact, with news heating up about Grifol, and not just with the White Sox but the Marlins as well, it seems likely that Grifol will be in a different uniform in Spring Training in 2023.

Who is the favorite for the Royals’ managerial spot then?

Picollo probably knows or has his favorites…

But he’s not going to tip his hand in the process.

And that kind of style is not just pertaining to the managerial and pitching coach search, but also to how the Royals will approach player acquisition this offseason as well.

Last week on 610 AM radio’s afternoon show, “Cody and Gold”, Picollo did an interview to give an update on how the Royals’ offseason was going. As expected on social media, one particular tidbit stood out from the interview, which Royals Review tweeted on October 12th.

To be fair, context is important, especially when it comes to interviews of this nature (Moore certainly got raked over the coals with “bits” from interviews that were taken out of context). Thankfully, Craig Brown of “Into the Fountains” was able to capture a little bit more from Picollo’s statement that gave a fuller picture of what Picollo said with the afternoon sports radio hosts.

“The conversations I’ve had with John Sherman, who’s been very supportive to go ahead and do the job, we’ll discuss things. We’ll invest in this team at the right time. I think right now we’re young, we’re coming off a tough season. It may not be the right time to invest heavily into this team and that’s fine with us. We have to cross over some barriers before we really dive in and we didn’t cross those barriers this year, unfortunately and we expected to. We have to get to a point where we’re performing at a level where we feel good about doing and then we can go ahead and potentially invest in the free agent market.”

“The latest on the Royals search for a new manager” by Craig Brown; Into the Fountains

Now, does Picollo say anything that contrasts the fact that it may be a “tame” hot stove season, especially on the free agency end for the Royals? Not really.

However, it doesn’t seem like it’s all Picollo’s decision (he mentioned his conversations with Sherman about the team’s outlook for next year), and Picollo is brutally honest about where the Royals are at, which is a stark contrast to the “rosy optimism” year after year from his predecessor and former mentor.

The Royals are coming off a season that they lost 95 games, and jettisoned many veterans from the squad who were supposed to be key a year ago (Whit Merrifield, Andrew Benintendi, Carlos Santana, etc.). Were the Royals a more exciting team to watch after Merrifield, Benintendi, and Santana were gone? Absolutely.

But were they a “better” team? Not really, and the 95 losses and last-place finish in the division demonstrated that.

Picollo is looking at this team from a long-term, analytical front-office perspective. Not a hopeful, coaching/fan perspective, like Moore, which Royals fans have been far too used to since he took over in 2006.

Moore admitted that the “coach in him” certainly swayed his decision-making as the Royals’ top front-office executive for 16 seasons. That certainly showed in nearly every decision he made, both good and bad.

On one hand, Moore advocated for true community investment in the Kansas City area (especially through the Urban Youth Academy) and he fought to help keep Minor League players paid during the pandemic, even if it required him to sacrifice on his end (let’s just say that not a lot of GMs would do that).

As I have written before, Moore was the “anti-Moneyball” GM, which was refreshing at times, especially with every baseball club trying to copy Oakland or Houston, or Tampa Bay in one way or the other over the past two decades since the book and movie came out.

That said, his stubbornness and resilience to changes in the modern game (especially on the analytical end) contributed to Moore’s downfall.

Picollo on the other hand seems to have a much different approach to analytics and building and promoting an organization, which he is fully in control of, now that Moore is no longer with the Royals in any kind of capacity.

Back in 2019, it was Picollo who brought in hitting guru Drew Saylor and totally revamped the Royals hitting development in the Minor Leagues. Whether it is through the draft or trades, the Royals have succeeded from 2020-2022 when they have acquired hitters, not pitchers, mostly due to the gains in their hitting development since Saylor and Alec Zumwalt took over the reins.

To add onto that, the Royals acquired Drew Waters from Atlanta in an innovative trade that required the Royals to part with no players, just a compensation round pick. Who was the man responsible for that deal?

None other than Picollo.

Picollo may not come with the “Rays” or “Guardians” or “A’s” front office connection that probably would’ve satisfied many Royals fans who wanted a complete rebuild. However, Royals fans are already seeing a different kind of general manager than what we have seen over the past 16 years.

There could be some growing pains in that process…especially in 2023 as this club tries to piece together a core that can perhaps compete for a Wild Card as soon as 2024 or 2025.

Moore was a baseball executive who seemed to exude endless optimism.

He believed that Whit and Dozier could be franchise players (and paid them to do so for far too long). He believed in “pitching as the currency of baseball” even with the Royals pitching development and Major League pitching coach producing subpar results over the course of his 16 seasons in Kansas City. He seemed more focused on “building fathers of families” rather than “All-Stars”.

And to be honest, I think a lot of that worked for so long because of his two pennants and it is Kansas City after all.

It’s a mid-sized city in the heart of the Midwest. Probably St. Louis and Cincinnati are the only other baseball cities in the country where that rhetoric works, and even then…baseball has a lot more history and holds a lot more sway in those cities (which makes it doubtful Moore lasts 16 years).

Moore won over the media and local officials. He held sway over loyal fans who treated the Royals like their son or daughter’s Little League baseball or softball team. If there was one thing I learned about this year while being a season ticket holder, it was this: the hardcore Royals fans, especially the older ones, are extremely forgiving of this organization, even if it only enables the club year after year.

My guess is that Sherman is done with promoting that kind of image.

After all, there are no trophies in Major League Baseball for platitudes and “good guys.” The Royals need to build a legitimate and consistent winner, especially if the organization wants to hold any hope of bringing a stadium to downtown Kansas City. There’s already enough public sentiment against it, and a 90-100 loss club on an annual basis won’t help.

In order for a quick turnaround to happen in Kansas City, the Royals need someone with familiarity with the strengths of this organization but is also willing to make the necessary changes to how things are done in order to promote more lasting change.

Picollo has shown that so far.

He valued long-term success over loyalty by letting go of Matheny and Eldred. He has promoted a “long-term” plan and “smart” spending rather than just throwing money at free agents to “appease” the Royals fanbase. Detroit and Texas tried that last offseason, and they not only failed to move much in the standings, but it ended up costing Al Avila and Jon Daniels their jobs with the Tigers and Rangers, respectively.

Picollo has remained mum on the managerial and pitching coach search, even as a division rival (the White Sox) seems to be aggressively looking to not only fill their position but do so with a former member of the Royals.

This is not something that Royals fans are used to…typically, anyone qualified in the organization is the first and only candidate (and hired quickly to boot). Instead, Royals fans can dream of some outside candidates for the first time in over a decade (Matt Quatraro of the Rays; Clayton McCullough of the Dodgers; and Kai Correa of the Giants are my personal favorites).

These differences are a good thing. Picollo needs to make his own mark on this Royals organization.

And he’s doing so in a way that is a bit of a contrast to what we saw with Moore, especially in the shadow of the Royals’ World Series victory in 2015.

Royals fans, especially those older ones who were enamored with Moore and all he did in his 16 years in Kansas City, probably don’t like what Picollo is doing now, especially since the offseason can often be the “best time to be a Royals fan” (which one teacher colleague who was a Royals fan once said prior to the 2014 and 2015 success).

And yet, the Royals need to change and bring that new, fresh approach that can change this club and its trajectory not just for the next few years, but perhaps for the next decade.

Hopefully, Picollo can be the guy to do so…he did so incrementally over the past few years while only being second-in-command in the Royals front office.

As the “top guy” now, he’s off to a good start at least with his early actions as GM this offseason…

Even if some Royals fans don’t want to admit it just yet.

Photo Credit: MLB.com

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