Playing Pepper 2023: Kansas City Royals

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Kansas City Royals
65-97, fifth in the AL Central
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Brady Singer (2.9)
Top hitter by fWAR: Bobby Witt Jr. (2.3)

The team on the other side of Missouri shuffled the deck a bit at the end of last season, letting go longtime Royal executive Dayton Moore as well as changing the coaching staff, meaning Mike Matheny has two pink slips in two tries in Missouri.  Will all of this make a difference?  Can the Royals start to make waves in an AL Central that is not exactly overwhelming?  We’ve got some Royal fans to talk about that and more!

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Kevin O'Brien The Royals Reporter RoyalReportKev
Max Rieper Royals Review royalsreview

C70: Change has come to KC with Dayton Moore and Mike Matheny shown the door. What is your feeling about their replacements and where the club stands going into 2023?

Kevin: A change was a long-time coming in both the dugout and front office, especially after a disappointing 65-97 season in 2022. While Moore brought two pennants and a World Series title to Kansas City, the club had only achieved three winning seasons since he took over in 2006. The organization has long been criticized for being behind the curve in terms of analytics and advanced player development, especially on a pitching end. While JJ Picollo did work under Moore as a long-time lieutenant, Picollo has been more analytically-inclined and helped usher in changes in hitting development in 2019 that turned around hitters like Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez after rough 2019 campaigns in High-A ball.

On the manager side of things, Mike Matheny pretty much was an extension of Moore’s old-school style in the dugout. While Matheny in his press conferences claimed to “embrace” analytics more from his managing days in St. Louis, it was obvious that his style was averse to change and going “outside the box” when it came to player development and roster utilization at the MLB level. Furthermore, it was also reported that Matheny ran a tense clubhouse, not exactly what one wants to hear with a club full of rookies and young players 26 years old and under. New manager Matt Quatraro comes from Tampa Bay, and already those two issues have been addressed: Quatraro has created a staff that is comfortable and adept at using all kinds of data, especially on the pitching end, and the clubhouse has a more “relaxed” vibe this Spring.

Max: On the surface, it looks like dismissing Dayton Moore and leaving his right-hand man, J.J. Picollo, in charge would be more of the same. But this marks a huge change of direction for the club. For decades, the club has resisted the analytics revolution in baseball, emphasizing old school strategies. New owner John Sherman, who was part of the ownership group in Cleveland, wanted to see a more data-driven approach and believes that Picollo could be the point-person to bring the Royals into the 21st century. We’ll see if Picollo is up to the challenge, but his coaching hires show he wants a collaborative approach with coaches who can clearly communicate their data-driven strategies to players. Matt Quatraro has a wealth of experience integrating data with strategies as the bench coach for the Rays and pitching coach Brian Sweeney, who comes over from the Guardians, marks a huge change from departing pitching coach Cal Eldred. The Royals have insisted that ther minor league development is sound, it was coaching and a lack of data usage that prevented their pitching staff from reaching their potential. That puts a lot of pressure on this coaching staff to get results quickly, but if they can integrate data to yield better results, the club could be a lot better than people think.

C70: It feels like Salvador Perez has been around forever, yet he still has at least three years on his contract. What do you expect from Perez in the coming year?

Kevin: Perez still will be a force in this lineup for the next couple of years at least, and it is expected that he should hit 25-30 home runs as long as he is healthy. Defense is a concern for Salvy, as he has always struggled when it comes to framing. However, this Spring, new bench coach Paul Hoover has been intentionally working with Salvy, MJ Melendez, and other Royals catchers to improve their framing to help pitchers garner those extra strikes. While the Royals’ framing problems won’t be solved in one Spring, it is nice to see the Royals directly address this, which could help Salvy have more value on the defensive end.

I do think Quatraro, who comes from an org that believed in utilizing a deep bench, will rest Salvy more often than in years past, which is something Matheny struggled to do as a more “veteran-friendly” manager. Salvy is a competitor who still will be one of the top-hitting catchers in the game (despite his free-swinging approach). Unfortunately, he is entering his age-33 season, and his body isn’t exactly what it once was when he was a young man during the 2014 and 2015 runs. Thus, I believe Quatraro will give Salvy more days off (and actually days off; not games at DH) than Salvy is used to from years past, which I think will have benefits on the defensive and offensive side for Salvy both in the short and long term.

Max: Prognosticators have predicted Salvy’s demise for years, and yet he continues to chug along as one of the best power-hitting catchers in the game. We probably won’t see him lead the league in home runs again like he did in 2021, and he’ll never be mistaken for having a patient eye, but he is still a capable run-producer who can put up 20-30 home runs for a team in need of power. You should see him more and more at DH – he spent about a quarter of his games there last year – and the emergence of young catcher MJ Melendez will allow them to rest Salvy’s knees more.

C70: The Royals recently signed Aroldis Chapman to a one year deal. What was the thinking there and do you think it will work out?

Kevin: The Royals found success from 2013-2015 due to their bullpen, and because of that run, the Royals had a reputation for developing great bullpens on the cheap. Unfortunately, that hasn’t come to fruition recently, beyond a case like Scott Barlow. The Royals expected to get a lot of contributions from Amir Garrett, Josh Staumont, and Taylor Clarke last year, and unfortunately, they got mixed results from the three of them, and the bullpen as a whole beyond Barlow in 2022.

Chapman is a wild card for sure, and he carries a lot of “clubhouse baggage” risk as well. That being said, there are reports that the Royals feel confident that they can address a mechanical issue that weighed him down last year, and Chapman does get an opportunity to re-establish himself in an environment that isn’t as high-pressure as the Bronx. Chapman also gives the Royals two bonafide late-innings relievers, which puts less pressure on guys like Garrett, Staumont, Clarke, and Dylan Coleman to come through in those 7th and 8th-inning opportunities. Also, it is possible that Chapman could be a great trade piece at the Trade Deadline who could be flipped for a couple of prospects if he can return to form.

Max: The bullpen was pretty thin last year, and the Royals wanted to have a good selection of arms to choose from in the late innings. This seems like a value move – the Royals saw Chapman’s price was fallen and that he was willing to come to Kansas City for more opportunities. If he gets off to a good start, he’ll be a nice trade asset at the deadline they can flip. They’re looking to buy low, sell high on him, and help re-stock their thin farm system.

C70: What young player (rookie or limited MLB time) do you look to make the most impact on the club this season?

Kevin: The Royals played a lot of rookie position players in 2022, so it’s hard to say which one will have the most impact since many have made an impact already. This includes Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Michael Massey, and Drew Waters, who I expect to not only be key players in 2023 but be part of the Royals’ long-term position player core. One name to pay attention to though is Maikel Garcia, who has had a solid Spring Training and is coming off a robust Winter League campaign in Venezuela. Garcia made his MLB debut in Toronto last year after the Royals’ “unvaccinated player” fiasco and did well at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2022. Garcia has been an under-the-radar prospect due to his lack of power or a big frame, but he’s grown into his body over the past couple of years, and the power has followed suit. He won’t be a 20-homer hitter by any stretch of the imagination, but he could hit 10-15 annually, and he has the speed to be a 30 to 40 stolen base threat as well. Add that with Gold Glove-caliber defense, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Garcia up for good with the Royals by early June.

The only issue is that Garcia plays a position (shortstop) where the Royals have a lot of depth. Witt seems to be penciled in as the Royals’ Opening Day shortstop, but the metrics didn’t look good for him at the position last year. Furthermore, it’s been widely rumored that Nicky Lopez could be a trade candidate as well, especially with Massey being the favorite to start at 2nd base at the beginning of the year. A Lopez trade and move of Witt from shortstop to third could expedite Garcia’s arrival to Kansas City.

Max: The Royals are really counting on a young trio of hitters that made their debut last year – shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. catcher/outfielder MJ Melendez, and first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino. The latter two are interesting in that they really epitomize the new hitting approach the Royals are trying to emphasize – being selective at the plate and waiting for your pitch. In the past the Royals have emphasized putting the ball in play and shunning walks and strikeouts, but new hitting coach Alec Zumwalt has taken a more modern approach. You could see first baseman Nick Pratto join that group pretty early on, and he may be the most patient hitter of all, although sometimes to his detriment as strikeouts have limited his production at times.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Kevin: The best-case scenario would be akin to the 2022 Baltimore Orioles and their path to 83 wins a season ago: the bullpen becomes a strength of the squad, the young hitters continue to develop, the starting pitching gets slightly better, and a veteran or two has a surprising season (Chapman, Lopez or Hunter Dozier) before they are traded away for prospect pieces at the Deadline. The Orioles also transitioned from a “traditional old-school” organization to a more “analytically-inclined” one not too long ago, so it is easy to see the similarities between the 2023 Royals and last year’s Baltimore squad.

The worst-case scenario would be the pitching continues to plummet (especially the starting pitching), the young hitters either get hurt or take major steps back, and the veterans do so poorly that they end up being DFA’d and return nothing in value in terms of prospect capital. In that scenario, it would be easy to see the Royals losing 100+ games in 2023, and Picollo being on the super hot seat in 2024. Owner John Sherman did not hire Picollo for a “long” rebuild.

The most likely scenario? I think the Royals win about 75 games and finish in 4th in the AL Central. They seem further ahead than the Detroit Tigers, and they aren’t plagued by injury issues in the rotation like Detroit either. However, they are still clearly behind Minnesota, Chicago, and Cleveland in the division, and they still need to add some more prospect depth in their organization after losing so many prospects to graduation a season ago. The Royals will be more fun to follow in 2023 than in 2022, and we will see some young players turn the corner even more, with Witt, Pasquantino, and Melendez being the best bets. That said, this squad feels a year or two away from competing seriously in the division or AL Wild Card race.

Max: The best case is that the new pitching coach team gets improved results from Daniel Lynch and maybe another young pitcher – Jonathan Heasley? Kris Bubic? Jackson Kowar? – emerges. The Royals’ lineup – which will likely feature 7-8 hitters age 26 or younger – reaches some of their potential and gives them a solid young core for the future. The worst case scenario is that the pitching crop just isn’t that good. The young hitters have had mixed results on defense – Melendez and Witt struggled despite good tools – and that could be a liability going forward. The most likely result is that maybe Lynch steps forward to join Brady Singer, but the pitching is still pretty thin overall. Some of the young hitters pan out, but others prove they are not big leaguers. The team will likely lose 90+ games, but it could still be one of the more fun seasons for fans as they have hope for the future. It could be like the 2012 season, where the Royals went 72-90, but with a young core that would eventually go on to win two pennants and a championship.

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