KANSAS CITY -- At the start of an offseason that will be full of changes for the Royals, the organization quickly made a significant one on Wednesday night following their season finale against the Guardians at Progressive Field.
In his first significant move as the head of baseball operations, executive vice president and general manager J.J. Picollo fired Mike Matheny after his third season as Royals manager, hours after Kansas City finished its 65-97 season. Pitching coach Cal Eldred was also let go after his fifth season in that role.
The Royals had been headed in this direction for the past two weeks after owner John Sherman fired president of baseball operations Dayton Moore. Sherman put the future of the club in Picollo’s hands, and the most important coaching positions will now be Picollo’s own hires.
“I think it’s more on the evaluation and reflection of the last three years, combined with what we want to do moving forward,” Picollo said Thursday from Kauffman Stadium. “That’s why it’s hard. There are a lot of really good things that Mike does. I had a lot of players tell me how much they liked playing for him. That’s an important thing. But I think when we reflect on the last three years, the morale right now was low coming off a 97-loss season.
“That’s why, when you piece it all together, you’ve got to make a decision one way or the other. Obviously, we chose to go on a new venture.”
Matheny was hired after Ned Yost’s retirement in 2019 after spending a year as a special advisor. It was Matheny’s second stint as a manager, following his 6 1/2 seasons in St. Louis from '12-18. He came to Kansas City determined to handle things differently with the media and analytics.
Matheny inherited a 103-loss team in 2019. In his first season, the Royals went 26-34 playing a pandemic-shortened 2020 schedule. He managed through a logistically challenging ’21 season and a delayed Spring Training and season this year due to the lockout.
“When you add all that up, in addition to 29 players who transitioned from the Minor Leagues to the Major Leagues, that’s a big job,” Picollo said. “That’s a tough job. And I want to acknowledge the appreciation we have for him and how he handled it all.”
Still, the Royals did not take steps forward in their rebuild under Matheny. They went 165-219 in the past three seasons. They expected to improve in ’22, but instead, they finished in last place in the American League Central. Kansas City went an MLB-worst 26-55 on the road this year.
While the Royals fielded a lineup full of rookies for most of the year -- which came with its own learning opportunities -- most of the club’s struggles stemmed from the pitching staff. Eldred took over as the Royals' pitching coach in 2017 after serving as an assistant to the general manager/player development the previous two seasons, and the club entrusted Eldred with a wave of young pitchers, including several from the 2018 MLB Draft, many of whom made their debuts over the last few years.
The Royals finished 2022 with a 4.70 ERA, fourth worst in the Majors. Their 9.5% walk rate was only better than the Reds’ 9.8% this season. Kansas City also finished last in the AL in strikeouts and allowed the most runs of any AL team.
Now, with Picollo in charge, the Royals are moving forward. Several players mentioned their excitement about how new voices could help them improve in 2023. The front office feels the same
“We’re looking forward to [finding] who we can put around our players to make our players better, to lead this organization in a way that’s innovative, that’s exciting, that meets the needs of players and our front office,” Picollo said.
Picollo’s top hiring priority will be the manager job, because the new skipper will have an influence on who the new pitching coach will be as well as the rest of the big league coaching staff.
Picollo confirmed Thursday that the Royals’ Major League hitting department will remain in place, led by hitting coordinator Alec Zumwalt, assistant hitting coach Keoni DeRenne and coach Mike Tosar.
Bench coach Pedro Grifol and third base coach Vance Wilson are internal candidates for the managerial opening. Decisions on bullpen coach Larry Carter and Major League coach John Mabry will be made “down the road,” Picollo said.
Senior pitching coordinator Paul Gibson, who oversees the Royals’ pitching development, will remain in his role and help with the pitching coach search. But the Royals are expected to make changes around Gibson with their pitching development team, including additions to the front office.
The list of managerial candidates, Picollo said, is “lengthy” right now. And the Royals are planning on taking their time, focusing on the coaching staff throughout the month of October.
“We’re considering everybody,” Picollo said regarding candidates who have former playing and managing experience, as well as those who don’t. “... This is going to be a good decision. And you don’t make good decisions by just jumping in. So we’re going to take our time, we’ll be efficient, but we’ll take our time to get the right person.”
The right person, Picollo stressed, was someone who can collaborate with different departments within the organization, from performance science to research development to behavioral science.
Above all, they need to be able to communicate with and earn the trust of players.
“It’s a huge decision. I don’t know if there’s a more important decision than hiring a manager,” Picollo said. “They control the temperature in the clubhouse. ... The guy that can control the clubhouse and keep the positivity going, keep the environment at its peak is a pretty important hire. More important than me, more important than anybody else we have, because he’s going to influence the 26 guys that we need to play at their best every night.”