The Kansas City Royals shook up the top of their baseball operations department on Tuesday, promoting longtime assistant general manager JJ Picollo into the GM role, while Dayton Moore was named President of Baseball Operations.
For the Royals, it ends a run of more than 15 years with Moore in the GM chair, which started when he was hired on June 8, 2006—two days after the Royals passed on players such as Evan Longoria, Tim Lincecum, Andrew Miller, and future Hall of Famers Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer in order to draft Luke Hochevar number one overall.
Moore had been the second-longest tenured GM in Major League Baseball, behind only Brian Cashman of the New York Yankees, who has been in his post since 1998.
Picollo is in his sixth season as Moore’s right-hand man (full title: Vice President/Assistant General Manager-Player Personnel). He previously headed Scouting and Player Development from 2008-14 and was Director of Player Development in 2006-07.
Like Moore, Picollo has been in the Royals organization for more than 15 years. After seven seasons in the Atlanta Braves organization, Picollo followed Moore to Kansas City less than three months after Moore took the helm.
What Has Picollo Accomplished?
Unlike Moore, whose primary experience is in Major League personnel, Picollo has spent the bulk of his career in player development, a vital department for a team with a limited budget like Kansas City.
Before following Moore to the Royals, Picollo had served in multiple player development roles in the Braves organization, culminating in spending roughly a season and a half as the Braves Director of Minor League Operations.
In Atlanta, he helped oversee the development of players such as Brian McCann, Jeff Francouer, as well the successful development of very low draft picks Marcus Giles (53rd round) and Adam LaRoche (29th round) into reliable big league regulars.
With the Royals, he oversaw player development in an era where the Royals farm system was the top-ranked system in 2011 and produced multiple cogs in the 2014-15 teams, including Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, and former 50th round draft pick Jarrod Dyson.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2015 World Series title, the farm system was depleted, thanks in part to dealing top prospects in deals to acquire Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto and losing top draft picks. However, the 2016 draft has already produced Nicky Lopez and promising left-hander Richard Lovelady, while the 2018 draft has already seen all four first-round selections reach the majors.
Additionally, top-100 prospects Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez, the top two Royals selections in 2017, are both on the cusp of the majors, and of course, number-two overall pick (and baseball’s number three overall prospect) Bobby Witt Jr. is continuing his reign of terror on minor league pitching. None of that even includes the impressive rise of unheralded Carlos Hernandez, who has pitched like an ace since the All-Star break.
In 2019, the Royals had four minor league affiliates win league titles, with a fifth losing in the championship. In 2021, High-A Quad Cities has been far and away the top team in their league, Triple-A Omaha is in the hunt for a division title, and Double-A Northwest Arkansas is in the hunt for a playoff spot as well. A culture of winning is being developed at the minor league level, something that the Royals organization champions as players move up in the ranks.
Now, it is rightful to debate how much of an impact Picollo has had in minor league success, as well as any future MLB success that the current prospect group has. That said, owner John Sherman has credited Picollo with helping bring the Royals’ baseball operations staff up to par with other MLB teams.
Also, being in charge of player development, he oversees minor league coaches and instructors who directly impact the day-to-day development of minor league players. Any way you spin it, his department has had a very good 2019 and 2021 and the dividends from those minor league seasons are already starting to be seen at the major league level.
How Has Dayton Moore Operated?
It’s no surprise that the Royals love their home-grown talent, as most teams do. This relies heavily on strong drafting and player development. While the early years of Moore’s tenure produced plenty of talent through the draft, his regime also whiffed on five consecutive first-round picks: Aaron Crow, Christian Colon, Bubba Starling, Kyle Zimmer, and Hunter Dozier.
The Royals squandered two more first-rounders in 2014 and did little in the 2015-16 drafts, but beginning with the selection of Pratto in 2017, the draft results are much more promising, though it will take a few more years to properly evaluate him and other subsequent draftees.
Not surprisingly, the Royals have largely eschewed the big splash in free agency, especially after the underwhelming performance of Ian Kennedy throughout a five-year, $70-million deal and the disappointing performance of franchise icon Alex Gordon throughout his four-year, $72-million pact.
Instead, the Royals usually prefer to dip their toes into the bargain bin, which has worked out well for some (Melky Cabrera, Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, multiple bullpen reclamation projects) and not so well for others (Brandon Moss, Lucas Duda, Billy Hamilton). It’s a low-risk proposition, but often a low-reward one that is better suited for stop-gap solutions in rebuilding years, not finding missing pieces for a playoff push.
On the trading front, Moore pulled off two exceptional blockbuster trades that kick-started the 2014-15 renaissance. First, in the winter of 2010-11, he flipped 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke for Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, and Jake Odorizzi—a staggering four future All-Stars. Odorizzi would be flipped himself two years later along with Mike Montgomery and Wil Myers in the deal that netted Wade Davis and James Shields.
Not only that, but he expertly acquired two missing pieces in Zobrist and Cueto at the 2015 trade deadline and pulled off smaller deals for Jason Frasor and Nori Aoki, who both were useful to the 2014 squad. Additionally, while he’s had some duds on the trading front, unlike his predecessor Allard Baird, Moore has avoided the truly rotten, catastrophic deals that can set a franchise back years (ask a diehard fan over 30 about Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, and Carlos Beltran, then duck).
What is the Impact of This Move?
The main question that comes from the announcement is exactly this: what will the overall impact be on the Royals’ baseball operations staff? In a president’s role, Moore will still play a major role in all personnel matters in the organization and Picollo will still technically be working under him.
Now, the question is whether Picollo at the GM or Moore as the president will have the final say in decisions. Throughout the past decade-plus, more and more teams are following the same route: promote a GM to President of Baseball Operations and promote another staffer to the GM role. According to Baseball America, roughly half of MLB teams had a structure similar to this in 2019.
As Sports Business Journal outlined in 2015, oftentimes an executive in a presidential role will handle less of the day-to-day operations and more of the big picture and major decisions, while possibly crossing over some into the business side of the franchise’s operations.
Under this format, it seems likely that Moore will still be the one driving the Cadillac and Picollo will still be riding shotgun, supervising the kids in the back and providing input on navigation and where to stop and eat. In this case, the promotions help to keep Picollo in the organization with a more prestigious title and a few more responsibilities.
In this case, Picollo will probably be allowed to drive the car every now and then. As far as personnel further down in the ranks and on-field staff, it seems unlikely that those will change—at least in the short term. Given that the hire is internal, it’s probably unlikely that Mike Matheny or his staff will be cleaned out in the near future, regardless of who calls the shots.
In terms of personnel moves, the Royals have shown a willingness to trust their homegrown players, almost to a fault in some cases. That perhaps is best illustrated by their willingness to extend those players (such as Duffy, Whit Merrifield, Dozier, and Salvador Perez) even if there wasn’t an obvious urgency to do so.
As mentioned above, the Royals have managed to make positively impactful trades while avoiding the truly rotten ones. The question is, will Picollo will be able to keep up that track record? Will he even be allowed to make those calls? For large market teams, a bad trade can be covered up with a free agent signing. For a team like the Royals who are generally unable to shell out for large contracts, a bad trade can very well be more catastrophic, which could lead Moore to continue to take the reigns when it comes to those difficult decisions.
In a sense, Moore and Picollo have operated as sort of a yin-and-yang, where Moore’s background is geared more towards managing major league talent, while Picollo’s is primarily player development and minor league talent. While we don’t know for sure, it’s likely that Moore and Picollo already collaborate heavily on any potential deals, especially with prospects involved.
Considering many deals involve trading big league talent for minor league prospects, that’s not the worst way to operate. Because of that and the structure that these arrangements usually have, it seems likely that all trades will likely feature significant input from Picollo, but Moore will ultimately be the one pulling the trigger.
Lastly, the timing of this move is interesting for a few reasons: one, Moore was able to have full control over the Royals activity (or lack thereof) at the trade deadline. However, the transition is effective immediately, meaning that Picollo will be in the GM chair ahead of what’s shaping up to be a crucial offseason.
There is less uncertainty this offseason than last concerning COVID-19 (knock on wood), and a future window of contention is rapidly approaching. There will be decisions on several veterans looming and the Royals need to decide where they want their cache of young talent playing, when they want them to come up, and who they should utilize to fill in the gaps around them.
Another tricky factor in building a roster going forward: the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between MLB and the Player’s Association. Under commissioner Rob Manfred, relations with the MLBPA have deteriorated substantially, culminating in an extremely acrimonious negotiation process that threatened to cancel the 2020 MLB season entirely.
Under those dark skies, a work stoppage definitely could be on the table for 2022. No one truly knows if that will happen or not, but some insiders are not optimistic. If there is a substantial work stoppage, fallout from that could greatly impact the Royals budget going forward, placing even more emphasis on maintaining a strong pipeline of cheap minor league talent to the majors: again, Picollo’s area of expertise.
Whether JJ Picollo will truly have any real power will wait to be seen, but as for now, he’s the new GM in Kansas City and right or wrong, the praise or the jeers that come depending on the fate of the Royals’ young talent will not only be directed at Moore but at Picollo, too.
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