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In my four days in Arizona, I could not have been more impressed with the Royals organization. Previously, all my observations were as a fan, and this was my first real opportunity to have access to anyone in a professional capacity.
Before I even arrived in Arizona, I started communicating with the Royals Director of Media Relations, David Holtzman. He was always very courteous and professional via email, and upon my arrival he introduced me to several people and set up several player interviews for me. That first point-of-contact with the Royals organization was just the beginning of a trend. In my observances and in my conversations with minor-league players, major-league players, Scott Sharp, J.J. Picollo, Dayton Moore, the word that stuck with me the most was "family". These people all like and care for each other, and it's obvious. To me, that's the mark of any great organization - whether it be in baseball, or anywhere.
J.J. Picollo went out of his way to have a good conversation with me about the Royals drafting strategies, expectations of some players within the organization, and what we should look forward to this year and in the future. My comments/opinions/feelings will be in italics.
Many "experts" aren't thrilled with quality in the 2013 draft class. What are your thoughts?
"It is still really early, but there is a lot of good depth." He agrees that at this point there isn't the obvious elite talent that there had been in previous drafts, but "it'll work itself out".
This is a good year for the Royals to end their streak of picking in the top 5 of every draft. Picollo seemed very confident with the Royals draft this year.
What is your draft strategy concerning pitchers vs. position players? College vs. High School? Position of need vs. best player available?
"We always put value on pitching." After pitching, the Royals put added value on the middle of the field, specifically C, SS, and CF. In the past, the Royals felt that, at times, they did have to draft based on need. J.J. mentioned that at one point the Royals felt that they had to target the shortstop position because they were weak in that area throughout the organization. Now, the Royals feel that it is a position of strength.
Because of the overall strength through the organization, Picollo feels that they are in a better position to go after riskier (generally high school) players than safer picks with ceilings that aren't quite as high.
I think this is a testament to what the current regime had to deal with when they arrived. Both the major-league team and the entire organization was in disarray and there was an overall lack of talent that the Royals had to try to overcome. Some might wonder why it's taken this long to get to the point where they are comfortable with the current state of their system. I think that's a fair question, but I would also have to point out that the new regime had to gut the entire organization of players and personnel that weren't going to be effective, but at the same time, they had to do that and still not lose 120 games. Did they lose a lot? Absolutely. Could they have been more effective at the major-league level and still build up the minor leagues? Absolutely. But this "process" has brought us to the point NOW where the Royals feel they will compete for the post-season, and they still have a top-notch minor-league system.
What are your expectations for Bubba Starling? What does he need to do to reach his potential?
"When he realizes he can trust his skills, he'll take off." What stood out for the Royals organization with Bubba Starling were not only his athletic ability, but his leadership. According to J.J., Starling is someone that "puts the team ahead of his own successes." Several times, J.J. compared Starling's makeup to Alex Gordon - a quiet leader that leads by example. Last year, as the year progressed, Starling developed a different approach to his at-bats. Because he was an elite, three-sport athlete, he is learning more about the "baseball" side of baseball - the side that isn't just skills and athletic ability. That all being said, because he hasn't played as much baseball in his life as many of the other players, the Royals want Starling to have "sustained success" before being promoted.
Don't look for Bubba Starling to rocket through the system unless he truly forces their hand. The Royals expected when they drafted him that it would take him awhile to reach his peak level, but they still feel his peak is as high as any of their players. Many of the players his age have been focused on baseball for 5-15 years. He's been focused on baseball for a year and a half now. That's a big difference, but I would expect someone with Starling current baseball skills and overall athletic ability to make up that difference within the next couple years.
What different styles do Jack Maloof and Andre David have? Why have two hitting coaches?
Maloof and David have the teach the same foundations and fundamentals. They work well together. One advantage to having both of them is that Andre David has a more fatherly approach and cares about the psyche of the batter; whereas, Jack Maloof is more willing to challenge a player. In essence, they have a good cop/bad cop approach when they are able to work together. They also work well with Terry Bradshaw and Jose Castro. They all preach the same program, and they all speak the same language.
Picollo seemed particularly pleased with the hitting program through the organization. It seemed to me that this was something that they've been working toward. He said this allows a consistency throughout the system, and that they all use the same terminology. This is important so that the players don't get confused and they receive the same message throughout their Royals career.
Which minor-league team will have the best record? What should we be looking for in the minor leagues this year?
The Lexington Legends will have "the best blend of consistent hitters and pitchers." Overall, Picollo is particularly impressed with the pitching staffs from A to AAA. He feels very good with the quality of the starting pitching to the point where it might actually create a problem. One of the concerns discussed in the organizational meetings is that a pitcher might be prepared to move up a level, but there might not be a place in the rotation at the next level.
Because of the overall depth in the organization, look for most of the 2012 high school draftees to stay at extended spring training. Around June 1st is when we should expect to see some movement among the minor league players.
As it looks to me, the Royals might not have elite talent at the AAA level at the beginning of the year, but they have several players in the lower minors that could be top-100 prospects next year. Expect the Royals to be prepared to not only promote deserving players, but also demote deserving players.
Want more information from J.J. Picollo? Look for part two of this interview soon!