What’s next for Royals after end of Dayton Moore era? Where Kansas City stands after firing lead executive

The Kansas City Royals fired president of baseball operations Dayton Moore on Wednesday, ending his 16-year tenure with the organization. The Royals peaked under Moore when they posted four consecutive .500 or better seasons from 2013-16, a stretch that saw them win consecutive American League pennants and the 2015 World Series. Moore had since proven unable to steer the Royals through another lengthy rebuild, and his departure coincides with the Royals (currently 60-89) threatening a 95-loss season.

“Dayton resurrected this franchise,” owner John Sherman said. “It was not in a good spot. He rebuilt the farm system, player development, international business. He rebuilt the team in a way that culminated in back-to-back American League pennants and a World Series championship in 2015.”

At least for the time being, Moore will be succeeded as the Royals top baseball operations executive by another Kansas City mainstay, in J.J. Picollo. Rival front offices have already speculated to CBS Sports that Sherman and the Royals could look to hire an executive from outside the organization in the coming months as a means of adding a fresh set of eyes to the operation. Should that conjecture become a reality, Sherman may look to poach someone from the Cleveland Guardians front office. (Sherman was a minority owner of the Guardians before purchasing the Royals.)

Whether the Royals end up relying on the wits and wisdom of Picollo or of someone else to guide them back into contention, it’s a pertinent time to check in on what exactly the organization has to offer. Below, CBS Sports has broken down Kansas City’s big-league roster, farm system, and budget, and has addressed three major questions about the job and the situation heading forward. 

Big-league outlook

Do you want the good news or the bad news first? 

The good news is that the Royals have promoted most of their top prospects to The Show this season, giving them a younger, fresher lineup. Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and catcher/outfielder MJ Melendez rank first and second on Kansas City’s roster in plate appearances, and the graybeard of the two (Melendez) will turn 24 years old in November. Four of the Royals’ top-10 plate appearance recipients are in their age-25 season or younger. That number improves to six if you stretch it to the top-15.

Those six youngsters have mostly held their own this year, too. Witt, Melendez, and infielder Michael Massey are each sporting an OPS+ just north of 100. First baseman/designated hitter Vinnie Pasquantino, meanwhile, has mashed his way to a 123 OPS+ while showcasing both power and contact chops. Outfielder Kyle Isbel and first baseman Nick Pratto are the only two of the bunch who have outright struggled.

The bad news is that this lineup has been unable to overcome a horrendous rotation. Bless Brady Singer for reinventing himself after an early season demotion, because he’s been the one bright side to this bunch outside of Zack Greinke’s reunion tour. Indeed, the Royals have given seven pitchers at least five starts this season, and Singer and Greinke are the only two pitchers with an ERA+ over 95 … or 90 … or 87 … or 85 … or any number all the way down to 81. (Jonathan Heasley entered Wednesday with an 80 ERA+.)

Here’s a not-so-fun fact that helps explain why the Royals are where they are in this respect: they’ve drafted 10 pitchers in the first round since 2014; just one of those 10, Singer, is both still with the organization and is on a positive trajectory. Sussing out if it’s the scouting department or the development staff that is to blame is someone else’s problem; all we can say is that that’s a lot of wasted time and draft capital. 

If you’re Picollo (or Mystery Executive X), you probably want to focus on the positives. That means highlighting how Witt, Melendez, and Pasquantino feel like potential cornerstones; how Salvador Perez has overcome a rough May; and how Singer has demonstrated that the Royals are not, in fact, incapable of developing an arm. Now, if they could just repeat that process four more times, they might have something here. 

Farm system outlook

As mentioned above, the Royals have graduated most of their top youngsters to the majors throughout this season. All of that upstream movement has left the Royals with an understandably thinned-out farm system. 

Outfielder Gavin Cross, the ninth pick in July’s draft, is the top name worth knowing here. He projects to become an above-average hitter after improving upon his strikeout, walk, and power numbers last spring at Virginia Tech. He fared better in center field for the Hokies than most scouts expected, and the Royals have so far continued to play him there. Cross doesn’t have a lot of flash to his game, yet he was a defensible top-10 selection and he should mature into a starting-caliber outfielder.

The Royals have faltered with other recent top picks. Lefty pitchers Asa Lacy (No. 4 in 2020) and Frank Mozzicato (No. 7 in 2021) have not progressed as desired. Lacy dealt with back woes that limited him to 28 innings this season. He walked more batters than he struck out (42 versus 35) when he was on the mound, suggesting that he’s a long way off from harnessing his arsenal. Mozzicato, who enjoyed as much helium as anyone in 2021 as a projectable young southpaw, also struggled with his command in 19 starts. He averaged nearly seven walks per nine innings. 

Elsewhere, the Royals saw righty Alec Marsh (a compensatory pick in 2019) post a 7.32 ERA in more than 110 Double-A innings, and utility player Nick Loftin (a compensatory pick in 2020) saw his strikeout rate nearly double after he was promoted to Triple-A. That is not, as the kids say, what you want.

The Royals did add several prospects in midseason trades, including outfielder Drew Waters and pitchers Andrew Hoffman, T.J. Sikkema, and Beck Way. Waters used to be a well-regarded prospect, but he’s lost shine in recent years because of strikeout issues. We could keep going, but you likely get the point by now.

Budget outlook

This should not come as a surprise given their reputation as a small-market franchise, but the Royals have one of the lowest payrolls in the majors. They rank 23rd in spending, according to Spotrac, putting them just ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Marlins, and Guardians, among other hyper budget-conscious clubs.

Predictably, the Royals don’t have many long-term financial commitments. The biggest of the bunch belongs to Salvador Perez, who is owed more than $20 million annually through the 2025 campaign. Hunter Dozier and Michael A. Taylor are the only other Royals with guaranteed contracts, and they’ll net about $12 million combined in 2023.

The Royals do have a heaping of arbitration-eligible players whose prizes will dictate the shape of their final payroll. At the same time, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Picollo (or the new top executive) frees up additional funds by severing ties to the likes of Adalberto Mondesi, Luke Weaver, Amir Garrett, and perhaps even Brad Keller.

Even if the Royals just match this year’s Opening Day payroll figure ($94 million), they should have ample room to make moderate additions, should they so desire. 

Three big questions

1. Is a bigger overhaul coming?
It’s reasonable to wonder if further changes are in store whenever a franchise fires someone of Moore’s stature and service time. Even if Sherman sticks by Picollo as his top baseball executive, that doesn’t mean he’ll agree to keep the entire front office or coaching staff in place. This would seem like an obvious getting-off point for manager Mike Matheny. The Royals exercised his club option for next season back in March, but there’s no sense bringing him back to serve in a lame-duck capacity. 

2. Can the pitching development be salvaged?
The answer to this question is unknowable from the outside. The Royals’ inability to convert those high-round pitchers into meaningful big-league contributors is concerning, however, and needs to be addressed. On a related note….

3. How much will Sherman spend?
Generally, this question gets asked in relation to the big-league payroll. That’s part of it, no doubt, but there are other aspects within an organization worth spending on. Take the Royals’ player development woes. If those stem from Kansas City falling behind with respect to technology and analytical prowess, then it would behoove Sherman to bankroll whatever it costs to help them get closer to the bleeding edge. He should know from his time around the Guardians that this stuff often pays for itself.

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