We are now in year five of the new reality in which the Royals are good at baseball and among their consistent strengths has been depth and balance.
This has never been a team that needed a certain starter to win his game every time through the rotation, or one guy to carry the offense. The closest they ever came to such an arrangement would’ve been the reliance on the bullpen in the HDH years, but even that was three guys, not one.
All that said, some players are more important than others, and any conversation about the most irreplaceable Royal would center around Salvador Perez.
My choice, for whatever it’s worth, would be Lorenzo Cain. I just believe he’s their best all-around player, a guy who can win a game with his glove, legs, or bat, and that the lineup works so much better with him in it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that last season dipped when he went on the disabled list.
But even then, that’s more of an argument for Cain than against Perez*. The point is the Royals can’t well afford losing any of the core for long, even as the numbers game give them a little cushion.
* Or Eric Hosmer (their best hitter) or Mike Moustakas (their best power hitter) or Danny Duffy (their best pitcher) or even Whit Merrifield (who’s been terrific and filled what would’ve otherwise been a significant hole in the lineup).
Perez is second on the team in home runs, and is widely regarded as one of the game’s best defensive catchers. Having a catcher with power or game-affecting defense is a significant advantage. Having both, in one guy, is a building block for a world champion.
The Royals have lost two of three since Perez went on the disabled list, which is both an insignificantly small sample size and all we have to go on. We’ll get into this more below, but Drew Butera is a fine backup, but there are reasons he’s never made more than 75 starts in a season and those reasons are more than just “Ned would play Perez 262 games a year if he could.”
Butera is a 150-point drop in OPS from Perez, made a throwing error Monday night, and has had a bizarre recent struggle in catching the ball.
The Royals have covered injuries before, most notably when Eric Hosmer missed four weeks with a broken hand in 2014 and the team took off without him. I’ll never forget how bummed the front office was then. It was just after the trade deadline, and they’d tried to add a bat, but nothing went through.
Part of the logistical challenge was that Billy Butler wasn’t hitting, and the Royals couldn’t move him, which in a way meant that Butler’s contract and market value was preventing the Royals from effectively solving the problem of his lack of production.
Well, then, after hitting .264/.316/.356 through Aug. 2, Butler didn’t hurt the Royals defensively in replacing Hosmer’s glove, and hit .337/.396/.533 over the next 24 games. The Royals won 18 of those games.
Nobody would’ve predicted that surge, and nobody should expect something similar now.
There’s a very real possibility that if the Royals miss the playoffs by a game or two, we’ll look back at Perez’s injury as the thing that did them in.
But this group is nothing if not unpredictable, resilient, and at its collective best when challenged.
This week’s reading recommendation is my friend Liz Merrill on the girl who saved a small Texas high school’s football season, and the eating recommendation is the breakfast sandwich at Heirloom.
The quarterback is always the thing, but I’m going to quibble with your premise here because I don’t believe Alex Smith can completely change the outlook based on performance.
Matter of fact, I believe that all predictions are inherently flawed, and the vast majority are wrong, but assuming health — we’re all adults here, so we can agree that injuries change everything — I can tell you with a great degree of certainty how Smith will perform this year.
He’ll complete around 325 of 500 passes, throw for around 3,500 yards, 15 to 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’ll play cautiously, make a few mistakes, make a few big plays, and help the Chiefs to around 10 wins.
I know this, of course, because this is what he’s done the last four years. This is who he is, and what he is.
You’re not getting Aaron Rodgers out of him, and you’re not getting Matt Cassel.
So my answer is going to be different.
I believe Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill will have big years, that the offensive line will be improved, that Bennie Logan will be better than people realize, that Eric Berry will be great and Marcus Peters will be both great and endlessly entertaining. I believe they’ll be 20th or below in both run offense and run defense. I believe their special teams won’t be as good as last year, largely because Hill won’t be taking as many returns.
But I don’t know that there is a lot of intrigue in any of that. Seems fairly straightforward to me.
I do think there’s something out there, though, something that could go a ways toward swinging the season but before I mention it I’d like to drop a little disclaimer here that all of us — media, fans, even scouts and personnel men — often overstate the importance of one factor.
NFL teams have 53 players, with something like 75 snaps on each side of the ball, plus special teams, 16 times a year, which means more than one factor will swing a season.
All that said — Justin Houston’s knee, you guys.
If he’s fully healthy — and I mean 100 percent, not 90 or 95 — then he is one of the best five or so defensive players in football. He’s filthy rich and relatively famous because of the 22 sacks in 2014, but he’s a vastly underrated run defender, and fundamentally changes the way games are played when he’s on the field.
That 2014 season is the only time he’s played all 16 games since 2012.
Houston is working without a brace, and looks like his old self in camp so far, in so much as you can tell from camp so far. But the question isn’t whether he’s totally healthy in camp, or the beginning of the season. It’s how close to totally healthy he is in November and December and especially January.
With Houston healthy, the Chiefs could have one of the league’s very best defenses.
With Houston hurt like he’s been three of the last four years, it’s probably no better than a very good defense.
There’s an important difference there.
But, what do I know? I’m the same guy who just told you we all often overstate the importance of one factor.
What you’re basically asking me here is whether Alex Smith will be injured enough to miss two starts.
Because I do believe that Mahomes will be the No. 2 quarterback by the regular season, and I do believe that Smith will and should remain the starter as long as he’s healthy.
Smith came here with an injury history. Hell, he came here because of that injury history, if you consider that he lost his job in San Francisco because of a concussion.
He had made more than 10 starts just twice in eight years there, though it’s always worth noting how dysfunctional the 49ers were back then (and are again). Once, he missed an entire season because, basically, the team doctor left a wire in his shoulder during a surgery.
But now, Smith has made 15 or 16 starts in each of his four seasons with the Chiefs. Some of that is luck — staying healthy or getting hurt always includes at least some luck — but more of it is that Andy Reid’s emphasis on quick throws and moving the pocket gives Smith some natural protection.
They’ll play some really good defenses this year, and while Smith isn’t yet old, 33 is also no longer young.
I don’t think anyone should be surprised if he hurts a knee, or breaks a finger, or even has problems again with a clumsily handled and diagnosed head injury that officially was totally not a head injury.
But this isn’t about being surprised. It’s about what you think is more likely.
And he’s done it four years in a row now, with the same system, so I’m expecting Smith to make 15 or 16 starts again this year.
I don’t know how many receivers they’ll keep, but if it’s six, that means Jones has to beat Jehu Chesson, who the Chiefs just took in the fourth round, or Demarcus Robinson, who they took in last year’s fourth round and have invested a season into and has found his way in special teams.
I’m not here to tell you it can’t be done. He’s 6-3, and thick, with terrific athleticism. He’s been one of the camp’s most pleasant surprises.
Maybe he beats one of those guys out, maybe they decide to take seven receivers. But I think the most likely destination for him is the practice squad, or somewhere else.
I’m just playing the numbers game here.
Let me tell you something, my friends: many of you are not feeling the Gordo lately.
Which is understandable!
He stinks. He’s hitting .197 with a .294 slugging percentage and is playing on the richest contract in Royals history. He’s come to the plate 390 times, and has exactly 21 extra-base hits. That’s not what you want.
They do need offense, and if and when Gordon is benched there will be no vigorous defense of him here or, I imagine, anywhere else.
But I will point out one thing. Gordon remains, by both the eye test and metrics, a terrific left fielder. One of the game’s best. The Royals remain committed to playing the best defense possible, and internally put great value on his glove and presence.
It’s more than loyalty, too. This is all worth keeping in perspective, but with similar playing time, Jorge Bonifacio and Alex Gordon are judged to be equally valuable this season by Baseball Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement.
The Royals’ best defensive outfield is Gordon in left, Cain in center, and Melky Cabrera in right. If Bonifacio plays right and Cabrera is in left, that’s a step back.
The Royals are almost always going to err on the side of defense and loyalty, so it really shouldn’t be surprising that Gordon is still the regular left fielder despite — and this is a true story — being the second-worst of 159 everyday hitters in the big leagues ranked by OPS*.
* You’ll never guess who’s the worst. Actually, yes you will. It’s Alcides Escobar.
Again, I’m not here arguing for him to play every day. He’s hitting .200 against righties and .198 against lefties, so platooning him doesn’t make much sense either.
And, actually, none of the splits make much sense for a platoon. Brandon Moss is actually hitting much better against lefties this year (though that’s a small sample size and counter to his career numbers) and Bonifacio is performing better against righties.
If I was in charge — and aren’t you glad I’m not? — I’d give Gordon another week or so regardless of production and if nothing changes, put him in a rotation with Moss and Bonifacio in which playing time is strictly given based on matchups and who’s hot.
Also, speaking of how Perez’s injury impacts things, the Butera love around town is about to dip.
The last few weeks have been full of questions about whether Butera would start for most teams around baseball, but combined with his sudden and perplexing inability to consistently catch pitches, I think we’re about to see why he’s a good backup catcher.
His OPS is 150 points less than Perez’s.
We can talk about Moss underperforming, or Gordon, but guys: Butera’s career OPS is worse than both those guys this year.
Does Neil Smith signing with the Broncos count?
Mike Sweeney is the one who usually comes to mind here. He was a fan favorite, one of the best right-handed hitters in baseball, and the first (only) of his wave to sign long-term to stay in Kansas City for less than he would’ve received on the open market.
Then his back went out, and everything around him turned to mud, and he was booed repeatedly at home.
Other than that, I think you’d have to go with Johnny Damon or Carlos Beltran, but that’s a whole different thing and not in the spirit of what I think you’re asking about.
You know, in some ways, Gordon’s last five or six years are the exact opposite of Ned Yost’s time in Kansas City.
Yost was openly mocked until, basically, the Royals swept the Orioles in the 2014 ALCS. Now, he’s beloved.
Scott Pioli might be a good comp? He was never as loved as Gordon, but the Chiefs did win the division his second year. Gordon’s low will never be as low as Pioli’s. He’s also not an athlete.
I don’t know. Maybe AEG? It’s a corporation, not a human being, but they were pretty high around town when the all but promised to bring an NHL or NBA team to Kansas City and by now I think we’ve all smartened up and see the company as a collective opportunistic sandbagger that never gave even the tiniest damn about landing a team at Sprint Center.
The decision to make Raul Mondesi the opening day second baseman was bizarre at the time, and from the looks of it will only grow more and more bizarre as time passes.
Mondesi could turn into a star, or Merrifield could fall off, but just based on what each has done so far this season in the big leagues* is a baffling call.
* Worth pointing out that Mondesi is drilling the Pacific League: .308/.344/.538 with 11 homers, 16 doubles, four triples, and 18 steals in 66 games.
I tend to take these questions too literally, but it’s hard to say Merrifield is what they hoped to see from Mondesi, just because they’re such different players. And I don’t believe the Royals had any illusions that Mondesi would be an offensive star.
They were hoping he’d hit enough to get by, and then help them win with defense and speed.
I hope nobody is burying Mondesi, either. He only turned 22 last month, and switch-hitting shortstops with power, great arms, and elite speed are always valued. I never understood why they didn’t let him “win” a level in the minors, but if he can get some confidence from raking in Omaha, then the Royals really might have something.
This is a terrific question. Take a bow, good man.
It doesn’t take long to make an argument for both. Odom had a rotten first season, his first SEC win coming on Nov. 12, and that should’ve been a bowl team. Can’t give up a 51-burger to Middle Tennessee State at home.
Mizzou returns 15 starters, including the quarterback and virtually all of the offense. If you want to be understanding and forgive Odom for an awkward transition from assistant to head coach, and believe that winning two of the last three games is a sign of progress, then cool.
The Vegas over-under on them is 6 1/2 wins, which means missing a bowl would be an underachievement by at least a game and a half.
But I’m going with Cuonzo Martin. Michael Porter is the best recruit Mizzou has ever had and is likely to ever have. That’s not a knock on Mizzou, because Porter a better recruit than most schools are likely to ever have.
Filling out the class with Jeremiah Tilmon, Blake Harris and CJ Roberts, plus playing in an improved-but-still-less-than-awesome SEC, and a returning nucleus that should be able to support the freshman stars ... c’mon, if you can’t make the tournament with that, then what are we doing here?
Missing the tournament with all of that talent would be a big dump on the earned excitement around the program, and an awful look for Martin and what his ceiling would be at Mizzou.
Let’s be clear: I don’t expect them to miss the tournament. I think they’ll be a good team, with some wild ups and downs, but ultimately make the tournament.
I guess the easiest way for me to answer this question is which outcome would surprise me more?
I hope none of this is unfair. I don’t think it is. It isn’t often I’m this intrigued by a local college basketball team in the preseason.
You said “cover,” which is different than “watch,” and means I can’t say any of the 80’s “U” teams, or the Lethal Weapon 3 Georgia Tech team, or any of the old Loyola Marymount teams, or Billy Tubbs’ OU squads, or Tommie Frazier’s Nebraska teams. You’re prohibiting me from using any of those as an answer.
I got this job in 2010. Before that, I covered major league baseball, and before that, I covered high schools. So we’re starting with 2010.
2013 Missouri football, the first of the back-to-back SEC East champs, because of the conference breakthrough and Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and Shane Ray.
2012 K-State football, because I went to Waco with K-State as the favorite in what at the time was a virtual national quarterfinal game. That was Collin Klein and Tyler Lockett and Arthur Brown and Bill Snyder’s Miracle 2.0.
2012 Kansas basketball, the team that was widely mocked for losing to Davidson at Sprint Center in December, then came together in such an overwhelming way with Thomas Robinson as a first-team All-America, Jeff Withey blocking every shot in the paint, Bill Self saying that Tyshawn Taylor “makes some plays you can’t coach and others that look like he’s never been coached,” and a tournament run ended by Anthony Davis’ absurd Kentucky team.
2010 K-State basketball, with Denis Clemente and Jake Pullen, that rose as high as fifth in the national polls and played one of the best games I’ve ever seen with a double overtime win over Xavier in the Sweet 16 before losing to Butler one game from the Final Four.
But the winner, to me, is 2012 Missouri basketball, the school’s last in the Big 12, with Kim English, both Presseys, Michael Dixon but especially Marcus Denmon. They basically played six or seven guys most nights, with a gorgeous style that was all passes and movement and swishes, won the conference tournament but then had the brutal loss to Norfolk State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
I always say and always keep in mind that we don’t know these guys. Not really, anyway. Don’t know what they’re like at home, or with strangers, what they think about when they’re alone. I don’t mean this exclusively in a bad way. There are without question guys I think are jerks that are actually really good people.
So we’re all guessing here.
I actually think there are a lot of local athletes I’d love my kids to follow, or, and this will be the last time I drop the disclaimer: I’d love my kids to follow what I believe a lot of local athletes to be like.
We all tend to think of stars here, but Peter Moylan and Roger Espinoza and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif have qualities I’d love my kids to strive for.
I think Alex Smith is a genuinely good person, who has done an amazing job of keeping a level head despite everything around him. I admire Derrick Johnson’s drive and brain, Danny Duffy’s world perspective, and the dedication required for basically anyone to make it to his or her sport’s highest level.
Athletes are far from the only people worth admiring, but they are among the easiest to find, just based on how America works.
But, really, the whole time I’ve been typing these words I’ve basically been going back and forth in my head between Eric Berry and Alex Gordon.
Berry is obvious, right? Even without that whole cancer survivor thing, he has a long reputation for treating people the right way, of being diligent with his work and mind, and you can’t fake the kind of respect he has from the locker room. Also: there is that whole cancer survivor thing.
I’ve liked Gordon from the jump. I’ve been around him when he was an impossibly hyped prospect* and when he was the city’s most criticized athlete** and when he was perhaps the city’s most popular athlete*** and now when he’s perhaps the city’s least popular athlete****.
* When George F. Brett said it was an honor to be compared to Gordon, even before Gordon had a big-league at-bat.
** Most often by people who didn’t know him, and said he didn’t care enough, which was always laughable.
*** More than anyone else, the personification of the Royals’ rise from trash to trophies, and the homer off Familia.
**** That’s what happens when you’re on the richest contract in club history and stink.
Again, even though he named one of his sons Sam, I don’t pretend to know him beyond professionally. But from everything I’ve seen and heard, he’s been, basically, the same guy the entire time.
Always worked, never whined, consistently talked about how lucky he is to have two strong parents and family support, confident in his ability but only because he’s done the preparation.
I have no expectations of my kids to play or even like sports. But there are a lot of traits in there that are applicable no matter what they end up doing.
I mean, I could give you the other answer. I could talk about how writing about sports is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do since giving up the dream of being an astronaut when I was like 12.
I could talk about the opportunities to tell incredible stories, to earn trust with people I work with, to have a beautiful and organic connection with readers.
I could talk about working for (by far) the biggest media platform in the area, with more daily reach than several competitors put together, and the privilege of being able to travel the country and occasionally the world to see amazing sports events and the things that matter most to people in Kansas City.
I could talk about how lucky I am to work with people I not only genuinely like, but admire both professionally and personally, the juice I feel knowing I need to keep up with Terez and Vahe and Blair and Rustin and everyone else.
I could also talk about how the snack table at the office often has Starburst jelly beans.
But, really. It’s the groupies.
I enjoy the IPA. I enjoy the Two Hearted and the Sculpin and Single Wide and the Lil Helper and the Lil Sumpin Sumpin and the Dogfish and the West Coast and the Blind Pig and the Top Rope and the Yakamaniac and many others.
But I don’t like too many of them, and think in general that they’re overdone.
Many people, the only craft beer they’ll drink is an IPA, and good for them, that’s great, drink whatever tastes good to you.
But I’m more of a dark beer guy — I’ve yet to meet an imperial stout I didn’t like — but also like the pale ales and the wheats and the Belgians and more and more the pilsners.
Anything but a sour. Or a radler. I hate me some sours and radlers. But people like them! And those people should drink them!
I know I’m not giving you a real answer, but I guess the closest I can come to a real answer is this: I believe IPAs are probably a little overrated, but I do enjoy them, and also believe that we should all drink whatever tastes good to us.
My wife likes pale ale and the occasional wheat. Cool. One of my best friends likes double and triple IPAs, if you can take the world’s supply of hops and put it into one glass of beer, he will drink that. Cool. One of my best friends likes those spiked root beers and fruity beers, and don’t get me wrong, I make fun of him about it, but still. Cool. Good for him.
I’m taking your question to a place you don’t care about, I’m sure, and you’ve probably already rolled your eyes because you asked a perfectly fine question that was teed up for a good joke and here I am trying to say we should all drink what we like.
But I think of it like food. I like, pretty much, all food. Mexican, Italian, sandwiches, breakfast, sushi, steak, salads, bar food, desserts, barbecue, fish, Cajun, Caribbean, Ethiopian, Chinese, whatever. I’m all in.
But, good gawd I hate oysters. And creme brûlée. If I was on a deserted island, and all there was to eat was oysters and creme brûlée, well, I guess I wouldn’t literally starve myself to death. I’d want to live. But I would consider that the worst deserted island ever.
But I know people love those things! My mom loved creme brûlée, actually, and it broke my heart when my wife and I went to visit a good friend of mine who was working in the Cape and he took us to what was apparently one of the country’s best oyster bars and I literally would’ve rather just gorged on saltine crackers or my foot.
But I guess it’s like free speech. I may not like what you say, but I want you to say it. I may think your sour beers are terrible and your oysters taste and smell and feel like baby vomit, but I want you to eat them if that makes you happy.
And, if all you want is the hoppiest dang IPA on the menu, good for you. I’ll drink to that. But I’ll want to do it with a darker beer.
European soccer, honestly. I enjoy the Arsenal, and would love to see them play in person someday, and maybe this is weird, but I’d actually prefer to see them on the road somewhere.
The Premier League isn’t the same as what it was, the influx of money is by all accounts tugging at the in-person experience, but I would consider that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
That’s a bucket list thing for me, and I’m actually annoyed at myself for only deciding this was a thing I wanted to do after I was in Europe four or five years ago. I’ve walked by and peeped into Camp Nou, where Barcelona play. Seeing a game there would be amazing.
If you’re talking about American sports, that’s harder, because I’m well aware of how lucky I’ve been with my job. I’ve been to every active NFL stadium save the Rams (and now I guess the Chargers) and 33 major-league baseball stadiums. I’ve never been to Safeco Field, which looks sweet, but I assume that going there would be great but also not as cool as AT&T or PNC or Wrigley or Fenway.
The uncharted waters for me is more about colleges, and even high schools. I’d love to go to a night game at LSU, or an afternoon game at Neyland Stadium, or find some big high school game in an SEC state that felt like something much bigger.
If you’re making me choose one, it’s probably the night game at LSU.
But a sumo match in Japan would be pretty sweet, too.
The best bar in town is my house. It has all my favorites, I don’t have to pay, and it is very much within walking distance.
Spirit of your question, though, 39th Street is great. I actually don’t live too far from there. I wouldn’t walk there, but it’s a very short Uber. Westport, Plaza, Midtown, downtown, all great areas of town.
My favorite place for a one-beer dinner where the kids can run around is Char Bar, my favorite place for a beer with a buddy is probably Hi-Dive, my favorite place for a drink with my wife is wherever she wants to go* but my man, I’m telling you, the best bar in town is my house. I’ll probably be there tonight.
* Had good experiences at the Standard Pour, among others.
So, I actually think the most likely answer is a push:
KU goes 3-9, K-State goes 10-3 (with a bowl game).
To get to four wins, KU is probably going to have to win two conference games, because I’m not liking their chances at Ohio. And even that assumes they beat Central Michigan at home. Central has to return a four-year starting quarterback, but that’s a good program that’s been to two consecutive bowl games.
I believe there’s real progress being made at KU, and that should be a win, I’m just saying it’s not a layup.
Getting two conference wins won’t be easy. They play at Iowa State. The home games are West Virginia, Texas Tech, K-State, Baylor and Oklahoma. Maybe Baylor will be imploding by November. Texas Tech could be bad.
I really like K-State this year. Everybody knows about Bill Snyder and returning quarterbacks, but it’s not just Ertz. They have a deep and talented backfield, good line, and some playmakers at the edge. Should be one of the Big 12’s best offenses this year, which means it should be one of the country’s better offenses.
There are some holes on defense, particularly at linebacker, but you can’t have everything. K-State was picked third in the league in the media poll, which seems about right to me, but I don’t think anyone would be surprised if they slipped into the Big 12 championship game, either.
Of course, this will all change when Bill Snyder retires this week so Sean can take over.
Most likely, I’m kidding!
This week, I’m particularly thankful for a summer that’s been — I feel like I shouldn’t say this out loud — AMAZINGLY COOL. I sweat like a slop pig (is that even a thing?) when the temperature gets above 73. I have long considered July and August my penance for any personal shortcomings the other 10 months of the year, and for living a good life in a house and city I love. But, guys, if the highs are going to be around 80 everyday, we’re basically San Diego without the beach.