The Royals Find Their Manager in Quatraro…Now What Else is in Store?

On Sunday evening, MLB Insider Jeff Passan finally broke the news that the Kansas City Royals had finally found their manager in Tampa Bay Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro, who had emerged as the favorite for the job for weeks.

Not long after Passan’s announcement (less than 15 minutes to be specific), the Royals made the move official, as they announced Quatraro’s hiring on their social media pages:

Quatraro is the first manager to be hired from outside of the Royals organization since Trey Hillman back in 2007. He is also the first manager to be hired without managerial experience since Tony Pena in 2002. For some older, more risk-averse Royals fans, JJ Picollo tapping Quatraro to be the Royals’ 18th manager in club history may be a head-scratching choice, especially for a team that is looking to turn things around after six-straight losing season.

However, the former Rays bench coach (and Guardians assistant hitting instructor) is exactly what this Royals organization needs at this time, especially with the influx of young talent on the 40-man roster.

And the possibilities that Quatraro could bring to the staff as well, especially on a pitching coach end, could make this move even more impactful for the Royals organization as a whole, and not just in 2023, but beyond as well.

It’s possible that Quatraro could be the first step of many to help Picollo and the Royals build a special, year-round competitive small-market team, much like the Guardians and Rays.

Picollo’s Early Imprint on This Team is Clear (And It’s Different From Moore)

Hillman was Dayton Moore’s first managerial hiring, as he inherited Buddy Bell in 2006 and decided to part ways with him after the conclusion of the season. The Moore and Hillman relationship didn’t last long, as Moore fired Hillman after 359 games, less than three seasons of play.

After the failed Hillman experiment, Moore went familiar and from within the organization when it came to managers. Moore replaced Hillman with Ned Yost, who failed in Milwaukee, but found his way to the Royals as a special assistant after his days with the Brewers. Yost struggled early in his Royals tenure but eventually led the Royals to two pennants and a World Series before ultimately calling it a career after the 2019 season.

Mike Matheny followed the same blueprint. After failing toward the end of his tenure as manager in St. Louis, Moore hired Matheny to be a special assistant in the Royals front office in 2018 before ultimately tabbing him to replace Yost after the 2019 season.

The move was frustrating for all kinds of reasons: While Matheny had success in St. Louis, he seemed like the wrong guy to be in charge of a rebuilding squad, especially one that seemed slow to embrace the modern-day game (i.e. advanced data and analytics). But then again, Matheny had a surprising season during the COVID-shortened 2020 year, and the Royals went 74-88 in 2021, mostly thanks to a strong April.

Ultimately though, Matheny’s issues in St. Louis came to fruition in 2022. Clubhouse issues, an aversion to making adjustments (especially on a pitching end), and a 65-97 record cost not only Matheny his job (as well as pitching coach Cal Eldred), but Moore’s as well.

Picollo was tabbed to find Matheny’s replacement. And unlike Moore, he did not go familiar, and not just with his hire of Quatraro, but the candidates as well.

The top candidates for the job were Clayton McCullough from the Dodgers; Dusty Wathan from the Phillies; and Will Venable from the Red Sox, who emerged as a serious candidate over the weekend before the position ultimately went to Quatraro.

All four candidates seem to have two things in common: They were known to be coaches who truly connected with players and they also came from “analytics-friendly” organizations and employed such philosophies in their own roles as coaches.

Basically, two things that Matheny and his staff failed to do consistently in his tenure, especially over this past season.

It didn’t matter that Quatraro came from OUTSIDE the Royals organization previously. His lack of big-league managing experience didn’t weigh down his candidacy either. What mattered instead is that he fits the mold of what Picollo and John Sherman wanted from not just a manager, but a modern-day, small-market ball club.

And that is to be data-driven and connect with players, especially younger ones.

The Rays have done those things better than any small-market club over the past decade, as they are able to find success despite a constant churn of the roster every two-to-three years. Kevin Cash has been a tremendous figure in the clubhouse that has provided stability, and Quatraro has contributed to that.

It will be interesting to see how Quatraro employs that in Kansas City.

Without a doubt, the hiring of Quatraro is another positive step in the right direction early in the tenure of new Royals GM Picollo.

He moved quickly on parting ways with Matheny and Eldred, as he literally announced their firing less than 24 hours after the final game of the season. When it came to the managerial hire, Quatraro emerged as the “favorite” for the job early on and ended up being the final choice, much to the relief of skeptical Royals fans. Picollo and the Royals’ process has been a far cry from what we have seen from the White Sox, who initially seemed to land Joe Espada from Houston, only for that report to be “misinformed”.

Now, Espada, one of the hottest names in baseball, seems to be no longer a candidate in the White Sox managerial race, much to the chagrin of frustrated South Siders.

And it’s not just coaching and managing personnel where Picollo has shined early this offseason.

Already, he made a huge roster move by designating reliever Luke Weaver for assignment (as well as relievers Ryan Weiss and Tyler Zuber, with the latter being claimed by the Diamondbacks). The Mariners claimed Weaver off of waivers, which ends Weaver’s Royals tenure after only 19.2 innings after being traded for Emmanuel Rivera.

It’s possible that Moore would have kept Weaver for at least a few more months in 2023, and paid the $2.5-3 million Weaver was expected to be owed in his final year of arbitration. But, Picollo saw the writing on the wall: Weaver was not good in Kansas City (7.71 ERA with the Royals) and at 29 years old, it’s unlikely that he was going to be much more than an emergency long reliever out of the bullpen.

Picollo made the tough decision to cut him sooner rather than later, which benefits the club in terms of roster flexibility, as well as in the financial end. Don’t expect Weaver to be the first of many “tough” moves that Picollo will make before Opening Day next March.

The Royals front office is keeping things a lot closer to the chest nowadays, and there is a more “realistic” and “grounded” demeanor than what Royals fans were used to during the Moore days.

But that’s what this organization needs, even if it may not necessarily be “flashy” with casual KC sports or Royals fans.

What Tampa and Cleveland do isn’t all that flashy either. However, it gets consistent results year after year, which isn’t easy to do in a sport like Major League Baseball where the gap is so big between big-market and small-market clubs.

What’s Next for Quatraro and Picollo? (i.e. Who’s Going to Be the Pitching Coach?)

The next big move will be to find a pitching coach, and already some names are being thrown out, with Giants pitching coordinator and former Royals pitcher Brian Bannister being at the top of the list.

Bannister will be a tough pickup, as he holds a tremendous amount of sway in the Giants organization, and one has to wonder if he’ll settle for a pitching coach role, or if he wants something a bit bigger (i.e. overseeing pitching and both the Major AND Minor league level). But if Sherman is willing to outbid the Giants for his services, the Royals will be in better shape pitching-wise both in the short and long term.

If Bannister doesn’t come to fruition though, Picollo at least hired the right manager with the right connections to organizations that flourish when it comes to pitching development.

Around baseball circles, it’s obvious who the two best clubs have been when it comes to developing and promoting successful pitchers within their farm system:

Thankfully for the Royals, Quatraro has worked extensively for both of them.

Without a doubt, he will have a big say when it comes to who the pitching coach (and staff beyond hitting instruction) will be at the Major League level. In fact, in Royals beat writer Anne Rogers’ piece about the Quatraro hire, it sounds like Picollo and Quatraro will be working together to find a pitching coach, with the idea that the staff, in general, will be finalized before the start of Free Agency.

Picollo and Sherman would have not hired Quatraro if he did not have a pitching coach connection that could help turn around the Royals’ fortunes at the Major League level at the very least. It’s probably the reason why Quatraro distanced himself from other candidates like Venable and Wathan. Quatraro has those connections with a pitching-rich organization like the Rays, and Venable and Wathan do not.

The Royals will announce Quatraro formally to the Royals media on Thursday, and it’s likely that the Royals’ staff will be finalized by the end of the World Series, if not shortly after. I am sure Quatraro already has some candidates in mind, and I bet he and Picollo are on the same page in terms of what they are looking for when it comes to Eldred’s replacement (and probably bullpen coach Larry Carter’s as well). Pedro Girfol and Vance Wilson, who both interviewed for the manager’s job, could be back on the Royals staff in 2023, but it feels a lot less certain now than it did back in 2019 when Matheny was hired.

Under Moore, it was all about keeping things in the “Royals family”.

The Quatraro hire shows that those days are starting to change. It’s not solely about loyalty in this organization anymore, but rather about finding those who fit into the long-term vision of this Royals franchise.

Does that mean hiring Bannister in some kind of major organizational role?

Does that mean tabbing Rays pitching strategist Winston Doom (great name) or Guardians pitching strategist Cody Buckel for the pitching coach position? Both are known for applying analytical principles to pitching development, much like Drew Saylor has done on a hitting end in the Royals system.

Much like Quatraro, expect the Royals pitching coach to have a strong connection to Tampa or Cleveland (or a similar organization), and be much different from his Kansas City predecessor.

Some Final Thoughts About The Move (and Going Forward)

Quatraro, much like any managerial hire, isn’t going to be a slam dunk automatically.

Ultimately, what matters more is the talent that is brought into the organization, and how the talent is developed at the Minor and Major League levels. The manager needs to be a guy who can maintain a solid clubhouse environment and promote what the front office is pushing on the field and in the dugout.

And judging by the warm reception Quatraro got from Tampa Bay after the announcement of his hiring, it’s obvious that Quatraro has the ability to do those things successfully in Kansas City.

(The Cardinals and Brewers weren’t doing that for Matheny and Yost, respectively.)

The Quatraro move though should showcase what this offseason could be for Royals fans:

It won’t be sexy, and it won’t be familiar, but it will be exactly what this Royals franchise needs in order to build itself into a longtime winner.

That means an investment in talent within the organization, not from talent “outside” the club, especially on a free agent end. While I imagine Picollo will still nab some pieces here and there through free agency to fill out the roster by the start of Spring Training, Royals fans expecting a long-term hitting or pitching signing are likely to be disappointed.

And that’s not a bad thing. The money should go to extension candidates like Bobby Witt, Jr. (unlikely), Brady Singer (a little more likely), and Vinnie Pasqauntino (the most likely), not retread free agents like Nathan Eovaldi and Trey Mancini who are hitting the wrong-end of their careers (i.e. regression).

The Royals should also be looking to stock up their farm system by looking to trade guys like Michael A. Taylor, Hunter Dozier, and perhaps even fan favorites like Scott Barlow and Nicky Lopez. It will be tough to not have many veterans on the Royals’ active roster on Opening Day in 2023, especially ones who have been such positive members of the Kansas City community as Lopez. However, the Royals need prospects to help build up their system after so many graduations (especially on the position player end) from this past season. Trading “quality” veterans could help expedite the process for Picollo to help build KC into a long-term winner, like Tampa and Cleveland.

And lastly, Picollo and the Royals front office need to add a jolt to help turn things around on a pitching development side at the Minor League level. The Royals system needs to either see bounce-back campaigns from top arms such as Alec Marsh, TJ Sikkema, and Asa Lacy, or they will need to see new arms emerge in their farm system in 2023. (Perhaps continued growth from Frank Mozzicato and Ben Kudrna?). Either way, Picollo cannot afford another disastrous pitching campaign in the Minors like this past season, and who he adds to help turn things around will be interesting to follow.

There is still a lot to look forward to this “hot stove” season as Royals fans beyond the Quatraro move. Picollo has this organization off to a solid start already this offseason…

Just don’t expect it to come in the form of big-name free-agent signings or perhaps even blockbuster trades.

After all, the Royals are trying to be Cleveland and Tampa in the long term, not Detroit and Texas, who have failed to turn around their clubs through free agency.

Look at how Texas went with the big-name Bruce Bochy while the Royals went with the more under-the-radar Quatraro, who has never been an MLB manager but could be around for a LOT longer than Bochy in Texas.

Give me the long-term view of KC over the short-term mindset of the Rangers any day.

Photo Credit: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

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