Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Chiefs game, Royals’ chances, Colin Kaepernick, politics, KU, K-State and Mizzou

Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield.
Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield. jsleezer@kcstar.com

At this very moment, the Angels hold the second wild card. They are 61-58. The Royals are a half-game back, in the middle of an absurd 12 American League teams that are in or within 3  1/2 games of a playoff spot.

Bud Selig’s devious plan is working.

The Angels’ record translates roughly to 83 wins over a complete season. They’re 16-11 since Mike Trout returned from the disabled list, and have won 12 of their last 16.

Add in so many teams bunched together, and you have to think it’ll take at least 86 wins to get into a Wild Card Game or a play-in game for a Wild Card Game. Someone, you would think, will get hot.

The Royals are 60-58. To get to 86 wins, they’ll need to finish 26-18.

The way this team is going, they are fully capable of finishing anywhere from 10-34 to 34-10. Their best 44-game run includes 29 wins, and their worst includes 26 losses.

So much of this is going to depend, simply, on their ability to beat division opponents. All but 15 of their final 44 game are in the division, including 10 against the first-place Indians.

Every baseball season includes rises and falls. Royals baseball seasons seem to include more than most. Everything is a shoulda-sold or a how-much-are-playoff-tickets-again, and maybe it seems strange that a team that just lost five in a row and 10 of 12 can be thinking about the playoffs but this is baseball in Selig’s double wild-card world.

Nobody remembers it now, except as a prelude to the fun, but that 2014 team spent most of the season stinking. This Royals team is 50-38 over the last three and a half months, and merely continuing that pace would get the Royals to 85 wins.

It’s easy to come up with reasons it won’t happen, and mathematically, that’s the most likely outcome.

But the lineup is improved, Jake Junis might be the upgrade at fifth starter they’ve been waiting for, and why would you bet against the core that’s won two of the last three pennants?

This week’s reading recommendation is Brendan Koerner on Alex, the Russian hacker who makes millions targeting slot machines, and the eating recommendation is the cheesy ancho corn dip at Beer Kitchen.

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

Yeah, I think that’s about right. I don’t disagree with any of that, but just to play the game I’ll pick some you didn’t mention.

Good:

Tyreek Hill. Not a surprise, because we’ve seen this exact move many times in camp, but the way he beat the coverage on the first snap is why he’ll be a very productive receiver. Precise footwork, explosive speed, reliable hands.

Chris Conley. Think it’s fair to say he’s underperformed, at least slightly, so far in his career. But made some nice plays, showing strength and athleticism.

Ukeme Eligwe. Backed up strong camp practices by showing up in a game-ish. Strong guy, good speed.

Bad:

Tyler Bray. Bad enough he was demoted. That interception just can’t happen. Watching him is a reminder how important it is for a quarterback to be mobile. Doesn’t need to be a scrambler, or a runner, but at least needs to be able to create time in the pocket.

Justin Houston’s knee.

There are a lot of answers here. The cornerbacks below Marcus Peters on the depth chart are important. The offensive line. Kareem Hunt. CJ Spiller. Chris Conley. Derrick Johnson, Bennie Logan, and everyone else who is primary in run defense. Tyreek Hill.

But none of that matters as much as Justin Houston’s knee. I don’t know how many people outside Kansas City realize how special he is, and I actually suspect that many around Kansas City subconsciously (and, if we’re honest, understandably) undervalue him because of what’s felt like omnipresent knee issues.

When healthy, Houston is perhaps the Chiefs’ best run defender. That’s easy to overlook, because #sacks, but it’s true to the point that teams often run away from him. If you’re worried about the Chiefs’ sorry run defense, a healthy Justin Houston is critical.

When healthy, Houston is one of the NFL’s best pass rushers. This is more widely recognized, of course, but worth pointing out because the way defensive coordinator Bob Sutton like his cornerbacks to play it’s vitally important for pass rushers to at least create pressure.

Dee Ford had a nice breakout season, but it’s also true that he had as many sacks as you did over the last seven regular-season games*. They need to generate pressure.

* And, actually, maybe that’s not true. Maybe you’re Tamba Hali, and you had two sacks over those games. Hi Tamba!

We all tend to overstate one player or one factor, but I’m not sure anything is as important for the Chiefs to be a great defense than Justin Houston’s knee.

Couldn’t tell much either way from the first preseason game. He’s playing without a brace, and apparently pain free, but it’s much less relevant about whether he’s wearing a brace in mid-August than it is whether he’s wearing street clothes in mid-December.

I have to admit I thought the pick was going to be Watson, and I’d have been on board with that. He’s bigger, more athletic, and I like that he pushed a program to unprecedented heights. The end of the national-championship game was a convincing closing argument.

I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Mahomes for his college environment. Coaches missed on him out of high school, and Texas Tech had the worst defense in the country. Watson played against better competition, but he also had better talent around him, particularly his receivers.

I also have to admit that I didn’t know enough about either before the draft. Most notably, I hadn’t seen the Gruden QB camps yet, and I am a strong believer that physical talent in NFL quarterbacks is both important and overrated.

The difference between Watson and Mahomes physically doesn’t seem to be as big as the difference between them mentally.

Football people talk a lot about a quarterback “in the classroom,” and everything you hear is that Mahomes is far more advanced than Watson there.

I do think Watson would be a good fit with the Chiefs, particularly the zone-read stuff that Andy Reid likes to run, but Mahomes isn’t exactly a slouch physically — Watson’s better with his feet, and bigger, but Mahomes moves OK and has a terrific arm.

Knowing what I know now, I’d have been good with the Chiefs taking either. We went over and over the reasons, but it was the right time for the Chiefs to take a quarterback. They had the picks to trade, they have a quarterback they know they can win with, under club control, so there’s no rush to push the kid.

But, knowing what I know now, I’m glad they went with Mahomes. I believe his arm and Tyreek Hill’s speed will make the Chiefs very difficult to defend, and that his age and background and work habits hint that the mental stuff will come along faster than most people expect.

At least, that’s what I hope. I waaaaay overdrafted him in my nerdy fantasy football dynasty league this week.

Chiefs rookie Patrick Mahomes threw a touchdown pass in his preseason debut in Friday's 27-17 loss to the 49ers. 8/11/2017

It’s really hard to overstate how badly the Royals screwed up the second-base job out of spring training.

Whit Merrifield was, objectively, the best candidate. The Royals thought enough of Cheslor Cuthbert’s bat to let him compete — out of position — for the second base job but Merrifield’s OPS in 2016 was all of 15 points lower than Cuthbert’s.

Christian Colon made sense, just because of where he was with option years, but there was never any reason to think Colon was as good as Merrifield. Raul Mondesi is, by far, the most talented of the bunch but was overwhelmed by big-league pitching the year before and had not yet had a particularly productive minor-league season.

The decision not to go with Merrifield was peculiar at the time, and just appears stranger and stranger with hindsight.

But, well, none of that is really what you’re asking about here.

Because now, Mondesi has had a productive minor-league season — he’s hitting .302/.341/.537 with 33 extra-base hits and 18 steals in 300 plate appearances in Omaha. His plate discipline still needs work, and something that big-league pitchers will again try to exploit when they have the opportunity. But, still. He’s been productive.

If nothing else, Mondesi would be rare in that he’d be an above-average defender as a backup shortstop. And no matter what you think of his offense, he wouldn’t be an enormous drop from Escobar.

So, sure. Doing what you say here makes some sense. But keep in mind that if they get that far, the Royals have a better option for speed on the postseason roster in Terrance Gore. I don’t know that the Royals would use another spot on Mondesi.

Before we get to the point of your question, let me stand up for Costco a bit here.

I adore Costco.

I love the value, love the convenience, love how they treat their employees, and believe that last part rubs off in how the employees treat customers. Judging by your name, you probably go to the Costco off 123rd-ish and Metcalf, or maybe the one off I-35 and 95th, and I have no doubt that those are clown shows on Sundays.

But the one on Linwood is closest to my house, and it’s hectic on Sunday, but still manageable. The lines always seem like too much when you approach, but move faster than you’d expect. It’s a beautiful thing when you can get good deals on gas, milk, diapers and bourbon at the same place. I’ll deal with some crowds for that.

OK. Now about Gordon.

We’ve talked about him a lot here, and I have no answers. I thought it was his wrist last year, and maybe it was, but then it’s hard to explain this year being even worse. The most logical answer seems to be that it’s mental, perhaps about living up to the contract, but in a lot of ways I’d say mental toughness is his defining trait.

It’s hard for me to square a guy being able to overcome everything he’s overcome professionally — serious injuries, major bust labels, position switch, impossible expectations, very real failures that had his career in doubt, and, yes, a major contract extension — with a guy who wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure of a big free agent contract.

I just don’t get it.

I also don’t get the Royals’ handling of him. Ned Yost says he’s going to let Gordon sit for a few days, to reset his season and in some ways this stage of his career, but Gordon hasn’t actually sat for even one entire game. He came on as a defensive replacement in the first two, started the next three, and was a sub again on Sunday before starting Monday.

They want him to spend extra time with the hitting coach, to see if there’s something new worth trying, but he’s had plate appearances in every game.

I’m not here to make the argument that it’s holding him back. He’s been holding himself back. But I also don’t know what the argument is that this is helping.

One thing I feel like I should point out. Many players have allowed offensive struggles much more shallow than this affect their defense, attitude, or accountability. Gordon has done none of that.

He’s been a professional about it, and perhaps this is giving credit for something professionals should do, but I feel like it’s worth mentioning.

Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon was removed from the lineup to spend time in the batting cage in hopes of hitting the rest button on the season.

Mike Moustakas is among the others who do this, I believe, at least occasionally.

And every time I see it, I chuckle a little bit inside, because it makes me think of our 3-year-old, who will play with a toy truck until it turns to dust but will FREAK THE HECK OUT if you forget to cut the tag off his shirt.

We all have our quirks, I guess.

Two or fewer wins: trouble.

Three wins: fine.

Anything more: gravy.

There seems to be some real momentum around that program, finally. David Beaty took what was probably an unfair challenge, but one thing he always had going for him was a wide recognition about the kind of tire fire he took over.

That means patience.

But patience isn’t forever, particularly not in pseudo-professional sports. The football program’s top booster has been clear that he “absolutely” believes “significant progress” must come this season. He’s vague on what that means, exactly, but after a 2-10 season, three wins is the bare minimum for progress.

Beaty, to his credit, accepts those expectations and knows he has to turn vague signs of progress into more actual wins on the field.

Recruiting has picked up, and there is the promising but clumsily laid out plans for a major stadium renovation. These are good signs, but it’s not hard to imagine the momentum being lost if the team doesn’t win more games.

To get there, KU probably has to beat Central Michigan — which has been to three straight bowls, and won at Oklahoma State last season — and find two more conference games to win.

Expecting three wins in a coach’s third season is a ridiculously low standard, but in fairness Beaty took over a ridiculously bad situation.

I know it’s easy to make jokes about KU football, and they’ve earned that, but there’s a lot riding on this season. If they take a step back, and there’s enough pressure from people like Anderson, it could mean Beaty’s job, which would probably mean AD Sheahon Zenger’s job. The stadium renovations would almost certainly be on hold.

Or, get to four wins or even five, and the program is at its highest point in nearly a decade.

There will be another round of conference realignment, at some point, and it would behoove Kansas to at least have a mediocre football program.

Also, basketball coach/AD/chancellor/CEO/marketing guy Bill Self isn’t going to be around forever.

K-State.

I actually believe they’ll both get there.

I’m encouraged by the way Missouri finished last season. I do believe you can find out a lot about a team, specifically the coach’s handle, when there’s nothing tangible to play for. You don’t get credit for avoiding a total meltdown, so this is a little nuanced, but that could’ve been disastrous and they ended by beating two bowl teams in their last three games.

The entire offense, basically, is back. Barry Odom is a defensive coach, so if the defense can’t be good enough to make that work, Mizzou has bigger problems.

But K-State won nine games last year, and returns its starting quarterback and an offense that should be among the best Bill Snyder has ever had. It’s my belief that the SEC is always both the best and most overrated conference in college football, but I do think there are more wins to find in the Big 12.

K-State has two layups to start the season, a tough but should-win game at Vanderbilt, and then a conference schedule that should have them favorites in all but two games.

I know Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are favored to win the league, and they should be, but K-State has Oklahoma at home and, well, you never know.

Course, that could all change, because ...

... I believe this is possible.

Not probable, or even anything I’d bet on with odds.

But, I don’t know, 10 percent? Something like that?

K-State fans are understandably sick of thinking about how long Snyder will be there, and whether Sean will take over, but it’s a fascinating situation for a lot of reasons. Bill has subtly and not-so-subtly made the case that successful and retiring coaches should have a loud say in who replaces them.

Maybe he’d look at retiring just before the start of the season as sort of a cheap trick, a gimmick that would put Sean in a tough situation, but he also might look at it as the best way to ensure the job goes to his son and the one he believes is the best choice.

I’m not as far along this theory as my friend David Ubben, who will spike his computer in your end zone if this actually happens, but I don’t think any of us should be shocked.

Also, the guy is going through cancer treatments. If he wants to step away, it doesn’t necessarily have to be to slide his kid into the job.

Sporting is the answer here if Peter Vermes is no longer there. That’s certainly possible, and something I asked about a few weeks ago, but I can’t say I have a great feel for it one way or the other.

If the national-team job came open, he’d obviously listen, and my hunch would be that he’d take it if offered partly because it’s hard to imagine an American turning that job down but that’s just a guess.

There is really no way to overstate Vermes’ influence on Sporting, not just as the one in charge of the roster and game plans, but also the ethos and synergy of the entire soccer operation.

Whenever he’s no longer there, the whole place will change, even if he’s replaced in-house.

The Chiefs are the answer here if you’re looking through the narrow lens of a new quarterback, because Patrick Mahomes is probably the guy starting next year, and simply by his nature will change the way they look.

But to me, the Royals are the answer.

Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain are each likely to be playing somewhere else next season. I’m basing this on nothing more than an educated guess, but I expect Ned Yost to retire, too. The next wave will come up, meaning more Raul Mondesi than Moose, more Bubba Starling than Lorenzo Cain.

But the main reason the Royals are the answer is that, well, I don’t want this to come across as morbid — because I have no reason to believe he’s in anything other than good health — but David Glass is about to turn 82.

The Royals have been mum about the succession plan, assuming there is one, but even if the plan is for David’s son Dan to take over — which is my guess — it will be much different.

David Glass deserved all the criticism he got before 2006, but since then, has operated like a model small-money owner. Maybe Dan would keep things going the same way, but the relationships wouldn’t be the same, the history wouldn’t be the same, the gravitas within the game wouldn’t be the same.

Well, first of all, if I’m forced to eat one fast food the rest of my life, it’s not going to be a real long life, so the decision isn’t all that important.

We also need to agree on a definition of fast food. Like, is Chipotle fast food? Five Guys? Jimmy John’s? Panera? Einstein?

For our purposes here, I’m going to take a very narrow definition. If there’s any doubt about whether it’s fast food, I’m going to say it’s not fast food. That means all of the places above, and others, won’t be considered because not all of their stores have drive-thrus which, to me, is fast food’s defining trait. I’m also not including places like In-N-Out and Whataburger, because they’re not in Kansas City, and that feels like cheating.

I’m probably making this harder on myself than I should, because those fast casual places are my people. I would be perfectly fine if you told me I had free Jimmy John’s and Chipotle for life, but only if I had at least one meal there every day. I would not tire of this arrangement.

But I’ve made my rules, and you’ve given me four slots here, so my answers:

Chick-fil-A: my absolute favorite of the classic, no-doubt-about-it fast food places. I can’t believe they mass produce sandwiches that good, and the sauce variety is top shelf.

Sonic: when you say “rest of your life,” I’m going to prioritize variety, and Sonic gives me a lot of options. I’m not into hot dogs — I know, I know, I’m just not, don’t judge me — but the burgers are good, there are plenty of chicken options, and their breakfast game is strong.

Taco John’s: probably a bit of a sentimental pick, but there is no fast-food place I get more excited to eat. Crispy tacos and taco bravo and all the oles you can stuff into a bag, please. Although, in the Mexican category, In-A-Tub is a strong contender. Those tacos are outrageously good.

Culver’s: bite for bite the best burgers available in the genre, plus you can have delicious custard, and a chicken option.

A partial list of quarterbacks currently employed by NFL teams: Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg, Josh McCown, Brock Osweiler, Garrett Grayson, Ryan Nassib, Drew Stanton, Blaine Gabbert, Sean Mannion, Dan Orlovsky, Luke McCown, Cooper Rush, Kellen Moore, Mike Bercovici, Ryan Mallett, Thad Lewis, Taylor Heinicke, and at this point I’m tired of googling random teams’ depth charts.

Colin Kaepernick threw 16 touchdowns and four interceptions last year for a miserable team with one of the league’s worst set of receivers. For his career, he’s completing 59.8 percent of his passes with 72 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. He remains a good athlete and threat to run, even if he’s not quite the revolution we saw his first two years.

No matter what you think of his protest, I’m not sure how you can believe it has nothing to do with his unemployment.

I do not consider this in the least bit controversial or even subjective: if Kaepernick stood for the anthem, and stuck with the NFL’s culture demanding that players be obsessed with nothing but football, he would be in someone’s training camp.

He’s better than some teams’ starting quarterbacks, and better than many teams’ backup quarterbacks.

Of course, he knew the risks when he did this. The NFL is a notoriously conservative league, and while he’s better than many backup quarterbacks, he’s not so good that he can simply demand a job.

If Aaron Rodgers or Odell Beckham or Richard Sherman were to take a knee, or say something that made a lot of people uncomfortable, well, they’re stars. They’re different. Kaepernick isn’t a star.

I find the cries about distractions to be disingenuous at best, in part because NFL teams have made it clear they don’t care about distractions involving men who beat up women, but also because the idea that Kaepernick would divide a locker room ignores that he won the 49ers’ leadership award as voted by his teammates.

Again, this is all true no matter what you think of the protest. But of all the criticisms of Kaepernick, the one I’ve heard that is the most intellectually dishonest is that he’s hurting himself by not telling the world what he wants when we all know that if Kaepernick did an interview saying he just wanted a spot on a roster he’d be crushed by many as seeking attention and trying to back teams in a corner.

I talk a lot about how NFL teams — and the Chiefs more than most — often talk about wanting guys “who love football.” That’s code for a lot of things, including not caring about the risk of long-term brain injuries, but it’s also code for being so obsessed with football that you’ll push everything else down your list of life’s priorities.

This may be the clearest example of that yet.

Speaking of all this ...

... I don’t know that I have any personal guidelines, other than I don’t like to do it, and rarely will.

Seems like this puts me in an increasing minority among sports media folk, and that’s OK too. I don’t tell any of them how to do their job, and am not likely to change my mind if they tell me how to do my job.

I have personal political feelings. I follow the news. Read a lot, listen to podcasts. But I consider them my personal political feelings. Talking about politics does not make me happy.

The conversation, now more than any time I can remember, is blindly and absurdly and intentionally and counterproductively divisive. With a few exceptions, it does not seem like either side is willing to listen to the other.

It’s tiring, and silly, and I don’t know what good it does to get in the middle of it.

I have enough problems as it is.

One of my favorite things about sports is it’s fun, and an escape. I like the fact that a Bernie Sanders voter and Donald Trump enthusiast can each spend their days worked up about politics, but if they sit next to each other at a game and don’t get into the news can talk for an hour about Alex Gordon’s swing or Patrick Mahomes’ arm or Sporting KC’s offense.

I love that, and love being a tiny-teeny-very-tiny part of that. I don’t want to muddy it with where I stand on health care.

There are plenty of places to go for that.

When you say “piece” my mind goes away from books and toward something in a newspaper, magazine, or online pub. I assume that’s what you mean, but if not, at least three books have literally changed the way I see the world: The Last American Man, When Breath Becomes Air and Unbroken.

I mean, I’m just going to stumble through an awkward one-sentence paragraph here because I loved those books so dang much.

OK. Moving on.

The first one that comes to mind is a story nearly 7 years old, and both sides of that make me believe this is the right answer: The Things That Carried Him, Chris Jones’ story of one soldier’s last trip home.

The subject is gripping, the access is full, the reporting complete, and the writing gorgeous. Chris might be my favorite writer — I don’t know, there are so many great ones out there — and this is him at his best.

This week, I’m particularly thankful that both kids have randomly and amazingly started sleeping until about 8 in the morning. It has, literally, changed my life. Colors are brighter, air is fresher, food tastes better. I am fully aware this could change any day, and probably tomorrow, since I’m writing about it here. But either way, it has been an incredible experience.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

  Comments