After a Year on the Job, J.J. Picollo Assesses the Royals’ Progress

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Royals had a disappointing season in J.J. Picollo’s first year as the team’s Executive Vice President/General Manager. Hampered by injuries and the underperformance of numerous promising young players, the AL Central club finished in last place with a dreadful 56-106 record. As Dayton Moore’s replacement — Picollo was promoted to the position on September 21, 2022 — told me during last month’s GM meetings, much more was expected.

My conversation with the Royals’ top executive came almost exactly a year after I first spoke to him about the vision he had for the team. I was curious about two things. First, how has the revamped pitching program we discussed in November 2022 progressed? Second, how does he view his first year on the job?

———

David Laurila: We talked about your vision for the team, including the pitching development process, at last year’s GM Meetings. Have things gone pretty much as expected?

J.J. Picollo: “There is more to it than you realize. As much as you think you might be prepared for the lead role, you’re learning along the way all the time. Being able to make decisions quickly, and being able to communicate effectively across all departments in the organization, was a challenge. Looking back on it, last year we were heavily involved with our managerial search [and] a new pitching coach. The entire fall, right up to Christmas, we were hiring. We shared the vision of the organization in different ways.

“If I had to do it over again, we would have had organizational meetings in January. We’d have had that large group gathering so that the communication was clear on what we’re about and what we’re trying to accomplish. This year we did that. We actually did that the week after the season ended, so I feel a lot better about this offseason. I feel like it’s going to slow things down a little bit more this year. But again, there are a lot of things involved in this job. It’s a very different position than being an assistant.”

Laurila: How have things progressed in terms of infrastructure and the overall direction of the team?

Picollo: “Last year, we were still very committed to the young core that we had on the field. Our expectation was to compete and to get better through the second half of the year, and I think the way we set up the team hurt us early on. We didn’t have a fallback as far as having more veteran players around our young guys. So it fell on all of our young guys, and that made it difficult for them.

“Looking at how we can improve next year, having guys with experience around them will help the infrastructure of the team. That’s what I think we miss right now. We obviously still need things like player improvement. Guys going from their second to their third year… Bobby [Witt Jr.] did a great job separating himself. He is a player who has a chance to be a superstar in this game, and that’s exciting, but we need others to take those steps forward as well.”

Laurila: It’s fair to say that some of your young players stagnated, if not took a step backwards, last year. I thought your team was going to win more games than it ultimately did.

Picollo: “We did too. We had us projected, internally, at around 77-78 wins. But our pitching… you look back and Kris Bubic got hurt. Daniel Lynch barely pitched this year. Brad Keller was hurt. Those are three guys we had penciled into our rotation, and I don’t know that we got 20 starts between them. That really hurt us. Consequently, we used the second most starters in all of baseball. We ended up deploying openers, trying to shorten games that way. We were doing a lot of different things to try to make up for the injuries. I don’t like to make excuses, but the reality is that we had three guys from a five-man rotation out.”

Laurila: You mentioned having hired a new pitching coach last year. What has changed with Brian Sweeney on board?

Picollo: “The processes are different. They’re a little bit more focused on pitch design, pitch usage, changing grips, doing things that can help a guy gain an advantage. Kris is an example. He added the slider and was committed to the slider. The usage was pretty high before he went down [after three starts]. I think it took the pressure off of his fastball. We saw more fastballs at 94 because he was using it less than he had the year before.

“So, the way that pitching staff is thinking about pitching, and pitching development, is different. It’s a three-man pitching [coach] staff instead of two. Along with a pitching coach and a bullpen coach, we added an assistant who is really good with pitch design; we hired Zach Bove, who’d been with Minnesota. Brian Sweeney came over from Cleveland. Mitch Stetter, our bullpen coach, is from within our own organization and knows our pitchers who have come through the minor leagues. That gives us a really good balance of people who know deliveries and how to shape pitches, as well as understand how to make suggestions that can lead to better results. I think we’ve become more creative.

Cole Ragans came over. Texas did an unbelievable job with him, but there were a couple of additional changes we made with his slider that we thought were impactful. We acquired James McArthur from Philadelphia. Our staff was very instrumental in us acquiring him, because they felt like they could do some things to make him better. He was very good for us in September. Even Aroldis Chapman. There were some things we were able to add to his repertoire that helped him out. A lot of it centered around usage. He had a nice first couple of months for us. They did a nice job.”

Laurila: You’ve been with the Royals for a number of years. Would it be fair to say that the organization waited too long in making meaningful changes to its pitching program?

Picollo: “No. I don’t think what we were doing was wrong. It was very much centered around commanding the strike zone and implementing the high fastball. I don’t think that was wrong. That said, we maybe could have been a little bit quicker. But you learn, and you also want to be patient. We’ve had young guys in the rotation that we knew weren’t going to be able to make wholesale changes right away. There are points in their careers, though. Coming into this past year they were ready to make changes. They wanted to make changes. The timing was right for us to make changes.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

6 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
sadtrombonemember
3 months ago

They need to park a Julio Rodriguez-type of deal in front of Bobby Witt. It’s going to take until 2028 to stockpile enough talent to actually make some noise because the farm system is terrible, and he will be a free agent sometime near 2028. Witt is the only major, impact talent on this roster except maybe Ragans and he’s a pitcher who has been hurt a lot. And maybe, maybe Pasquantino but he’s coming off an injury, not sure what he will be like.

The only other thing they should be doing is signing free agent pitching that they can make them less terrible for the first half of the year and then flip for prospects at the deadline. Lugo and Stratton are signed to reasonable enough deals that if they have a big first half they could be that. Manaea, Ryu, Clevinger, and Lorenzen come to mind, but even Rich Hill or Alex Wood are worth a shot. Maybe they could pursue a reunion with Junis or Chapman.

sadtrombonemember
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

And Michael Wacha, apparently!