The Royals’ best lineup of the season so far played for the first time on Monday night, with a top six of Merrifield-Cain-Melky-Hosmer-Perez-Moose and, of course, scored one lousy run in a loss.
The thing will be tweaked over the final 58 games, and perhaps this is a good time to remind you that Ben Zobrist batted sixth in his first game with the Royals, on a night that Omar Infante played second base.
But it is a good moment to exhale, and see the Royals going forward as something a little different than what they’ve been so far.
With good health and an improved lineup, bullpen, and rotation, this is the Royals’ best version of themselves, and the one that will either make a third postseason in four years or go down with an old fighter’s final gasp.
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The Royals went a combined 33-19 in June and July, which as far as I can tell is the franchise’s best back-to-back months since July and August of 2015* and the second-best back-to-back months since July and August of 1980**.
* That team won the World Series.
** George Brett hit .390 for the American League champs that year.
Baseball is strange enough that the Royals can be a better team in August and September and not win at that same clip, but the last two months and the trades for Melky Cabrera, Trevor Cahill, and two big-league relievers mean the season has a different context.
This team has, effectively and miraculously, erased its horrendous April.
The Royals’ season pace would give them 86 wins, and if you can find it in your heart to ignore April, the last three months’ pace would give them, um, well, this is awkward, but the answer is 96 wins.
That’s a playoff team, and even if it’s not as good a team as the Astros — at the moment, the Royals’ opponent if they don’t win the division but do win a Wild Card Game — any Kansas Citian over the age of 3 knows the best regular-season team doesn’t always win the playoff series.
We can pick apart the weaknesses. The Royals are not great in any particular area. The bullpen isn’t what it was, the rotation is above average at best, and even with a boost from Cabrera and an obliteration of Balboni by Mike Moustakas, the offense probably tops out at average for a playoff team.
But there are no boats without holes, and even a passing awareness of this group’s history means knowing this team should not be overlooked.
Consider a few facts:
* The Royals have more wins and a better win percentage than every team in baseball except the Dodgers since June 1.
* Eric Hosmer’s OPS is 50 points above his previous career best, and his .964 OPS since April 26 would rank sixth in the American League.
* There’s a lot of talk about the bullpen’s struggles but they’re fourth in the American League and seventh in baseball in reliever ERA.
* Against the five American League teams with winning records, the Royals are 18-14, with winning records against each except for the Yankees.
Again, I’m not here to tell you this is a juggernaut, or 2015 redux. But this is a good team. Worse teams have made the playoffs, and worse teams have advanced in the playoffs.
This week’s reading recommendation is Andrew Goldman on The Rise and Fall of F. Lee Bailey, the Lawyer Who Set O.J. Simpson Free, and the eating recommendation is the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich at Spokes.
As always, thanks for reading, and thanks for your help.
Hell of a week, huh?
I am relatively sure this is just a me thing, but it absolutely seems like random and major things happen when I take vacation.
Just based purely on level of surprise, I’d say the Melky Cabrera trade. For most of the month the Royals front office was primarily focused on pitching, and even if that wasn’t the case I would not have expected Cabrera to be available for that package of prospects.
I don’t think club officials would’ve, either.
I still don’t completely understand why a market never developed for Cabrera. He’s a dependable switch-hitter, a veteran, and can play either corner outfield spot or DH. That’s a fit for a lot of clubs, none more than the Royals.
I alluded to this in the column — please read! — but I also don’t believe they’d have made the trade without the team winning nine in a row. This is a front office that goes by feel and momentum more than most, and I believe that Dayton Moore needed to see one more push before being willing to sacrifice some future for now.
That’s a lot of unrelated and somewhat random factor that all had to come together.
I’m not here to tell you I expected Michael Vick to be the Chiefs’ coaching intern this year, but Andy Reid is loyal, particularly to guys he likes and respects, and Reid very much likes and respects Vick.
If Vick is interested in being a coach, Reid would be — by far, really — the most likely man to give him a chance.
The Dom Dwyer trade is fascinating, and something I probably should write about at more length.
Because from a surface, obvious perspective, it’s a bad look. You’re in the middle of a race in the table and for playoff positioning, with trophies to be won — not to mention season ticket renewals going out — and you trade away your most popular and best goal scorer in exchange for no human being. Just cash, and, actually, not really even cash. Just allocation money.
But from another perspective, it’s entirely reasonable, and as acute an illustration of how Sporting has been so successful as I can think of at the moment. They have always been built on a system more than players, who have always been replaceable, and they gain salary-cap space as well as the ability to spend more on outside talent.
Even if Peter Vermes and the club hadn’t earned the benefit of the doubt on these things, that’s a pretty straight line of logic. Winning the first Dwyer-less game with three goals against a good opponent doesn’t hurt, either. Same with the reaction around MLS, if we’re being honest, which could be summarized as: “Orlando paid how freaking much?”
I sense some sarcasm here.
I’d be in favor of these trades anyway, because I think you should try to maximize every postseason opportunity you might have, but I’m especially in favor of them because I just don’t think the Royals gave up very much.
Matt Strahm and A.J. Puckett are the most valuable pieces the Royals traded away, but Strahm’s value dipped this season, even before the injury, and Puckett is a good but not terrific pitching prospect.
Nothing in baseball will break your heart more often than pitching prospects.
The Royals, against my professional advice, are trying to win and rebuild and limit payroll at the same time, so they were never going to unload the farm system for this stretch run.
But, as it turned out, they didn’t have to.
I know there are still some holdouts who believe the Royals should’ve been sellers, that even if they get into the postseason they’re likely to be gone quickly. We all have our opinions, and none of them are invalid, but I find this to be hogwash.
The idea behind making a seller’s trade is that you better position yourself for a playoff run in the future. But if you’re in position for a playoff run now, particularly with a group that’s taken you on two unforgettable playoff runs the last three years, why the hell would you give up on that for some vague run at the 2021 AL Central?
This is even more true with the reality that the Royals can always go into full rebuild mode later.
Delaying a rebuild is not an irreversible decision — but giving up on 2017 is.
Besides, the man here makes a decent point ...
... even as the truth is that nobody really knows.
Depending on whether you share my belief that Kelvin Herrera’s next few seasons will be more like his last three than his current season, the Royals have no more than three players you’d expect to be All-Star caliber players under long-term club control.
That can change, of course, depending on Whit Merrifield, or Jorge Bonifacio, or even the futures of Josh Staumont or Hunter Dozier or — ahem — Kyle Zimmer or Bubba Starling.
But what the Royals have locked in long-term at the moment is both better than a tanking team and not as good as a contending team.
That can all change, but you’re right, the 2018-2020 Royals are set up better than a lot of us might’ve thought a few years ago.
Thousands of dollars in allocation money.
Also: fewer typsos*.
* See what I did there?
Look, I know what Ned Yost has said, that the initial plan is for Melky Cabrera to play right field, which means Jorge Bonifacio and Brandon Moss split time at DH, but I’m here to tell you what will actually happen:
Cabrera is going to play everyday, and then among Alex Gordon, Bonifacio and Moss, the two hitters who are hottest and/or the best matchups for that particular day will join him in the lineup.
Yost is famously loyal, and he’s as loyal to Gordon as anyone outside his immediate family. So he is not going to announce that Gordon is about to be benched, or platooned, or even affected in any significant way.
But just like how Andy Reid talks about Patrick Mahomes being the No. 3 quarterback instead of the backup, what’s said right now is much less important than what’s done in a few weeks, or a month.
Even more than most baseball people, Ned Yost is a believer in momentum, and playing the hot hand, so he’s absolutely not going to say anything negative after Gordon has hit the ball better the last few days.
But I’m just telling you how this is going to go, based on a few conversations, but more than that Yost’s history. He’s going to stick with Gordon, and hopes he can stick with Gordon through the World Series.
But if we’re a week or three into this, and Gordon is three for his last 19, and the others are performing, he’s going to find more reasons to give Gordon a day off.
Cabrera is a good player on his own, but his versatility is a huge part of why this is such a good fit for the Royals.
He’s a switch hitter who fills the Royals’ need for someone to hit second, and if you look at the team’s regular hitters, they are getting below league average production in three spots: shortstop, left field and DH.
Cabrera can play two of those three positions, which means Yost can keep the coldest of his other options on the bench.
This is one of those rare trades that looks good on the surface, and even better the more you think about it.
This is another reason to like the Cabrera trade.
Not for the hugs, necessarily — though no judgments if you’re into that — but because of his history and respect with the Royals.
He was a beloved teammate in Kansas City, and those relationships remain. The Royals monitor morale as closely as any team. Particular with position players, trades mean someone already in-house is about to play less, and that can be a delicate dynamic.
But in this particular situation, the Royals have a guy they know has good relationships, and the players most likely to be affected by the move aren’t big risks to pout and make themselves a problem.
Bonifacio is a rookie, and Gordon and Moss are each self-aware adults, which means this should be as smooth a transition as you could expect.
Doesn’t mean egos aren’t and won’t be involved. Just means the environment is favorable.
The Chiefs gave up two second-round picks for Alex Smith before the 2013 season, and have received exactly what they should’ve expected: solid, unspectacular, enough to win lots of regular-season games with a good roster and not enough to centerpiece a playoff run.
He was 29 when they traded for him, and will be 34 during the 2018 season. You could argue that he is a more bankable asset right now, having proved to be more than a Jim Harbaugh magic trick these last four years in Kansas City, but even with quarterbacks lasting longer and longer, a team traded for him they would have to know he’s more short-term stopgap than anything else.
In a vacuum, I’d say that’s worth a third- or fourth-round pick.
But in reality, and assuming I understand how his contract works, I don’t know that a team is going to trade for a quarterback due $20.6 million. Also, any team interested in him knows the Chiefs — and this assumes Patrick Mahomes shows enough to be the guy in 2018 — have to get rid of Smith by the third league day of next season to clear $17 million in cap space.
The conversation about Smith in Kansas City will always be tinged with emotion and hyperbole, but assuming he gives the Chiefs in 2017 what he’s given them the last four years, he should at least be remembered as a major stabilizing force for a franchise that desperately needed many major stabilizing forces.
If he could also bring back a mid-round draft pick in a trade that cleared snaps for Mahomes and $17 million in cap space, that’s a heck of a bonus.
But I wouldn’t count on that.
Took a vacation last week, so today will be my first day at camp. I’ve read the reports just like you, and talked to a few people about what they’ve seen, but I want to keep as open a mind as possible about everything.
Not just Mahomes, but everything.
I’m interested in watching Justin Houston, to see how close to 2014 he might be.
I’m interested in watching Tyreek Hill, to see how ridiculous I am to believe he may actually be better in 2017 than 2016.
I’m interested in watching Derrick Johnson, to see how ridiculous I am to doubt whether he can make another full recovery from another Achilles injury.
I’m interested in watching Bennie Logan, to see if he really is the upgrade over the 2016 version of Dontari Poe that he looks like on film.
I’m interested in watching Parker Ehinger, to see if he can help a promising offensive line grow from solid to very good.
I’m interested in watching Kareem Hunt, to see if his terrific college tape can translate up a few levels from Toledo.
I’m interested in watching Steven Nelson, to see if the flashes he showed in a relatively small sample last year are something to believe in or the next Marcus Cooper.
I’m interested in watching Ron Parker, to see if his versatility and smarts can be further amplified by a defense that has a real chance to be great — not just good.
I’m interested in watching Marcus Peters, because, to be honest, I’m always interested in watching Marcus Peters. Always.
But, yes, I am human so I am most interested in watching Patrick Mahomes.
I have probably written too much on him already, and have one more column on him reported but not yet written. Maybe I should apologize for that, but I won’t, because I find everything about him and his position with the Chiefs at the moment endlessly fascinating.
That’s even truer now, with John Dorsey unemployed, and Tyler Bray the actual No. 2 quarterback (at least at the moment).
My general expectation of Mahomes during training camp and the preseason games is to be vaguely what his college tape shows him to be — an occasionally jaw-dropping talent who makes some throws you can’t coach and others that look like he’s never been coached.
But I do want to make sure about all of that, or at least as sure as you can be in training camp, which means I want to make one last point about all of this.
Training camp is hard to watch. Not because of the weather, or the early mornings, or the tedious waiting through often boring drills.
But because there are few things that can more dependably make you look like a moron than baseball spring training and NFL training camp.
Certain drills are set up for certain positions to succeed and others to fail. The lack of tackling means perhaps the most important part of the game is missed, and plays that would be 4-yard gains can sometimes look like long touchdowns.
There is no way to replicate the pressure and chaos of actual NFL football, which is the only thing that matters.
So I think it’s worthwhile for all of us to be hyperaware that what we’re watching is interesting, and important if taken in the right context and the right moments, but also a rotten way to judge a man’s future.
It was obvious last year that Tyreek Hill was a physical freak even by NFL standards and certain skills — ball tracking, for instance — better than the Chiefs anticipated. But none of that meant anything until the real games started, because some of us are old enough to remember Brian Sippio.
So, yes. I am interested in watching everything at Chiefs camp — and I’m more interested in Mahomes than anything else.
But I also know that what we see in the preseason games will be more telling than anything at camp, and what we see in actual regular-season games will be more important than camp and preseason games put together.
Miss the playoffs.
It’s a good question, and at this point I do think a wild-card spot is the most likely outcome, but the Indians had the better team before the season, they have the better team now, and they’re every bit as hot as the Royals.
You won’t like me saying this, but Cleveland’s offense is better, Cleveland’s rotation is better, and Cleveland’s bullpen is better.
The Royals have the better defense, and I don’t mean to discount that, but the margin there isn’t enormous. Reasonable minds could disagree about which was better, actually.
Here’s something that makes all of that fairly irrelevant: two months is a loooooong time, and what we think in mid-September only occasionally alines with what we thought on Aug. 1.
All but three of the Indians’ next 25 games are against current contenders.
Just four of the Royals’ next 16 are against current contenders, and that’s only if you consider the Cardinals current contenders.
I don’t bring this up as evidence that the Indians are about to fade, or the Royals about to win 15 of their next 16. I bring this up as evidence that the standings will change, and it’s always easy to get too focused on the moment, and to believe that current trends will hold.
I don’t know what will happen.
What I believe is that the Royals will continue to play well the last two months, that they are slightly better than 50-50 to make the playoffs in some capacity, and that they would absolutely be a tough out once in the tournament.
Oh, man, what a completely irrelevant and absolutely compelling question. This is great. Well done.
Statistically, this isn’t all that close. Alex Gordon leads Sal Perez in games, runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs, on-base, and OPS. Even if you prorate everything to a 162 game season, Gordon leads in most offensive categories.
He has at least two, and depending on how you view it, as many as four offensive seasons better than Perez’s career best*.
* I’m dubious about WAR’s ability to quantify catchers, because of the defensive metrics involved, but using Baseball Reference’s calculations Gordon has four better than Perez’s best.
They each have an iconic franchise moment — Sal’s single past Josh Donaldson, and Gordon’s home run off Familia.
Gordon is the personification of the Royals’ rise. A miserable start, resilience to keep trying, a desperate move to the outfield, and then an evolution into one of the game’s best.
Perez is the Royals’ most famous player, I would think, the high energy catcher with a constant smile and unshakable toughness.
At the moment, my vote would be for Gordon, because of the longevity, evolution, and statistics. But it’s not a hill I’d die on because he’s currently playing on the worst contract in franchise history, and final impressions can make a big difference.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Perez has a legitimate shot at the Hall of Fame. Gordon does not.
But I called this question irrelevant at the top because there isn’t enough space between the two to make any tangible difference. They are both locks for the team Hall of Fame, and at the moment, there isn’t enough space between the two to think one should get his number retired and the other shouldn’t, or that there should be a statue of Gordon pointing to the sky rounding first base against Familia but not Perez stretched over the plate to pull that pitch down the third-base line against (ahem) Jason Hammel.
We have a well-rounded restaurant game here.
I used to think we lacked enough really good pizza places, but between Johnny Jo’s and Minsky’s and Pizza 51 and others, I’m off that now. I can think of terrific places not just for the staples like Mexican, Italian, steak, of course barbecue and others, but also for Caribbean, Ethiopian, sushi, Brazilian, on and on it goes.
With a few minutes to think about it, three things I wish we had more of: Cajun, Cuban and fish tacos.
Kansas City is an awkward place for either, but this is my hypothetical restaurant trade, not yours, so I’d see where I could get the best deal between a Cuban place in Miami, Cajun in New Orleans, and fish tacos in San Diego.
My preference would be that fish taco place, because it’s one of my favorite places to eat in the country, and I’m often craving fish tacos, but I like the others enough to play the market.
Feel like I’m dealing from a position of strength, too, so I’ll offer a barbecue place. You are probably going to hate me for saying this, but in this situation, they’re all expendable because there’s so many great ones and I’m fairly confident a new one will pop up after the trade.
That’s the value of a good farm system, you know. Create a winning culture and the thing feeds on itself.
I am a proud and regular consumer of turkey bacon. A few points:
▪ No, it’s not the same as real bacon, and anyone who tells you otherwise should be mocked and then ignored.
▪ Real bacon is delicious, don’t get me wrong, but the bacon cult is overdone and a tired act.
▪ Turkey bacon is much more delicate than real bacon, and what I mean by that is it has to be prepared properly.
If you microwave real bacon, it’s still real bacon. If you microwave turkey bacon, it tastes a bit like bacon-flavored paper.
But if you take your time with a skillet, and add pepper or other flavor, turkey bacon can simulate something like 80 to 85 percent of your real bacon experience.
If you’re eating it on its own, you will taste the difference, but if it’s part of a breakfast sandwich or burrito or something like that, you can easily get by and feel good about saving your arteries some work.
Well, first of all, let’s all agree that I’m a rotten person to ask about how to do this without it being your job.
Secondly, I am not, never was, and never will be here to tell you how to be a fan.
But what I can tell you is that one of the best things about 2017 is that it’s never been easier or more fun to be exactly the kind of fan you want to be.
If I had a real job, well, the first thing is that I would not be able to wear T-shirts as often or eat breakfast with my kids as often or be so dang lucky to call covering the Royals’ rise, every Chiefs game, Olympics, college football and basketball, and anything else I can talk my bosses into — including a weekly 6,000 word b.s. session “work.”
But, other than that, I would still love sports and still (I assume) live in Kansas City.
This is more than what I’m supposed to say. It’s what I mean: I would follow all the coverage in The Star, because as much as we and others like to make jokes about the newspaper industry, no media outlet in town spends as much money, time or resources in covering Kansas City sports and no media outlet in town has the history, reach or budget to match what we do.
No outlet in town does as much on as many platforms as we do: print, digital, podcasts and video. We’re always looking to do more, and have a few interesting things in mind for the immediate future, but nobody in town is as diverse or deep in coverage.
So, with that promo out of the way ...
There are a million great ways to follow those teams. Fox Sports Kansas City does a great job on the broadcasts, despite Joel Goldberg’s face, and if you can’t watch live MLB.com makes it easy and cheap to have regular on-demand highlights and even condensed games.
The NFL, because it’s the NFL, makes things a little harder, and more expensive. But Gamepass is a terrific tool. The bummer about the NFL is the culture is largely paranoid, so strategy and explanations are often guarded like national security secrets.
There are so many smart people covering the sport in new ways you can make the experience whatever you want. I tend to get the most out of people who can tell me something I don’t know while remembering we’re talking about sports and not tax reform but there is a coverage angle for everyone.
But, really. It’s all up to you. That’s the best part. Sports can be entertainment, distraction, research subject, memory maker, or excuse to have beer and nachos with your friend.
At times, it can be all of that.
This week, I’m particularly grateful for marrying into my wife’s supportive and caring family, and having a ridiculously fun and easy and loving group of friends. It’s a long and dumb story that involves me getting my weeks mixed up, but the upshot is that I was able to split last week between the two — family at a lakehouse in Michigan, friends in Vegas — that was something like the best of my two worlds. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember how lucky I am.