SAN DIEGO -- The Royals are trying to get better on the pitching front. And they’re doing that in multiple ways.
The most obvious, of course, is to add to the pitching staff externally. As the Winter Meetings began at the Manchester Grand Hyatt this week, the Royals remained hopeful of an eventual reunion with Zack Greinke and they would also like to add a swingman-type who could serve as both a rotation and bullpen option.
“You know the dollars are going to be challenging,” executive vice president and general manager J.J. Picollo said on Monday. “We tend to be more of a later-market team. So, I think that's going to be more of how this pans out.
“But we are engaged with a couple of guys right now that we think are just good fits for the team. And if that doesn't work out, then definitely we will be more in the later market.”
While waiting to see how that market develops, the Royals have been busy rearranging -- and, they hope, improving -- their pitching preparation.
The most notable move, of course, was to hire Brian Sweeney away from the American League Central-rival Guardians to be first-year manager Matt Quatraro’s pitching coach. The Royals have not yet confirmed the hiring of Zach Bove from the Twins as Sweeney’s assistant, but MLB.com reported the move in recent days.
Kansas City is also getting close to filling its bullpen coach position.
In terms of pure numbers, Quatraro’s staff will be slightly more pitching-oriented than former manager Mike Matheny’s staff was. Picollo confirmed John Mabry is no longer a member of the organization. Former bullpen coach Larry Carter will work elsewhere in the organization, and former special assignment hitting coach Mike Tosar left to join Pedro Grifol’s staff with the White Sox.
The end result, with Bove’s arrival, will be a Major League staff that has one more pitching-oriented position and one less hitting-oriented position.
There are also changes within the front office structure on the pitching front.
Paul Gibson will be the senior director of pitching performance, spending more time with the big league club than he did in the past. Mitch Stetter will be the director of pitching performance, covering day-to-day coordinator duties monitoring Minor League rotations and pitch counts while also staying involved in strategic elements.
Nate Adcock, who scouted for the Royals last year, will be the assistant director of pitching performance, focused on the Spring Training planning, then the Draft and player development. And Justin Friedman will be the assistant manager of pitching performance, focused on pitch design.
“We’re trying to simplify things a little bit,” Picollo said. “We're getting larger in our staff, but we're trying to simplify things and give coaches specific duties instead of being a generalist. Being able to be a little more specific with what the job entails and then having that group work together and collaborate.”
The Royals’ pitching development and Major League pitching performance came under particular scrutiny in 2022, with Major League pitching coach Cal Eldred dismissed along with Matheny at season’s end. Kansas City’s 4.79 staff ERA over the last four seasons ranks 27th of the 30 teams in MLB.
“You know about what’s been said about our pitching,” Picollo said. “We don’t feel like our guys have had a hard time getting through the Minor Leagues. … It’s really the big leagues that’s been the hurdle so far. So, simplifying things in the Major Leagues is the focus. It sounds so simple, but it’s really throwing strike one.”
The Royals’ goal is not to overload their pitchers with information, but to find the best ways to deliver the best information that can help them improve and prepare.
“We had this huge emphasis on game-planning that started after the ‘18 season,” Picollo said. “I think guys got away from what they do naturally in trying to pitch to a plan. … If you don’t get ahead in the count enough, the plan goes out the window anyway.
“You’re fighting to get back in the count and throwing pitches you don’t necessarily want to throw. … It all starts with strike one. … That’s been a consistent message in all these interviews. You ask a guy their pitching philosophy, and somewhere in there is, ‘Get ahead in the count.’”
The coaching staff is coming together. Next will be the pitching staff itself.