Assessing 2023 MLB front offices: J.J. Picollo and the Kansas City Royals

In his second season as the GM for the Kansas City Royals, J.J. Picollo again leaned heavily on his farm system. That brought mixed results.

J.J. Picollo of the Kansas City Royals answers questions from the media
J.J. Picollo of the Kansas City Royals answers questions from the media / Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

J.J. Picollo front office WAA impact on the Kansas City Royals: -1.9 games. Rank in MLB: T-17. Rank in division: 2.

J.J. Picollo has just completed his second season as Royals general manager, having been hired by John Sherman, leader of a group that purchased the team from the David Glass family in 2020. He replaced long-time GM Dayton Moore, the guy who took the small-market Royals to the 2015 World Series title.

So, hey, no pressure, J.J.

In the first two seasons of his tenure, Picollo has committed full-bore to one of the most aggressive restructurings from within that you are ever likely to see. Of 59 players who saw on-field action for the Royals in 2023, 27 have been promoted from Omaha or some other outpost of the Royals system just since Picollo’s arrival.

Ironically, then, his most significant action of 2023 did not involve any of those 27 system products. Rather, it was a trade and a subtle one at that. The deal, which unfolded in two phases, started over the winter when Picollo picked up veteran free agent closer Aroldis Chapman at the bargain rate of $3.75 million.

If you’re wondering why a team as likely to be horrid as the Royals would be interested in a closer, they weren’t. But they were interested in a trade chip, which is what Chapman became when the contending Texas Rangers went trade deadline shopping for an arm to shore up their biggest weakness — the bullpen.

Picollo's price was Cole Ragans, a back-bench reliever he intended to convert into a starter. With Kansas City, Ragans made a dozen August and September starts, went 5-2 with a 2.64 ERA good for a +2.0 Wins Above Average (WAA), and looked every bit like a front-line starter for years to come.

The Ragans deal was one of 46 moves involving major league personnel made by Picollo since the end of the 2022 postseason. Of those moves, 14 worked out in favor of Kansas City, 27 were negative and five neutral.

The net impact of those moves amounts to the -1.9 WAA rating.

WAA is used in this series of front office evaluations because it is a zero-based version of WAR, therefore enabling valid approximations of impact against wins and losses.

Here’s the short-term and long-term statistical profile on the 2023 performance of Kansas City’s leadership team. All figures reflect Wins Above Average

Acquired by trade, waiver claim or purchase

  • Since October 2022: 7 players, +0.9 net impact
  • Prior to October 2023:  3 players, -0.2 net impact

Signed as a free agent or extended for multiple seasons

  • Since October 2022: 11 players, -4.2 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022: 1 player, -1.2 net impact

System products

  • Since October 2022: 15 players, -0.5 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022: 10 players, -6.1 net impact

Traded away, waived, sold, released or lost to free agency

  • Since October 2022: 13 players, +1.9 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022: 9 players, +2.7 net impact.

More than any other front office exec working today, Picollo has hitched his wagon to the products of his own farm system, and it is on their merits that his rating will rise or fall.

To this moment, that direction (whether rising or falling) is unclear. Among the 25 system products active in Kansas City during 2023, the results were decidedly mixed.

Start at the top with former No. 1 pick and 2022 callup Bobby Witt Jr. An All-Star this summer, he rated +2.2.

Kyle Isbel, another 2022 product, added +1.1 as a center fielder. Outfielder Dairon Blanco (+1.2) and backup catcher Felix Fermin (+0.9) both did well when given a chance.

All did not, however, go according to the developmental blueprint. Second-year outfielder M.J. Melendez (-2-3) backslid, as did first baseman Nick Pratto (-2.4) and outfielder Michael Massey (-1.5).

The -6.1 long-term rating for 2022 system callups (who presumably should have gotten better with a year experience) has to be of concern, especially given that Witt and Isbell prop up a number that otherwise would be desperately low.

It all means that 2024 has to be a season when the heavy bet Picollo has placed on his system products pays off. That means Witt, obviously, but it more importantly means guys such as Massey, Pratto and Melendez deliver. They are the key to improvement in Kansas City, if it is to come under Picollo.