Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Big 12, Royals’ spring training, Chiefs’ roster flux, and weather

Kansas State coach Bruce Weber hopes the Big 12 lands 8 NCAA tourney teams.

After Kansas State defeats TCU in Fort Worth, coach Bruce Weber hopes eight teams from the Big 12 make the NCAA Tournament.
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After Kansas State defeats TCU in Fort Worth, coach Bruce Weber hopes eight teams from the Big 12 make the NCAA Tournament.

It would be nice if the Royals trained somewhere that didn’t make the Uber drivers say, Surprise, huh? You got family there or something?

Scottsdale is cool. Tempe has a charm. Anywhere closer to Phoenix, really. But the Royals train here, a suburban outpost an hour or so from the airport and 40 minutes from downtown, a spot chosen in part because David Glass’ data said it was a good place to put a Walmart.

People ask what they should do if they go watch the Royals in spring training, and I always tell them: Don’t stay in Surprise. My friend Rustin Dodd described it best: a collection of strip malls and urgent care facilities.

By my math, I’ve spent something like 10 months of my life in Surprise, most days a familiar routine of condo to ballpark to dinner to condo. I can tell you which grocery stores have the best produce, which restaurant the worst service and which has the best TV setup.

I have laughed so many times here, seen so much, heard so much. I’ve seen the first developments of teams that first pulled a franchise from the ashes, then to the top of baseball, and now are trying to do it all over again. That’s a lot of change, but what strikes me most is what’s stayed the same.

Only three managers. One general manager. George Brett is here every year. Rusty Kuntz has been here long enough that my annual joke to him — You said you were retiring, you liar! — is older than either of my kids.

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost said he envisions a scenario in which he’s still managing after 2019 season.

I don’t want to get into the cheesy spring baseball stuff about green grass and hope, but there’s a reason that stuff exists, and it’s not just because a lot of sportswriters spent decades writing the same stories until the Internet made it easier to shame them.

Because if you love baseball, you have a specific love for spring training. It’s light, it’s hopeful and everybody is in the best shape of their life. Have you seen how fast Billy Hamilton is? We can talk about his on-base percentage later (and we will).

If you love baseball, you will love watching big-leaguers in drills you did in high school, with old coaches hitting fungos and yelling encouragement. If you love baseball, you will love batting practice and throwing drills and pitchers and catchers and the 19-year-old dreamers mixing — briefly, but still — with the 30-something millionaires.

This is one of those assignments that I’ve come to understand define the years as they pass by — there’s spring training, March Madness, Chiefs training camp, the Super Bowl and then we start it over again.

I’m not kidding about what I said earlier. If you come here as a fan, you shouldn’t stay in Surprise. There’s more to do in most other parts of the Valley.

But I come here for baseball. Surprise has baseball. That’s enough.

This week’s eating recommendation is the peppercorn beef at Bo Ling’s, and the reading recommendation is Matt Gelb on how the Phillies pursued and ultimately ended up with Bryce Harper.

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

It really does look like it’ll happen, huh? Texas Tech would have to lose at Iowa State on Saturday (possible), K-State would have to lose to at home to Oklahoma on Saturday (unlikely) and KU would have to win at Oklahoma tonight (possible) and at home against Baylor on Saturday (likely).

So the streak is looking dead-ish. But, still, here’s Jeffrey:

Let’s jump!

Look, we could answer this in the spirit I think it’s being asked. We could talk about how winning any major league, let alone the No. 1 RPI league in the country*, is a heck of an accomplishment.

* Yes it is, and no this does not mean it’s harder to win the Big 12 this year than the ACC.

We could talk about K-State and Tech being two of the top four defensive teams in the country according to KenPom. We could talk about how Tech hasn’t lost in more than a month, a span of eight games that includes six wins by 15 points or more including a 29-point stomping of Kansas that was so bad Bill Self waved the white flag with about 4 minutes left.

We could talk about how K-State has been reliable from start to finish, about how two of their losses were the first two league games of the season, and without Dean Wade. The other two came when Iowa State hit 14 of 24 three-pointers (and Wade left with an injury) and at Kansas (where everybody loses).

Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber proud of his Wildcats were able to win seven Big 12 road games after beating TCU 64-52 on Monday, March 4, 2019.

We could talk about how the league player of the year will be either K-State’s Barry Brown or Tech’s Jarrett Culver. We could talk about Tech and K-State advancing to last year’s Elite Eight, and each seemingly being better this year.

We could talk about all these things, Jeffrey, and we should.

But the real answer is that this is one of those things — and there’s WAY TOO MANY OF THOSE THINGS — that everybody will twist and pull into their preconceived notions.

That means Tech and K-State fans will justifiably be proud other teams’ accomplishments, and a whole lot of people who’ve been diminishing the streak anyway will talk about KU not being at full strength, and the Big 12’s lack of national name brand great teams.

But, and I guess this is my preconceived notion coming through, that’s all nonsense. The Big 12 has had some tremendous coaches. Final Four coaches. Bob Huggins, Bob Knight, Lon Kruger, Frank Martin, Fred Holberg, Jamie Dixon.

There have been great players. Buddy Hield, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Michael Beasley, Marcus Smart, on and on. None of them have knocked Kansas down, and there have been years where the Jayhawks have been vulnerable.

So, I say screw all that. K-State or Tech or both will finish 14-4 in the Big 12, and both will have beaten Kansas. This hasn’t been a gimme. This is not a Kansas forfeit. They are one win away from killing the streak.

Give them some dang credit.

David has figured out that one good way to be included here is to compliment the host, especially by mentioning stuff he got right*.

* He’s also kind not to mention the stuff the host got wrong, like the Chiefs going 8-8 last year, or Alex Gordon’s contract being a win for both sides.

I will say this though: there are a couple people who used to wear me out about saying he shouldn’t have been fired, and I don’t hear from them anymore, but most of the K-State fans I know still have a complicated relationship with their basketball coach.

It’s enough that Bruce Weber better win on Saturday, and keep winning the rest of this month, because they’re probably not going to be good next year so he’d do well to stash up as much success points as possible right now.

If they’re 6-10 late in the league season next year, it would be nice to say, “Well, we can’t win the league every year.”

I know we’ve said this a lot, but Weber really does have more at stake this last week than any other coach in the league, and maybe in the country.

A little? Enough to sting, but not enough to leave you in pain?

This all depends on perspective. I don’t think they’ll be awful. I think they’ll win around 70 games*. But that means I expect them to lose 92, so is that awful?

* I’m docking them a few games for what will presumably be Tommy John surgery for Sal Perez.

The 2012 Royals went 72-90, which as you can see is better than my expected 70-92 for this year’s team, but I would argue with everything in my soul that the 2012 Royals were awful.

The difference? Expectations. Place.

Those 2012 Royals were the Our Time Royals, and they had what would eventually become the championship core in place — Hosmer, Moose, Gordon, Butler, Perez, Escobar, Herrera, Holland — and they ended up being booed 16 minutes into the home opener and did not win at Kauffman Stadium until May.

Royals manager Ned Yost discusses what about his team's play put a smile on his face following a 13-7 win over the Cleveland Indians in Cactus League play at Goodyear Ballpark on Sunday, March 3, 2019.

But the current form of the Royals is at least a year from building the kind of credibility required to be severely disappointing so what I’m expecting is a team with talent and holes, ability and inexperience, with moments that make you dream and others that make you change the channel.

If all they had was Adalberto Mondesi, they would be worth following.

But they also have others worth checking in on — Whit Merrifield, Brad Keller, Ryan O’Hearn, Danny Duffy, Jakob Junis, Jorge Soler, Billy Hamilton, etc.

The franchise is slow to talk about rebuilding. Some of that is marketing, and some of it is baseball operations — they believe urgency is important, and don’t want built-in excuses.

But we can be honest about what’s happening. They’re in the beginning stages of this thing. Some of the guys you’ll watch this year will be good enough to be part of a championship team. Others won’t. That’s what 2019 will be for, to know the duds from the studs.

If you look at it from that realistic point of view, no, they shouldn’t be awful.

Your guy Whisker is an optimist!

No. I do not think the Royals will win 80 games this year. I’ve already written this enough that I should have it memorized and smart-keyed, but I still had to look it up so here goes:

The Royals were 31-36 after the All-Star break, and 20-14 after Aug. 23. Those are 162-game paces for 75-87 and 95-67. Notably, the 2018 Royals were MUCH more similar to the 2019 Royals late in the season, so those numbers aren’t irrelevant.

But. Let’s be realistic, and I’m not just talking about Perez’s injry, or that Ryan O’Hearn could be a good player and not match his 44-home run pace from 2018.

Baseball players — like all humans in professional careers — do not develop in straight lines. They zig. They zag. No fan base has been given more proof of this than the Royals, and raise your hand if there were a dozen different times you wanted Alex Gordon released, or Mike Moustakas cut, or thought Wade Davis’ struggles as a starter meant he could not be a good reliever.

If most of you aren’t raising your hands, well, we’re all friends here but you’re liars.

The most obvious question is how they’ll score enough to keep pace. They were 13th in the league in runs last year. They were 13th in homers, and 39 percent of that total came from Perez, Moustakas, and Lucas Duda.

The Royals could be without catcher Salvador Perez for the 2019 season, and Cam Gallagher could take over. Royals manager Ned Yost, speaking at the team facility in Arizona, discussed the readiness of Meibrys Viloria to play catcher in the majors.

They’ll have speed, of course. They might be one of the fastest teams in recent baseball history. But speed has to be on base for it to score, and the Royals were 12th in on-base percentage and plan on giving 550 plate appearances to Billy Hamilton and his career .298 on-base percentage.

The pitching staff has its own concerns.

So, look. All of this could be worked out. Baseball games and seasons are decided in small margins. Eighty wins is possible.

I just don’t think the Royals are close enough to expect that quite yet.

This is something we’ll get into more this week, so I want to keep this answer fairly brief. But, quickly:

The Royals don’t have nearly as much money as the Phillies, so they always would’ve been outbid, and besides, I don’t believe the Royals could’ve had Harper for $26 million a year.

Harper always wanted a bigger market. The Phillies are closer to winning, and better situated to make it sustainable. Also, their ballpark is as good a fit for him as Kauffman would be bad. And 13 years is an absurdly long contract. The Royals don’t like to go more than three, and history says that’s smart. Baseball salaries will go up, but I’m not sure anyone expects the end of Harper’s contract to be good for the team.

There are also questions about just how good of a player Harper is. He’s outrageously talented, obviously, but his defense is subpar and there are questions about how his body will hold up over time with a violent swing. It did not go unnoticed that the Nationals let him go to a division rival without much of a fight.

Let me be clear: I love Harper. I think he’s terrific. I’m just making the case that this isn’t necessarily George Brett in 1980.

There are other reasons. We’ll get to them soon. This is a good question. It’s worth exploring more.

I think this is pretty typical. A gap usually exists between what a team would accept in a trade and what other teams would offer. If it didn’t, there would be far more trades.

I also want to be clear that when the question was asked on the Border Patrol I was talking about what I would do. Not necessarily what the Chiefs would do.

Because there could be an opening here. A change in defensive coordinator and scheme means the rules are different, and if the Chiefs think Dee Ford won’t be on the field every down for them now they might take a little less.

But I think about a few specific and important things here. First, Ford was better against the run last year than ever before. He’s not Justin Houston In His Prime, but he was so much better at setting the edge, making plays when he could, and chasing down some runs from the back.

The second is that rushing the passer is one of the most valuable traits of a football player, and Ford does it extremely well. I just wouldn’t be in a hurry to get rid of that.

I believe in Ford, at least for the next two years or so. Health is always a concern, but he is dedicated, talented, and finally seems to have found his groove.

The one thing — the ONE thing! — the Chiefs did well last year was rush the quarterback. Chris Jones was the most important part of that, but Ford wasn’t far behind. If you trade him what is it exactly that you do well?

First of all, good for you for rightfully listing Teen Wolf as a basketball movie.

A list? A list!

1. Hoosiers. This is so obvious the contrarian in me wants to pick something different, but it’s obvious for a reason. I usually like to laugh more than Hoosiers allows, but it’s so damn well done, the performance of Gene Hackman’s career, and if you haven’t found reason to say “my team is on the floor” at least a half dozen times in your life you should work on correcting this mistake.

2. White Men Can’t Jump. At least in my memory, this was the first R movie my parents let me see without an adult, so of course there’s some sentimental value here. But this is also one of the funniest sports movies of all-time, and one of the imminently quotable movies ever made.

Obviously, you might not want to watch this with the sound on at the office.

3. Blue Chips. Much is made (and rightfully so) of Shaq playing a major role, but I also loved the game action cameos from real players and I think Western University was an Adidas school right?

This isn’t what a press conference looks like, by the way.

4. Teen Wolf. Michael J. Fox was a truly horrendous basketball talent. Great movie though.

5. He Got Game. I do wish the ending was different, but still. Great movie. “It’s a biblical name.” Kills me every time.

This is complicated, and not just because Sporting was 20 seconds away from the result that would’ve framed this conversation much differently.

As fans, and certainly as people in the media, we should never forget that the coaches and executives and scouts and trainers have more information than we do. They have more data, they have more reports, they have more context. They live this stuff in a way that is literally impossible for the rest of us.

We should always remember that.

This is a much different thing than saying they are always correct, or should never be questioned. There are times that too much information can lead to the wrong decision. Paralysis by analysis, in cheeky shorthand.

Athletes are monitored more closely than ever before, and Sporting’s data showed the players were not so worn out in Toluca on Thursday that they couldn’t play an important MLS game on Sunday.

I thought Sporting looked tired on Sunday. I thought there were moments the forwards and midfielders were slow getting back, and moments the defenders took the easy way out. You never know, but there were a couple scoring chances that just looked to fizzle without that final burst.

Peter Vermes wasn’t having it — “no, not at all,” he told Sam McDowell — and blamed the loss more on mental errors. But mental errors are part of fatigue, too.

Look, Vermes had some difficult decisions here. This is the good problem for clubs good enough to participate in and have success in multiple competitions. Playing more backups against Toluca last week may have allowed for a better finish in LA on Sunday, but there are no guarantees.

I believe it was a mistake. A mistake of ambition, and backed by data, but still. I believe it was a mistake.

Iowa State will always be an answer for me. They are loud, many, kind, and happy. Wisconsin is another, and for similar reasons, although if Joel Goldberg would take pleasure from this then I take it all back. North Carolina would be fun, and would mean that personal favorite Shea Rush would be in his hometown.

But, really, the only one that would make a difference in my life is Michigan State. If the wife’s family is happy, I’m more likely to be happy.

More wish list: Murray State because Ja Morant, UCF because Tacko Fall, Texas Tech because Jarrett Culver, and Michigan because they’re fun to watch.

I dig it!

I can’t claim to be a regular viewer. I do not have an AAF team, and do not plan to change that. You should not come here for AAF breakdowns, or AAF takes. I will not go through film of the San Antonio Commanders.

* I thought it was Command before Googling. Commanders is much better.

But if the AAF can stay in its lane, I think there’s something here. I think it could be long-lasting. From the sounds of it, the XFL might be a bit more disruptive. They’re talking about signing guys before they’re eligible for the NFL draft, for instance, and maybe that can work.

The AAF is approaching this much friendlier. NFL ties are on many if not all coaching staffs and front office directories. A relationship with the NFL is growing, though there is no formal investment, at least not yet.

This is the safer route, and unfortunately for anyone who likes to see risk rewarded, probably the smarter one.

The AAF can experiment a little bit more, and to be sure it already is. The booth review structure is awesome, for instance, and should be implemented by the NFL immediately. The quicker play clock is interesting, too, though that’s never bothered me in the NFL.

The AAF seems to be positioning itself for the hardcore fan who’s bummed when the NFL season is over, and might even appreciate a bit slower play and old-school hits not being penalized as closely.

This isn’t a perfect analogy, but I think it works: the SEC championship game is always going to have an audience, but a lot of people watch the MAC, too.

/raises hand/

I have thought way too hard about this question, you guys. Wendy’s fries are replacement level. McDonald’s cheeseburgers. PBR.

But if you expand the view it gets a little harder. I want to call Chili’s a replacement level American restaurant, but dammit, there are times I need those chips and salsa in my life followed by the buffalo chicken salad.

Famous Dave’s is as good as I can think of for a replacement level barbecue restaurant, but that’s not fair to replacement level. You might say Subway is replacement level quick food, but you would be very wrong because it’s more beneficial to eat a clump of cat hair than a Subway sandwich.

Buffalo Wild Wings is probably a good indication of replacement level wings, but their stores are well setup and there are some flavors — hello, spicy garlic — that elevate status.

7-Eleven is a replacement level gas station. The Target brand sandwich bread (can’t remember if they label it Archer Farms) is replacement level. Baby Ruth is a replacement level candy bar. Green grapes are a replacement level fruit, and plain Cheerios — not Honey Nut, to be clear — a replacement level cereal.

Mellinger Minutes is replacement level journalism.

Let me calm your fears, good sir. There is no need to worry — because there is a 100 percent chance of this happening.

Maybe my seasons are mixing together, but isn’t this what happened to last fall? Didn’t we go from summer to winter over like a lunch break?

This trend is awful, too, because as much as I and all right-minded people know that winter is vastly superior to summer it’s also true that fall and spring are the best seasons of the year. This truth is especially truthy in Kansas City.

The spring can get a little tiresome with the rain and the tornado warnings — spring storms are cool to look at, though — but fall is a gift straight from the gods, and proof that they love us and want us to be happy.

I want to be clear: we’re going to have a day where the snow melts in 100 degree heat.

The Royals are going to have another snow out on May 2, and then you’re going to be sunburned and dehydrated on May 3.

I take no joy in telling you this. But unfortunately, it’s a journalist’s job to tell the truth.

This is an all-time high of weather talk for the Minutes, and I don’t have a problem with it. But do I have to snowbird? Can I do whatever is the opposite of snowbirding?*

* Snowchasing? Sunbirding?

Because if independently wealthy and/or retired I would love to spend Memorial Day through Labor Day in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon or Washington. I’d love to get far enough north that 80 is unseasonably hot, and where the nights are cool enough for a bonfire.

That is basically my dream: long sleeved t-shirts on a boat, the kind of weather where you have to remind yourself to wear sunscreen because the skies are clear but the temperatures mild.

But if you’re insisting that I have to snowbird — you guys are the boss; I just work here — I’m going to San Diego. Man I love San Diego. Ocean, hiking, great food, perfect weather, super casual.

That’s the life, you guys.

This is so dumb, but if you’ve ever been a dumb 14-year-old boy you’ll probably know what I’m talking about.

I spent seventh through ninth grades at West Junior High. Our basketball coach let us make a mixtape* for our pregame warmup.

* Shoutout mixtapes.

Thankfully, I can’t remember most of it, but I’m sure it was awful and predictable. I’m sure “Welcome to the Jungle” was on there. “Beat it” or “Bad,” probably. But the one song that we made sure to finish with was Kool Moe Dee’s Wild Wild West.

I googled the lyrics, and they’re at once corny and probably not appropriate for a junior high basketball game:

We prefer to fight you like a man, and beat you down with our hands and body slam you ...

But, you know what, dammit? The song also included the phrase “Wild Wild West” about a bajillion times and it was also a rap song with enough bass to make the 1990s speakers of a junior high school gym rattle a little bit so we basically thought we were the baddest mfers on the planet.

And as long as we believed it, it was true.

We have satellite radio in one of the cars, but it’s mostly for the kids. They love the Hits station, which is how our 2-year-old decided his favorite song was Girls Like You* and our just-turned 5-year-old chose Lucid Dreams**.

* Hearing him say “yeah yeah yeah” on the chorus never gets old.

** Dad of the year over here just hoping some of those lyrics don’t stick.

Me, I’ll put music on sometimes but mostly it’s podcasts. I like controlling exactly what I’m listening to, but it ends up being a lot of news, politics (there can’t be many who have my combination of listens from each end plus the center), history stuff like American History Tellers, investigative/narrative stuff like the Dropout, writer nerd stuff like Sunday Long Read, sports escape stuff like the Arsecast, some local stuff, and anything else that looks good.

My dad listens to a lot of audiobooks, and I’ve done that a few times, but usually only if I have a long drive. I’m not usually in the car longer than 15 minutes, so I usually like shorter stuff.

If you have any recommendations that sounds like any of that, please let me know.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for this past Sunday. Took the boys sledding in the morning — their first time down the big hill at the park around the corner — and had a fire going by noon. We played games, built stuff with blocks, and had a popcorn movie night with my wife’s family. Pretty damn good day.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.


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