By Dave Skretta
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Royals had qualified candidates to become their next manager already in the organization, including one hired by the Chicago White Sox just this week. Yet their six-person committee that waded through the options came to the conclusion that an outside voice was necessary.
It wound up belonging to Tampa Bay Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro.
The Royals formally introduced Quatraro as their new manager during a news conference Thursday at Kauffman Stadium. With his wife and two boys watching, Quatraro slipped a white No. 33 jersey over a neatly pressed shirt and gold tie, shook hands with general manager J.J. Picollo and proceeded to lay out a vision for turning around a club that won the World Series a mere seven years ago but quickly returned to irrelevance.
“I’ve been really fortunate to be around good coaches and people that mentored me,” said Quatraro, who also worked alongside Terry Francona in Cleveland. “As excited as I am to be named the manager, I’m even more excited to jump into the process. I’m extremely process-oriented, and the process we all envision here is building a championship environment that brings the Royals back to the top tier of baseball, and be that way year after year.”
There already are some building blocks in place.
Quatraro is in the process of calling current players, and the first two were longtime catcher Salvador Perez and up-and-coming star Bobby Witt Jr. Perez represents the past and present of the organization, one of the stars of that 2015 title team, while Witt represents the future as one of the best rookies in baseball this past season.
Quatraro will lean on those two, along with a bevy of young position players that made their big league debuts last season, to quickly improve on a 65-97 finish and once again help the Royals play meaningful baseball past June.
“There were some real similarities this year — certain points in the year — they were running out seven rookies in the lineup, and we had a similar stretch in Tampa this year,” Quatraro said. “That’s challenging to grow in that environment.”
Yet the Rays have done it year after year, first with Joe Maddon calling the shots and the past eight seasons with Kevin Cash in charge. Tampa Bay, a small-market franchise with limited resources — in other words, a club like the Royals — has managed to reach the playoffs each of the past four years with a trip to the World Series in 2020.
That track record is one of the reasons Picollo chose Quatraro over Royals bench coach Pedro Grifol, who was hired to manage the White Sox, and internal candidates Vance Wilson and Scott Thorman.
“It kind of pains me to say that because I’ve been very intentional in hiring people internally,” said Picollo, a longtime Royals front-office executive who was put in charge of baseball operations when Dayton Moore was fired late in the season.
“You want your minor league staff to feel like there’s going to be opportunity for them to reach the major leagues in whatever position it is,” Picollo said. “So we did have good internal candidates. They all interviewed very well. You know, they all have different strengths. But after we got through that initial work, our committee of people felt like we needed at this time a little outside influence, fresh thoughts, challenge us professionally as well. And I know Matt will do that.”
The Royals intended to keep most of their hitting staff in place, though that may change depending upon whom Grifol hires in Chicago. But the previous pitching staff already had been let go, so Quatraro — working with Picollo — must not only hire a pitching coach but build out an entire pitching program that spans the organization.
In fact, when Quatraro was asked Thursday what the biggest common denominator in the success of Cleveland and Tampa Bay has been over the years, his one-word reply was: “Pitching.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of talent on this pitching staff now. I’ve talked to a handful of guys already,” Quatraro said. “I can’t tell you exactly what the process has been, but what I’m looking for now moving forward is maximizing their potential through tweaks in approach pitch usage. The talent is clearly there.”
Yet for whatever reason, the Royals have continually failed to maximize it. Top prospects have flamed out in the minors, and many that have reached the big leagues have initially struggled only to flourish with other organizations.
One thing is certain: The Royals believe Quatraro is the right choice to change that narrative.
“When we announced this deal earlier in the week,” Royals principle owner John Sherman said Thursday, “I traded text messages with Matt to congratulate him, and he thanked me for the confidence we have shown in him. And I would turn that around and say, ‘Thank you for having the confidence in the Kansas City Royals.’”