Change in the air at Royals Rally

February 5th, 2023

KANSAS CITY -- Excitement surrounded Kauffman Stadium on Saturday as fans pulled into the parking lot and lined up at the gates.

Change was in the air, and it wasn’t just the warm weather giving the Midwest a break from the cold winter.

After canceling Royals FanFest at the convention center the last two years because of COVID-19 and the MLB lockout, the Royals brought the event back -- in a different way. They held Royals Rally at The K on Saturday, giving fans access to the clubhouses, the Diamond Club and the suites level to meet and hear from players, coaches and front-office staff.

The event was a way for the Royals to usher in Spring Training and the 2023 season before heading to Surprise, Ariz., in the next couple of days. Things will be new there, too.

The Royals have almost an entirely new coaching staff, starting with manager Matt Quatraro. Bench coach Paul Hoover, pitching coach Brian Sweeney, assistant pitching coach Zach Bove and infield coach José Alguacil are all new to the organization. Bullpen coach Mitch Stetter is in his first season as a big league coach.

“It’s going to be different,” first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino said. “That’s all I can really touch on now. It’s going to be different. I’m not exactly sure how yet, because we haven’t been in the clubhouse yet, but it’s going to be a different way of how things are done. I’m excited to see what it is.”

Saturday was the first time Quatraro saw several of his players in person, although he’s called all of them at least once throughout this offseason.

“I’m just hoping everybody kind of gets comfortable with each other,” Quatraro said. “I didn’t even really come into this with a goal of, like, ‘I need to talk to him this weekend or have this conversation.’ Just kind of be around each other.”

In his first year as a manager, Quatraro is tasked with helping this young club progress its talents, from seeing the young hitters take strides in their second year in the big leagues to helping the pitching staff get on track after a disappointing 2022 season.

From the buzz heard around Royals Rally on Saturday, it seems like he’s the man for the job.

“I’ve heard but nothing but good things about Q and the staff,” infielder Nicky Lopez said. “I’m very excited about that. We have a bunch of guys in that clubhouse who are very free-spirited. Very vocal. We like to be ourselves. We can start doing that again hopefully this year. Last year was kind of tough to be ourselves. It was a grind of a season, both mentally and physically.”

The Royals lost 97 games in 2022, leading to the firing of president of baseball operations Dayton Moore, manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred. General manager J.J. Picollo hired Quatraro, who was the Rays' bench coach, not only for his coaching background and experience with Tampa Bay, but also for his relaxed presence and communication skills.

The last thing the Royals want is a tense clubhouse, and several players felt that tension last year as they barreled toward nearly 100 losses.

“It was tense, whether it was us being tense on ourselves, putting pressure on ourselves or whatever it was,” Lopez said. “It was a pretty tense environment. I’m speaking for myself, but I couldn’t really be myself. I’m happy to be trying to get back to that.

“If you’re tense in the clubhouse, you’re going to be tense on the field, and you definitely don’t want to be tense in front of fans. The looser you can be, you’re going to put the best product on the field.”

Quatraro has impressed his new team with the conversations he’s had and what he’s done to make players comfortable.

“He wants me to be the one talking,” shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. said. “He’s just asking questions. He’s the one saying, ‘It’s y’all’s team.’”

As Quatraro experiences all kinds of “firsts” this season -- first Royals Rally, first Spring Training, first big league game as a manager -- letting the players guide their team is a core value of his.

“It really does come back to -- it’s all about the players,” Quatraro said. “We got to put the players first in every decision we make. And they, in turn, perform at their best. … There’s a lot of randomness in baseball, so you put them in the best position to succeed and see what happens.”