Jeff Dahn is a staff writer for Perfect Game and can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com
The Kansas City Royals must sometimes feel like guppies swimming amongst whales in the vast ocean that is Major League Baseball.
The Royals last winning season came in 2003 when they finished 83-79, and that has been their only winning campaign since the 1993 team finished 84-78. The Royals last trip to the playoffs was in 1985 when they beat the cross-state St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, four games to three.
The Royals entered the 2011 season with a $36.1 million opening day payroll, or just $4.1 million more than what the New York Yankees are paying Alex Rodriguez for the season. The Yankees opening day payroll was $201.7 million, almost six times as large as the Royals.
It is against that backdrop that Royals Assistant General Manager-Scouting and Player Development J.J. Picollo and other Royals personnel work, trying to construct a Major League club by first building then living off of a strong farm system.
With such limited resources, the discovery and development of young talent is the organization’s only course of action.
“It’s really the only way we can do it,” Picollo said in a recent telephone conversation with Perfect Game. “I don’t want to say we’ll never be super competitive on the Major League free agent market, but the likelihood of us being that active is not great.”
That leaves it up to Picollo, Assistant General Manager-Scouting Lonnie Goldberg and the rest of the Royals’ scouting staff to find, draft and sign the best amateur talent out there.
“We’ve got to do it ourselves. We’ve got to do it through the Draft and through development, and if we do a good job of that I think we’ll be competitive and our payroll will be manageable,” Picollo said. “The toughest decisions we’ll have to make is when those guys become free agents, how do we retain them.”
Picollo was named the Royals’ Assistant GM-Scouting & Player Development on July 3, 2008, after joining the club as the Director of Player Development in August, 2006.
He had previously served as the Atlanta Braves’ Director of Minor League Operations and Assistant Director of Player Development, beginning in 1999.
Because the Royals rely almost exclusively on home-grown talent that comes up through their minor league system, performing well in the MLB June Amateur Draft is a must. Picollo and his staff have obviously been doing their jobs. The Royals farm system is widely recognized as the best in baseball.
The Royals signed their top 12 selections from the 2010 Draft, including shortstop Christian Colon, the No. 4 overall pick out Cal-State Fullerton. Outfielder Brett Eibner (Arkansas), shortstop Michael Antonio (George Washington HS, New York) and left-hander Kevin Chapman (Florida) were the Royals next three selections, and all are in the farm system.
Picollo and his Royals scouting staff have naturally formed a mutually beneficial relationship with Perfect Game USA, and make sure they are present at as many PG events as possible. Picollo’s favorite is the PG WWBA World Championship, held every October in Jupiter, Fla.
“It’s a great venue for us to see guys at a high level of competition and also to see them in competition,” Picollo said. “Getting a chance to see (a pitcher) get stretched out and pitch five innings, that’s a benefit – in particular at the Jupiter tournament.
“That’s kind of a great way to end the fall because you’ve seen a lot of guys in (showcase) settings and now you get to see them compete, most of the time with the team they’ve been playing with (all summer),” he said. “You get a better feel for their makeup, and are they able to sustain things.
“The pitching in particular down in Jupiter is an important aspect for us. We gauge a lot off of that last tournament.”
While it might seem to the uninformed that the end-of-the-year WWBA World Championship would put a wrap on the scouting year, in reality it is sandwiched in the middle of three distinct scouting seasons – summer, fall and spring.
The Royals’ amateur scouting staff the summer and fall at Perfect Game showcases and tournaments and other events, and spends the springtime at hundreds of college and high school games leading up to the MLB June Amateur Draft.
“The spring is really kind of a culmination of the work you’ve done the previous fall and summer, and even the summer and fall before that,” Picollo said. “You’re tracking kids from the time that they’re sophomores (in high school) when they first show up on the showcase circuit. So now you’re kind of dotting the ‘I’s’ and crossing the ‘T’s’ about what you think the guy may be or may not be.”
Picollo called the pace of the spring scouting season “much different” from the summer and fall, when the scouts are able to get out to showcases and tournaments with hundreds of players and teams.
“You sit at one of these (Perfect Game) events and it’s power scouting,” he said. “You know you’re going to see (a large number of) legitimate prospects a day. In the spring, you’re going guy-by-guy, pretty much, and you’ve got an hour between their at-bats. You end up standing around a lot more and you get bored a lot more.”
Picollo and his staff identify 20 to 25 “primary events” each year and assign a certain number of scouts to each of those events. There are also secondary “area” events and pro assignments to keep the scouts busy.
“We try to assign as many as we can,” Picollo said. “The primary events are basically the ‘high volume of prospects’ events. You know the prospects are going to be there for sure. I know we have between 15 and 20 scouts down there in Jupiter.
“You know you can get to an event and see a large number of good players. Economically it’s good, it’s efficient for us, and (Perfect Game does) a good job of laying out the format of the tournament – you know where to go and how to get to the players you need to see.”
The Royals broke spring camp with an active 25-man roster that included 14 players who were 27-years-old or younger. That’s a lot of youth to put up against the AL Central favorites and more veteran Twins, White Sox and Tigers, but Picollo left spring training with a little bounce in his step.
“Our starting pitching is a question mark but our bullpen is pretty good and a lot of the young guys came to camp and did extremely well,” he said. “It was the most enjoyable spring training we’ve had in the five we’ve been with Kansas City, and hopefully they just keep getting better.
“It was a good spring.”
The Royals won six of their first nine games to start the season.