Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Yordano Ventura, looking back and ahead, plus Chiefs and college hoops

Yordano Ventura during the All-Star Futures baseball game on July 8, 2012 at Kauffman Stadium.
Yordano Ventura during the All-Star Futures baseball game on July 8, 2012 at Kauffman Stadium. jsleezer@kcstar.com

There is so much heartbreak in the wake of Yordano Ventura’s death that it is pointless to rank one over the other but one thing that will stick is the tugging unknown of what might have been.

He was just 25 years old, and coming off his worst big-league season but it’s worth pointing out it wasn’t all bad — a career-high 186 innings, and a much stronger finish than beginning.

If you divide his season into two, and look at the last half, over 16 starts he was pretty damn good: 3.74 ERA, more than 6 innings per start, strikeouts up and home runs down compared to the first half.

The Royals thought more was coming, too. They felt it, in a way they hadn’t before. So much of the damage — the home runs, in particular — were done off his fastball. That was a flaw, both mechanical and mental.

He tended to rely on that pitch when in trouble, the instinct setting in to simply throw it too fast to be hit, which batters understood. In those moments, he also tended to fly open with his front side, which shook his command of the pitch and gave hitters a better look.

The Royals thought he was making progress on that over the second half of the season, and were encouraged that he was working harder than ever this offseason. They also knew that even during a rocky season, his curveball and change-up were improving, developing into out pitches on the best nights. Combine that with a 100 mph fastball, and a relentless competitiveness, and the Royals believed he was about to become a star.

“It was all there,” Dayton Moore said a few hours after hearing the news.

Yordano Ventura in his own words: 'Proud to be on Kansas City's team' 

Nobody will ever be proven right or wrong on this, and baseball history is full of players who never realized their full potential. But it is my strong belief that Ventura was about to ascend.

The Royals had him through 2021, including two club option years, which means he had as many as five more seasons with the franchise. Blair did a nice piece on this, and it’s interesting that Baseball-Reference lists Jack Morris, Gio Gonzalez, Darryl Kile, Roy Halladay and others as similar pitchers through age 25.

Maybe his elbow would’ve blown out at some point. At his size, and his velocity, he was always a candidate for that. But elbow surgery hasn’t been a career-ender for years, and besides, Ventura had not experienced any serious injury.

Merely maintaining his previous pace, he would’ve been seventh in wins, and fourth in strikeouts in club history by the end of his contract.

Again, I believe he was about to be much better than his previous pace. There is no way to convince me otherwise. He was supremely talented, and wanted as much as anything to be great. He had his problems, and his flaws, but there were signs he was getting beyond that.

We’ll never know, of course. That’s the worst part of this, from a baseball perspective. It’s a question that will hang in Kansas City for years.

This week’s reading recommendation is Jon Wertheim on the Indy driving drug smuggler, and the eating recommendation is the loaded tots at Mo Brew.

Please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. As always, thanks for your help, and thanks for reading.

Well said.

Tragedies are always hard to process. You smile at the good times, you remember the bad times, and you can’t help but wonder about what can no longer happen. You think about whether you could’ve done anything to prevent it.

You wrap yourself in sadness, wanting a break from the world, and you come back out because what other choice do you have?

Those who knew Ventura well, and those who cheered for him from a distance, are all going through versions of those emotions and many more.

Me, I think about him less as a ballplayer than as a human being. Maybe that’s strange. We knew him primarily as a ballplayer. I do think he was primed to have the best season of his career, and the question of how good he could’ve been will always hang.

But I think about him more as a man. I think about his friends, and his teammates, and his family. I understand he has a daughter, and the thought of her growing up without a dad is just heart-breaking.

Tragedy is a constant in life, unfortunately. I’ve been lucky in my life, so far, but there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it. My wife. My sons. My family. My friends.

My best friend was in the hospital last year, and for a time the worst was possible. A friend has an adorable, tough-as-steel baby girl whose cancer came back. The day before Ventura died, Dayton Moore attended the funeral of a friend’s 28-year-old daughter. Tomorrow, read or watch the news, and you will hear about something else that will make your heart hurt. Pain is everywhere.

When tragedy hits close enough to make us pause, we often say that it puts things in perspective. Makes us appreciate the parts of our lives we should appreciate.

It’s not right to say that’s a silver lining, because there is no silver lining. But it can help, in some small way.

The challenge for all of us is to never forget to appreciate what needs appreciating. To never forget the importance of helping others, to brighten someone’s day, to spend time you don’t feel like you have to connect with someone.

Some of us do that better than others. All of us do it better on some days than others. But those are the things I think about in moments like this.

Infielder Christian Colon and pitchers Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy attended a candlelight vigil for teammate Yordano Ventura, who was killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic. The emotional gathering was held outside of Kauffman

I can’t answer that. At least not right now. And I don’t mean that in a way that dismisses the question, because I’ve thought of it, and lots of others.

Ventura’s death will be a constant part of this season. Players will almost certainly wear patches on their jerseys, or hats, and write personal messages for their friend. They will talk about Ventura. They will laugh, they will cry.

I am only speculating here, but retiring his number is more possible if the final toxicology report confirms authorities’ initial suspicion that alcohol played no role in the accident. This is not a clean analogy, but I think you’ll understand why I mention this: Clark Hunt made it very clear that the Chiefs would not wear a helmet decal, or honor Jovan Belcher in any formal way. It’s hard for me to imagine the Royals retiring the number of a man who died while driving drunk.

So, we all hope that initial suspicion is confirmed. After that, I am sure that any further ways of honoring Ventura’s memory will be discussed among Moore, Ned Yost, the players, and others in the front office. Maybe they’ll leave his locker, with his nameplate and jersey. I don’t know.

I am a believer that Halls of Fame should tell stories, so I hope a significant place is made for Ventura in the team Hall of Fame.

He could’ve been a great pitcher. He was so damn close. I know I felt the same way last year, and he had a rocky season, but I believe in my heart and mind that he was going to have the best year of his professional career in 2017. Like we said before, we’ll never know.

My first reaction is that putting his number on top of the Hall of Fame is a bit much. My preference is for that honor to be saved for the select few who earn it on the field. But I don’t know. I could be convinced otherwise.

It sure does feel that way, right?

You didn’t mention Randie Carver, or Mack Lee Hill, or a few others. Unfortunately, athletes dying young is not as rare as we’d like. Worse, young men and women in general dying young is not as rare as we’d like.

There are certain tragedies that stick with places. In Pittsburgh, they still feel Roberte Clemente’s death. Len Bias in Boston, and Maryland. Drazen Petrovic. Reggie Lewis. Dale Earnhardt. Jose Fernandez. Darryl Kile. Sean Taylor.

Pat Tillman deserves his own paragraph. This list could go on and on.

Hank Gathers was the first time I remember being moved by an athlete’s death. I watched those Loyola-Marymount teams as often as I could, which was usually as often as I could convince my parents to let me stay up late. I never knew basketball could look like that. So fast, so fun. I cried when Bo Kimble shot that free throw left-handed, and made the dang thing.

So, I don’t know. I’m not sure how to quantify something like this. I am sure I don’t want to. So sad. So very, very sad.

If the Royals have a disappointing season I don’t believe it will be because of grief, and if they make the playoffs and win the World Series, I don’t believe it will be because of their friend.

Some of that is the idea that this group has been together through so much already, it’s hard to imagine them being broken. Some of it is the idea that this group already had so much to play for, beyond the usual, it’s hard to believe they needed more motivation or focus.

But most of it is because I just don’t believe that’s how these things work. We are all, on some levels, selfish creatures. And we can talk about what motivates us, and we can do so earnestly and genuinely, but there are so many quieter moments where we need to be driven by something else — by ourselves.

There has to be a central cause, whether it’s ambition or family or fame or money or spite or proving someone wrong or living up to someone’s belief.

A tragedy like this can be part of that, sure. But I don’t think it’s enough to sustain. At some point, it’s going to be August and the season is going to be dragging and they’re going to have to find a reason or way to push through. Maybe the memory of their friend can factor into some of that, but it won’t be enough on its own.

That’s not heartless. That’s just reality.

Again, I’m not prepared to answer that, and it’s not because I’m dismissing the question. I spent 40 minutes or so alone with the man who will make that decision, and it did not occur to me to ask.

If you’re thinking about it, my understanding is that Ventura’s contract — $3.45 million this year, $6.45 million next year, and $9.95 million in 2019 — is fully guaranteed. There is also a $1 million buyout on the first of two team options in 2020.

This is my understanding based on a conversation with someone who deals with this, but I believe someone will get that money. I don’t know if that means his wife, his mother, his daughter, or someone else.

The Royals will not be paying that money. The contract was insured. So if you want to think about it like this, the same way their pitching needs changed, so did their payroll for the next three seasons.

Now, it is impossible to find a like-for-like replacement, particularly at those prices. But they’ll be looking now in a way they weren’t last week. The most likely path is to be more motivated to do one of those low-risk-high-reward deals that are available late in the offseason or during spring training, but if not there’s another spot for someone already on the roster.

Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy will be at the top of the rotation, Jason Vargas will take one spot, and then the next two will be taken by some combination of a low-profile free agent signing, Chris Young, Mike Minor, Matt Strahm or Josh Staumont.

My guess is the Royals’ first preference would be Strahm and Minor, but that won’t slow them from looking at external options, as well.

Oh, he’s gone.

I mean, it’s possible that he signs a long-term contract, and if you want to feel good about it, you can make the misleading but technically true point that it would not be the least likely event of his time in Kansas City.

I do believe he genuinely likes Kansas City, and the Royals, and his teammates. This will always be where he started, and it would be a hell of a story if it’s where he ended, too. The Royals would love to build around him.

He is, basically, the human version of their ideal: talented, hard-working, athletic, multi-skilled, low-maintenance, great teammate, great outside the clubhouse, willing leader, on and on. He checks all the boxes, as you might say.

But, I also believe he genuinely wants to see what’s out there. He would not have chosen Kansas City. He’s from Miami. Grew up a Yankees fan. He is entirely comfortable in the spotlight. He also employs Scott Boras as his agent, and I assume because he is a breathing person, he likes money and could be persuaded by the biggest available contract.

Danny Duffy was a bit of a lay-up of a contract extension. I don’t know how many negotiations start with a stronger mutual interest. The Royals got a terrific bargain on that deal, and I don’t know this for sure, obviously, but my educated guess is that they would’ve paid more and Duffy would’ve taken less. It just made too much sense, for both sides.

But, now, the layups are over. Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and Mike Moustakas are all free agents after this season. Kelvin Herrera is due after 2018.

My hunch — and I want to be clear, this is just be speculating — is that the Royals sign one of those guys to a deal sometime before opening day. It won’t be Hosmer.

Escobar would make sense if the Royals aren’t sure about Raul Mondesi playing everyday shortstop in 2018, and something like a two-year extension there could make sense. I also believe they’ll sign Herrera, at some point, but they have more time there.

The important thing for the Royals has always been to develop as many of these guys as possible, and to create the kind of environment that some of them want to stay. In the grander picture, they’ve absolutely done that. Duffy and Sal Perez are the best two examples.

But if you’re doing it right, you’re also going to have some high-ceiling guys who outgrow the place. That’ll be Hosmer. The biggest contract the Royals have signed is Gordon for four years and $72 million. Hosmer’s deal will almost certainly dwarf that. Could be as expensive as Gordon’s deal and Duffy’s, combined.

There is a significant disconnect between what I believe the Chiefs should do, and what I expect them to do.

This is a useless disclaimer, because we all know this anyway, but here goes: the guys who make these decisions for the Chiefs are smart, dedicated, have all the available information, and have spent their professional lives in this world. I, on the other hand, am a sports writer who spends many days on an overstuffed chair typing words that come into my head.

So I’m going to answer this two ways. The first is that, yes, this should be the year they draft a quarterback, and if they have to trade up to get the one they want, cool, great, trade up. They will have extra picks, to take some of the sting from a deal, and particularly if it’s to draft a quarterback they are beautifully positioned at this moment to do it:

Alex Smith is under contract, and is good enough to win some games and get into the playoffs, if they don’t believe the draft pick will be ready by the start of the season. I believe Smith is the type of man who would be open to competition, and motivated by it.

I do not believe he’s the type of man who would be offended, or otherwise let his performance suffer. If he is, the Chiefs have a bigger problem.

The quickest path from where the Chiefs are to where they want to be is through better quarterback play. The most effective way to get better quarterback play is through the draft.

I’ve been encouraged that most of the feedback from the Smith column has acknowledged the point that this isn’t a #HotTake choice, that Smith has to either suck or be the same as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.

Smith is ... fine. Good enough to win a lot of games, not good enough to get to the Super Bowl without all the pieces around him working at maximum efficiency. If the Chiefs decide to pursue an upgrade at quarterback, the best part is they’d be doing it without the problem of desperation.

They are free to see what’s out there, but not pressured by the thought that, OHMYGOD WE NEED SOMEONE.

This is the environment where the best deals can be made.

Now, none of that is exactly what you’re asking about. You’re asking if this is the year they do it, not whether it’s the year I think they should.

And, no. I do not believe they’ll trade into the top 10, not to draft a quarterback or anyone else.

I hope so. I don’t think so. But I hope so.

There are a hundred reasons the Chiefs lost that game, at least that many more important than the call on Fisher. Blaming that call on the loss is a bit like blaming a red light on being a half hour late for work. Maybe it cost you a little bit, maybe it was even unlucky. But it sure as heck didn’t cause the problem.

I happen to believe that the limitations of Alex Smith are holding the Chiefs back, or at least requiring the parts around him to be unrealistically efficient, but you can’t put the loss on him, either. It took everyone. Took the offensive line being mauled, took the front of the defense being gashed on the run, took an inability to make Hill and Kelce bigger factors, took a long list of other shortcomings that the Chiefs must now try to address.

I will say, too, that calling it “The No Touchdowns Allowed Loss” has a nice ring to it, and some symmetry. We can say the Chiefs lost a game in which they did not punt, and lost another in which they did not surrender a touchdown.

As a sports writer, this works better for me.

I don’t understand the logic behind what seems like a pervasive bashing of the play calling.

Andy Reid knows what he’s doing. He’s not perfect. There are too many stretches where the Chiefs appear hell-bent on manufacturing yards through screens instead of letting their best players be their best players. So this is not a defense of Reid as above criticism.

But I also realize that a lot of the goofy stuff they run works. They run tunnel screens because their linemen are athletic and their receivers are pretty good blockers and their quarterback is at his best with these short, intricate, timing throws. If we’re going to talk about Tyreek Hill’s talent, we should at least acknowledge that Reid helped him play like a star by designing ways to maximize his strengths (speed, ball skills) and minimize his weaknesses (refinement on routes, production over the middle).

But, mostly, I just don’t know if we needed to see the Patriots beat the Steelers to see the Patriots are better than the Chiefs.

I will say this: if we could neutralize overall team quality, I believe the Steelers were a worse matchup than the Patriots for the Chiefs. Le’Veon Bell up the middle was something the Chiefs were never going to stop, and the front seven won the battle with the Chiefs’ line.

The Patriots probably would’ve beaten the Chiefs. So don’t get this twisted. But they wouldn’t have beaten the Chiefs by having receivers break uncovered, for instance. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered with Justin Houston’s health, but the Chiefs could’ve been better at creating pressure without blitzing, and covering the Patriots’ receivers man-to-man with safety help over the top.

I don’t know if the Chiefs could’ve scored enough to make it matter, but Belichick’s typical strategy of doubling your best guy and using his best corner to cover your second-best receiver could’ve been exploited by Hill and Kelce.

The Chiefs had a chance at the end in that game in last year’s playoffs, and were better this year. Again, I still think the Patriots would’ve won. But it would’ve been interesting.

Anyway, none of that is what you were asking about, but if the point is that Brady made his receivers look better than Smith made his look, well, yeah.

Well, probably.

I should say that it is very hard for me to imagine Kansas not winning at least a share, and if I had to bet — I’m a terrible gambler! — I would bet on it being outright.

KU and Baylor have obviously separated a bit, but West Virginia has a defense and homecourt advantage that could keep them within eyesight. I don’t believe Iowa State or K-State are serious challengers.

The problem with projecting anyone other than KU to win the league is it requires KU to lose at least once at home, and three or four times on the road, and even then you need someone else to catch some breaks.

They have the best player, the best coach, the best starting lineup, and the best homecourt. They have flaws, certainly. They don’t defend as well as they should, they don’t shoot free throws as well as they should, and they become very vulnerable if Landen Lucas gets in foul trouble.

My best guess at the moment is that KU loses at West Virginia, at Baylor, and at K-State. That would put them at 15-3 in the league, which would probably be good enough to win outright. But let’s say they lose one more — at Oklahoma State could be trouble, West Virginia at home won’t be easy, Baylor at home could be close.

That would leave Baylor open for its first share of a title. They’d need to get at least a split with KU, and avoid too many other potholes — at OSU, at Texas Tech, at Iowa State and West Virginia at home.

The path for West Virginia is a bit tougher, and it doesn’t help that they already lost at home, to Oklahoma, which is probably the biggest surprise of the conference season so far. West Virginia would likely be able to lose just one more game, and they still have to play at Kansas and at Baylor, both on Big Mondays.

The thing Baylor has over everyone else in the league, including West Virginia, is a suffocating defense. They are long and athletic and that zone can be hell to go against. Jo Lual-Acuil is going to be a problem for anybody, and they have enough scoring to get by.

I wouldn’t bet on it. But it’s possible.

Already, this season hasn’t gone like a lot of us expected.

You’re right. Their toughest stretch of the season: at West Virginia tonight, at Kentucky on Saturday, then Baylor at home, Iowa State at home, and at K-State.

The Kentucky game doesn’t factor into the league standings, obviously, but it might be the difference in NCAA Tournament seeding.

My guess is they lose twice this week, then beat Baylor at Iowa State, then lose at K-State. I know that’s not a really creative guess — win at home, lose on the road — and they’ll probably a slight favorite at KSU, but that’s how I think it’ll go.

The best thing KU has going for it is a killer pairing of combo guards who complement each other, and Josh Jackson’s all-around play. Especially with the recent history of the NCAA Tournament, it’s easy to see that being enough, especially with Lucas’ defense and Svi’s talent, and Vick’s ability.

The NCAA Tournament is enough of a random outcome generator that anything is possible, and there won’t be many teams favored against Kansas. This is an enviable collection of talent and experience, of guards who will be too much for nearly everyone they go against.

But I can’t past the thought of what might happen if Lucas gets in foul trouble. I know every team has flaws, and whoever they play will have weaknesses to exploit. But that’s a pretty easy thing to imagine.

As for K-State, KenPom currently has the Wildcats finishing 10-8, which would almost certainly be enough to get in.

We talked earlier about KU’s tough stretch of schedule, but K-State might have the worst three-game stretch of anyone in the league from Feb. 4-11: at Baylor, KU at home, at West Virginia.

Consecutive wins at Oklahoma State and against West Virginia last week are enormous, and at least for a moment changed the talk about the program. They have enough other spots in the schedule that they don’t need to win any of those three games mentioned in the previous paragraph, but if the goal is more than sneaking into the tournament and Bruce Weber returning next season, it would go a long way.

But, to answer your question, yes. I do believe they’ll be in the tournament. I think the league is good enough for six teams, at least: KU, Baylor, West Virginia, Iowa State, K-State, and then perhaps one more. TCU is coming along faster than expected.

Well, I mentioned my favorite in the first column I wrote on Sunday, when I met him for the first time in a hallway at Citi Field, and he got a translator but answered the first question about Kansas City in perfect English:

“Oh, yes, that would be great. That’s my dream. What I’m working for, every day. For my opportunity, I just want to keep working hard. I’m so excited about that.”

The language thing was always there with Ventura. There were a few times he agreed to use English, but mostly that was in smaller settings, and usually didn’t last long.

I feel strongly that ballplayers have every right to speak their first language, no matter how fluent they may be in English. If I was in their situation, I would be nervous as hell to talk to reporters in a foreign country in a language I wasn’t fully comfortable with.

I only bring this up because I think it showed a little bit of vulnerability in Ventura. A little insecurity. On the field, he was a lion. Nobody was more intense, sometimes to his own detriment. But off the field, he was, well, I can’t say it as well as Moore did when I visited his hotel in Atlanta on Sunday:

“He was very gentle. Just a pleasing type person. He wanted to get along. He was a little passive off the field, really.”

Those are some of the things I’ll remember. He had a big heart. He treated people with respect, at least away from the field. He laughed a lot. He lived a good, big, fast, intense and fearless life.

Well, thanks. I do believe Kansas City is a special place, and I know I’m fortunate to have a job that lets me interact with so many about something as inclusive and (typically) happy and irrelevant as sports.

We’d all prefer to have only happy moments to talk about, and for a while, we were given more than our fair share. I know I’ve said this before, but without pain there is no joy, and for every painful reality is an opportunity to remember a joyful time.

I want to say this, too: I’m proud of how this was handled. I am not talking only about our coverage at the Star, but about players going to the K to comfort and hug fans, about fans remembering Ventura as a person, and about people around town expressing themselves fully and emotionally and without reservation.

There is no script for this. No right or wrong answers. But I was proud. Still am. You guys make this job fun, and occasionally important, and I am grateful for that every day.              

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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