Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: What the successful 2017 Royals would look like, bullpen woes, Mizzou, and more

Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas before a spring training game in Surprise, Ariz.
Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas before a spring training game in Surprise, Ariz. jsleezer@kcstar.com

If the 2017 Royals are to win, they will only vaguely look like the pennant winners of 2014 or the World Series champs of 2015.

If the 2017 Royals are to win, they will hit more homers, make fewer spectacular plays in the outfield, and get more from the starting rotation.

If the 2017 Royals are to win, Danny Duffy will be the Royals’ best starting pitcher since Zack Greinke. The back of the rotation will be good for five or six innings, at least, and you won’t know which reliever is pitching which inning until Ned Yost walks to the mound and makes the signal.

If the 2017 Royals are to win, Raul Mondesi will be the team’s best defensive second baseman since Mark Grudzielanek won a Gold Glove, at least. Alcides Escobar will get his bounce back, Alex Gordon will get his groove back, and Mike Moustakas will get his health back.

If the 2017 Royals are to win, they will go from finishing last or next-to-last in the American League in home runs every year since 2011 to somewhere closer to the middle of the pack.

It won’t all look different, of course. Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain and Sal Perez and others will need to be their best selves. The farm system will have to help. The energy will need to be high.

None of us know how this will end. You don’t. I don’t. We have guesses, but that’s all they are, and by now if any of us see a season opening bullpen implosion as anything more than one game that’s our own fault.

This week’s eating recommendation is the apple spice at Fluffy Fresh, and the reading recommendation is Michael Powell on the NFL and the business of ripping out the heart of Oakland.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and Facebook, and as always, thanks for your help, and thanks for reading.

Thanks!

Sarcasm doesn’t always get through, you guys.

What you’re not giving me credit for is that if I thought the Royals were going to win the season opener, I’d have had them at 85  1/2 wins this year, not 84  1/2 .

The last time the Royals lost their season opener, they made the World Series.

It’s kind of interesting to go back and look. In 2015, they didn’t lose until the eighth game of the year, then boatraced the division and popped champagne in Queens. In 2014, they lost their first two games of the year on walkoffs in Detroit, then put together that wild run that ended because Madison Bumgarner is an alien. This was a home opener, not a season opener, but the Our Time Royals of 2012 were booed 16 minutes into the game and did not win at home until May.

Or, if you’re a Royals fan of a certain age, you might remember 2004, when standards were so low that optimism reigned because the team won 83 games and finished third the year before.

The Royals were down 7-3 going into the bottom of the ninth in the season opener, then Mendy Lopez tied it on a homer that was the hardest hit ball of his big-league career, and Carlos Beltran ended it with a walkoff homer.

That team lost 104 of its next 161 games.

So, yes, we all understand what yesterday means. Not much. So here are five things that probably need to happen for the Royals to be successful in 2017:

1. The bullpen needs to be good. This would’ve been true no matter what happened Monday. I wrote this in the column, but the bullpen was, generally, the team’s biggest concern coming into the season. I happen to believe that Kelvin Herrera will be better than Wade Davis in 2017, but even if that’s true, getting him a lead to protect in the ninth will require much more mixing and matching than in years past.

2. Eric Hosmer has a big year. He is the player most capable of having a huge offensive season, the kind that turns into MVP votes. The lineup is still balanced enough, but Hosmer’s talent turning into consistent top-shelf production would go a long way in boosting an offense that finished 13th in runs in the American League.

3. Alex Gordon becomes Alex Gordon again. He gave the Royals nothing last year, and getting close to the production he had in the five previous seasons would do more to boost the Royals offense than anything that even Hosmer is likely to accomplish.

4. The back of the rotation stabilizes. One of the consistent boasts from Royals officials is that the rotation is deeper than it’s been in years. That’s probably true, in the specific view of what people thought coming out of spring training, but there are still some questions there that need to be answered. Jason Hammel is switching leagues, Jason Vargas is in his first full season after Tommy John, and those are the Nos. 3 and 4 starters. The Royals have the pieces for this to be a balanced, dependable rotation. But that’s very different than doing it, and with the bullpen no longer dominant, it becomes even more important.

5. Power shows up. Depending on what you think of Lorenzo Cain, the Royals have either six or seven players capable of hitting 20 home runs. But the emphasis on power is a departure from how their recent lineups have been built, and remains a risk at Kauffman Stadium, if power is measured by home runs and not doubles. Jorge Soler is on the disabled list, and oblique injuries rarely heal quickly.

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I’m also borderline fascinated with how Raul Mondesi will do this year. I’ve said this before, but giving him the second-base job shocked me, and I’m not often shocked by personnel moves the Royals make. His speed screams out at you on the field, and he has all the ability to be a terrific defender, but that still has to play on the field and he needs to make the significant jump from being so overmatched last year at the plate.

Royals' Raul Mondesi on winning second base job 

I thought they’d want to give Christian Colon a chance, and let Mondesi build some confidence in the minors (while potentially pushing back his free-agency a year).

But good news: I will be wrong again about something, and probably very soon.

I understood three words of this question.

Opening Day is sort of like the baseball draft, in that if you have any strong reaction to it you almost certainly have an overreaction to it. I’ll give us all some credit here, too. It seems like most everyone gets this, and that the strong reactions to Opening Day are self-aware jokes (like a smoking hot sports columnist calling game two a must-win).

This is interesting to me, though: for years and years and years, many Royals fans talked about how they only wanted a competitive team. That’s it. Just have a chance. Nobody’s demanding championships.

Well, now that’s exactly what they have. This is, at least by my view and many others, a competitive team. They are good enough to have a chance, and flawed enough to see a difference when you compare their roster to Cleveland’s.

But is that enough anymore?

Or did the parade ruin it for everyone who plays for the Royals now?

Well, there is no way I’m looking this up so I’m going to answer a question about Mike Moustakas:

Hey, how good is Moose gonna be this year?

Very good!

This should be the prime years of his career. He only played 27 games last year, so hit me with that #SmallSampleSize if you want, but his seven homers were a pace for close to 40 over a full season.

I don’t know how much this kind of thing actually matters, particularly for a player like Moustakas, who has never struck me as in need of motivation or focused on money, but this is a contract year. He was developing a little more plate discipline before the injury, too.

He looks bigger this season, to the point that his range at third base may be limited. But particularly on the quick twitch side-to-side plays required of a third baseman he should be fine.

A fun game during spring training was to ask who would lead the Royals in home runs. I asked a few players, and I believe I heard four different answers: Moustakas, Hosmer, Gordon and Perez.

My pick has always been Moustakas, with 28. He has a legitimate chance to eclipse that number, too.

Mondesi had an opportunity to make what our Statcast overlords are now calling a five-star play up the middle yesterday, and it looked like the ball skidded under his glove. I hope he gets that chance again, and soon.

I haven’t heard the Royals talk much about this, but to me, Alcides Escobar’s defense wasn’t as good as what we’ve become accustomed to last year. He’s 30 years old now, and has played more shortstop than anyone in baseball since 2011. Royals coaches talk in awe of how bouncy and resilient his body is, but even freaks have limits.

I bring this up because the Royals, for the first time in recent memory, are actually in a position to give Escobar a day off every now and then. It’s probably in their best interests, actually.

Christian Colon is on the big-league roster, and second base is by far his best position. Play him there, and shift Mondesi to shortstop — that’s his long-term position anyway — and give Escobar a chance to recharge.

Because you’re absolutely right. If Escobar is 100 percent physically, and Mondesi is as good defensively as the Royals expect, this is one of the best pair of middle infielders in baseball.

Let’s get this out in the open: I don’t know how good Trevon Duval will be in what will probably be his one season in college. You don’t know. Nobody you have ever talked to knows, and that’s true even if you’ve talked with Bill Self, Kurtis Townsend, Trevon Duval and Trevon Duval’s parents.

Duval is Rivals’ No. 3 recruit, with a pretty sweet mixtape, and I assume he’ll be a good college player. But I don’t know. Last year’s No. 3 recruit was Jayson Tatum, who averaged 17 and seven for Duke. A few years ago, Cliff Alexander was Rivals’ No. 4 recruit. He, uh, didn’t have much of an impact.

But I do feel pretty solid about my answer — Devonte Graham.

Graham is a very good college player who, I believe, could’ve had a bigger role this season but saw what was happening with Frank Mason and made the (smart, selfless) decision to be Robin.

This is not me saying Graham is in line for a Mason-from-junior-to-senior-year jump — the Big 12 has had two of these in a row, if you go back to Buddy Hield — but I do think he could be a first-team all-conference caliber player.

Duval is, by the looks of it, more physically gifted than Graham and certainly a better NBA prospect. But if we’re talking about one year in college, it’s a big ask for him to be better than a senior like Graham.

As an aside: either way, KU would have a nice backcourt.

I watched some practices throughout the season for this piece, and I don’t know what you can really tell from a guy running scout team, but Malik Newman can play.

Bill Self has said he thought Newman was the best guard in the high school class of 2015. Newman averaged 11.3 per game for Mississippi State before transferring, and depending on how the shots shake out, should be in line for at least that many next season for Kansas. Also, Sam Cunliffe is generally seen as a Svi-like replacement (Svi could still return) and will be eligible after the first semester after transferring from Arizona State.

Anyway, KU will be good again, is the point. But you probably assumed as much.

I’m going to answer your question but first I have to get something off my chest:

Rye on Rye on Rye is a dang masterpiece, and I never thought I’d say this, but I may even like it more than Saison Brett. No, I’m serious. One piece of advice, if you haven’t tried it yet: it’s an absurd 14 percent ABV, so have a friend help you out.

Also, the popular vote answer to your question is probably Kansas City Bier Company’s Dunkel. It’s on a fairly regular rotation at the Mellinger house, well balanced, delicious but not overpowering.

But my answer is Bloody Christmas by Torn Label. It’s a strange name, I’ll grant you that, but a terrific combination of Belgian stout with orange and bit of chocolate.

The farm system isn’t in great shape, depending on how much you believe publications like Baseball America, which ranked the Royals’ system 26th. It’s worth noting that Royals officials generally believe their system is much better than that, particularly with power arms, but it’s also true that the industry consensus is more in line with Baseball America.

This is probably a more complicated question than it looks on the surface. I could answer this by saying the leadership group took over an industry punchline and pushed it to a parade by building the farm system so, yes, of course we should trust them.

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Or I could answer this by saying that in the last eight drafts, the best big leaguers so far are Christian Colon, Whit Merrifield, Matt Strahm, Sean Manaea, and Brandon Finnegan — so, no, we shouldn’t trust them.

My answer is that you shouldn’t blindly trust or distrust any organization, but beyond that, the baseball landscape in which the Royals are attempting to maintain success is far different than the one in which they build success. Teams can no longer overspend the draft or internationally like they once did.

This is one of the reasons I think it’s a mistake — a noble, ambitious, admirable mistake; but a mistake nonetheless — to try this simultaneous win-but-also-build-and-also-limit-payroll plan.

This is going to be a difficult go, no matter who’s making the draft picks or signing the 16 year olds in the DR.

All of that said, I do have a lot of respect for Dayton Moore and the men he’s hired to work with over the years. As fans and media we tend to distill everything down to smart — “Theo Epstein is a genius.”

I don’t know that there is as much difference in intelligence as we often make it seem, so I’m not here to tell you Dayton or the front office in general are smarter than most other teams.

Their basic strength, in my view, is more cohesion than most places, and a stronger conviction in chasing a specific plan.

And, really, that’s probably the more important part, anyway.

I don’t know if that means the Royals can continue to win and build in perpetuity, and I don’t know if it means they’re going to spend the next few years spinning in the mud.

But I do feel strongly about this: I have more faith in Moore and the people who work for him than I would have in anyone who’s likely to replace them.

The best example might be Josh Reddick.

I wrote about this in December, but Glass’ refusal to push payroll meant the Royals could not get in an athletic right fielder with good power and relatively good contact. He could’ve stuck in right field, not taking up a DH spot, no matter the platoon splits, and instantly improved the Royals offensively.

But to do that deal, the Royals first had to clear payroll, and Reddick didn’t want to wait — he signed for four years and $52 million with the Astros.

Eventually, the Royals filled right field by trading away Wade Davis for Jorge Soler. I liked the deal, given those constraints, but what if those constraints didn’t exist?

Then the Royals would have a better right fielder, and a better and deeper bullpen. The downside is the money spent, obviously, and the easiest thing in the world is to spend other people’s money — I did it here! — but it would’ve made sense.

You improve your team for 2017, and collect an #asset you can use to trade if you want to cut payroll to rebuild in the future.

There are other examples out there, particularly with the bullpen, but the bigger point is that you isolate your goal and attack it — put everything into winning now, then use the corresponding down years to put everything into winning in the future.

What they’re doing now is probably the right business decision, particularly with the television contract up for negotiation in a few years. But I don’t know that it’s the right baseball decision.

Royals owner David Glass on staying competitive 

First, can we all agree that sports would be better with less moralizing about this kind of thing? Getting mad at professional athletes (or any human being, really) for having fun at or away from work sounds like a terrible way to go through life.

With that out of the way, there are a few potential answers here. Most obviously, he plays for the NFL’s best team, and he’s (by far) the best at his position (when healthy) so it’s hard to find the room to criticize him, even if you were looking for it. Also, I assume someone more qualified than me on such things could make a compelling case that race is a factor in here, somewhere.

But I think there’s something else at play, here. He seems very self-aware, to the point that he’s in on the joke, like some big, smiling, crush-a-beer-can-on-the-forehead-and-dance-with-chicks kind of way that’s hard to be mad at.

You can think he’s a meathead, or needs to grow up, or whatever, but it’s hard to be mad at him when he seems to be inviting everyone else to have fun with him and — this is always the most important thing in how we digest pro sports — continues to perform.

I’m conflicted about this, in a lot of ways, starting with this: I love experimenting, and pushing boundaries, but I also could not care less about the WWE.

I mean that literally, too. I have no feeling about it. I don’t watch it, don’t follow it, and don’t have it in me to make fun of or judge anyone who does. If you like it, good for you.

But the other way I’m conflicted here is that I find myself consuming very little sports television, other than live games.

I don’t know if that’s me getting older, or having kids, or the well-documented struggles of sports programming. I used to watch SportsCenter like it was my job growing up, hours and hours of highlights. Now, it seems like I can get all the highlights I’m interested in, plus developing stories, notes, or other information, in a fraction of the time on a computer or phone.

When everything is on demand, it’s hard to sit through a Canucks-Panthers highlight to see the Indians or Warriors or whatever.

So, in that way, this becomes similar to my feelings about the WWE: I don’t really care what’s on SportsCenter, because I so rarely watch it.

This isn’t a shot at the people who do the show, or ESPN in general. ESPN does some of the best sports journalism in the world. “Outside the Lines” is terrific. I have like a dozen “30 for 30” on my DVR right now.

But I just don’t often find the combination of reason and time to watch much beyond that.

No.

This is something we’re going to talk a lot about this year, I think, but Hosmer’s value is going to be difficult to quantify. He is a juxtaposition of underwhelming numbers with overwhelming intangibles. He’s a good defender, respected leader, terrific in the community with a track record of performing in the biggest moments.

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He can do a lot to help himself this season, obviously. His numbers have been good, but he hasn’t yet had the kind of monster season you’d want for a guy who’s probably going to want more than $20 million a year on a (very) long-term contract.

So what becomes most likely is a rough position for the Royals: he has a bad year, in which case you probably won’t want to meet his price, or he has a great year, in which case you probably can’t meet his price.

I do believe this, and I’m not sure anyone can disagree: no matter what happens, Hosmer is a Royals Hall of Famer, and deserves to be remembered fondly and cheered when and if he returns in someone else’s uniform.

Yeah, I don’t understand this either. Depending on where you looked, the Royals were around 75  1/2 and the the Twins at 74  1/2 .

I actually like the Twins. I like what they’re building. Byron Buxton has a superstar’s talent, Miguel Sano is going to hit 40 homers someday soon, and Brian Dozier is a dang second baseman who hit 42 last season*.

* All against the Royals, if I remember right.

Their roster is loaded with young talent. They have a chance to be pretty good, fairly soon.

But this year? Seems like a stretch.

The people who decide these things are smarter than me, and have much more at stake than me, but the Royals’ number just seems very low. I get that they lost Edinson Volquez, and Kendrys Morales, but they had so much go against them last year and still won 81 games.

The bullpen won’t be as good without Wade Davis, fine. I get that. The defense probably won’t be as good, either. Cool. That’s fine.

But I’m also guessing they won’t lose two All-Stars for months on one play. I think Alex Gordon will hit better than .220. I think Lorenzo Cain will play more than 103 games. I think Brandon Moss will be good. Eric Hosmer will hit. Volquez was terrible last season, so how big of a loss is that, really?

I don’t know, you guys. I don’t gamble, and urge anyone who does to ignore anything from me that sounds like gambling advice.

But that seems like an awfully low numbers.

If you haven’t read it yet, this is a good story by our Alec Lewis ahead of Knox’s official visit this weekend.

I don’t know how to judge these things, but I do think that with Michael Porter Jr., the four-star C.J. Roberts, and some usable pieces like Terrance Phillips and Kevin Puryear it’s fair to expect the NCAA Tournament in year one.

If Cuonzo Martin can also had a second top-10 recruit, then maybe it becomes a top four or so finish in the SEC, and playing on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

But, again, I can’t stress this enough: I don’t know. All I’ve seen from Knox is the McDonald’s game and the sweet mixtape that every high school star has.

It’s a pretty fascinating scenario. A proud program with a recent history that’s spanned from tumultuous to miserable jump-starts with a charismatic coach who grew up two hours from campus and signs what I assume would be the best recruiting class in school history.

I don’t know how that story ends, but I know I want to find out.

Newest Missouri men's basketball commit Michael Porter Jr. opened up about pressure and his desire to make Mizzou Arena thrive again Tuesday at the United Center in Chicago, where he will play in the McDonald's All-American Game on Wednesday eveni

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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