Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: A replay rant, Royals bullpen, Chiefs trades, Sporting’s loss

Hello friends, and thank you for your time here over the years. It means the world to me. I hope you’d agree that this has always been a you-focused space. You ask the questions, the answer monkey dances. That’s the way it has always been and that’s the way it will always be, but I need a few paragraphs right now to get something out.

We’ve gone too far with replay.

We’ve gone too far in football. We’ve gone too far in baseball. And we’ve now sure as shoot gone way too far in basketball.

For as long as basketball has existed this is Texas Tech’s ball:

But now we are so married to technology and so terrified of some twerp saying Well Actually that we break these things down frame by frame like a Zapruder film to make a call that has never been made.

That ball was deflected out of bounds by the Virginia player. That it barely-maybe-only-if-you-go-super-slow-mo-at-the-right-angle grazed the bottom of the Texas Tech player’s finger has been inconsequential since the beginning of time.

If this happened in a pickup game and the Virginia player claimed it was his ball, the game would be over. There would be a riot. Punches would fly.

This is not throwing the ball off the opponent’s leg out of bounds. This is a common basketball play that has now been completely redone. This is a man stealing a base clean, but being called out after 3 minutes because the replay showed his foot came off the bag for 0.000001 seconds on the slide.

This is too much technology and not enough common sense. This is basic Spirit Of The Rule stuff here, and in a world in which there are already WAY too many long stoppages we’ve just invited more.

You would need to look hard to find someone more pro technology than me. These advancements have made our games more enjoyable to watch (on OLED screens), easier to understand (with tools like NFL’s Game Pass) and more interesting to analyze (FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, Pro Football Focus, etc).

But we have to be the ones using the technology, and not allowing the technology to chew up our games.

Instant replay was adopted to correct obvious mistakes of the naked eye. It was never intended to create new calls that the naked eye never could have seen.

This is not an argument that the referees or stretched-past-the-point-of-recognition replay usage cost Texas Tech last night’s national championship game*. There are too many plays in a game, and besides, the officials were generally pretty good.

*Though on the previous play, Tech was whistled for a foul when a Virginia player accidentally tripped a teammate.

This is an argument about keeping games as enjoyable and fair and flowing as possible, about not breaking for 2 minutes every time someone in the arena disagrees with a call. Mostly, this is an argument to keep basic rules and calls in place, the same way we’ve enjoyed for decades, and not let our games be hijacked by frame-by-frame analysis.

This isn’t a fluke, either. Isn’t one minor misuse blown out of proportion because of the stage.

After all, the NFL just made non-calls reviewable.

This week’s eating recommendation is the Summit burger at Westside Local and the reading recommendation is Tyler Kepner’s delightfully nerdy K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches.

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

Might? I guess? Maybe? In the sure-why-not-anything-is-possible way?

Look: right now they stink. They are 2-7 with a schedule heavy on AL Central teams that are not the Indians. That is really bad. If the Royals have any chance to compete this year* it is by hoarding wins in a weak division. This isn’t that.

*And, let’s be honest: they do only in the sure-why-not-anything-is-possible way.

I do not believe the Royals will be worse than last year, and will make a $100 charity donation bet with the first person willing to take the over on 104 losses.

A full season of Adalberto Mondesi, for one. Jorge Soler will probably play more than 61 games. Brad Keller is a full-time starter now. Those are the Royals’ three highest ceiling players, each in position to better impact the big league team.

I would also point out that the team has played better than the record. We can talk a lot about the atrocious bullpen, and we will, but the offense and defense and starting pitching have been worthy of a much better record.

Some numbers:

The Royals are eighth in runs. Their starting pitchers are 10th with a 4.70 ERA.

The bullpen has an 8.89 ERA and is giving up a .319/.458/.487 slash line.

If you believe the bullpen really is this bad, then sure, the Royals are cooked. More than 100 losses would be a safe bet.

But if you believe that no bullpen can really be this bad, and not just because the Royals have a few arms in the minors, then things will start to level out.

I happen to believe that the Royals have a below average bullpen that’s performing poorly, in part because there are no defined roles, but that more productive days are ahead.

Of course, I also didn’t think they’d lose 100 games last year.

If you think I’m going to be wrong again, and that this team will really be worse than last year, be the first to tweet at me saying “bet.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kansas City could use the help.

It was not lost on some in the organization that a total of 20,599 fans watched the two games against the Twins last week. Last night, just 10,259 bought tickets on a beautiful night.

I believe that this, as much as anything, is why the Royals will heavily consider moving downtown. But that’s a different discussion for a different day.

Right now, the point you’re making is an excellent one.

Attendance always rises when school is out, and the weather hasn’t been great. Without double checking, I assume the TV numbers are still strong.

But fan interest is often shorthanded by attendance figures, and attendance figures heavily influence revenues, which heavily influence payrolls, so this is a relevant topic.

In my often stupid opinion, the Royals have been too concerned with eyewash. They have often seemed to operate with the goal of appearing competitive in the years they know they are unlikely to be genuinely competitive.

It’s a bit of an ongoing conversation with a few members of the front office, but I’ve never written extensively about it for a few reasons. First, I admire the other approach. Teams should want to win every year, and should care about what the product looks like to fans spending their time and money. Second, one-third of baseball teams make some form of the postseason now, so the standards for dreaming are lower.

But if you’re going to go that route then you should be able to avoid 104-loss seasons, and you better be able to keep sincere hope alive into the summer.

I say this without malice or end zone dancing. The men who put the Royals together care deeply about this stuff, but another season being torpedoed before Cinco de Mayo would be an inexplicable whiff by everyone in baseball operations.

This team has the pieces of an interesting team. Adalberto Mondesi is a rare gift — an elite talent who might be turning into a star. Brad Keller is emerging. Whit Merrifield is amazingly consistent and stubbornly productive. Jakob Junis, Hunter Dozier, Jorge Soler, Ryan O’Hearn — there are a lot of pieces here.

All of that may or may not make 2021 better.

But none of it matters for right now if the Royals are 17-35 on Memorial Day.

I don’t know if I can, but I know I won’t.

Look. I know I’m interested. I know I want to watch Adalberto Mondesi and Brad Keller and Whit Merrifield and Ryan O’Hearn and others. My summers have always been filled with baseball, and I’ll have lived a good life if that’s always true.

I also recognize that I am a sports columnist at the local paper, so I can’t say with any degree of certainty whether I’d care about the Royals if I had a real job.

We all have stresses and priorities and stuff to do and, well, let’s just play this out. If you tune out the team now and the rebuild clicks and 2021 is the year they contend you’ll have a heads up. They’ll be in first place in June, or a two games out in August, and you’ll get back into it.

You’ll watch and you’ll read and you’ll talk to your friends and will you have missed all that much?

Probably not. You won’t feel the same pride the way you would if you watched every game between then and now. You wouldn’t be able to remember the homer Mondesi hit (or, if we’re being honest, the walk he took) that convinced you it was happening.

You wouldn’t remember Brady Singer’s debut, or the debate around this summer’s No. 2 pick, or how you felt when you realized Martin Maldonado was actually better defensively than Sal Perez* and how that might change the team’s immediate future.

*I’m actually not joking here.

So, you’ll miss something. You’ll miss the silly stubborn pride of being able to tell people you saw the whole thing happen, but at some point, what are we talking about here?

You won’t miss the playoff game.

Also: you know the best and most time efficient way to make sure you don’t miss anything?

Continue to read the local paper!

The decision on signing Lucas Duda to a one-year deal and dumping four years of club control on Brian Goodwin was hard to understand at the time and somehow even worse right now.

The disclaimers can be offered here. It’s still so early. In the NFL analogy, we’re in the third quarter of the season opener. Brian Goodwin is unlikely to hit .391 over a full season.

But there was no obvious reason to do this. Goodwin could be playing right field, which would mean Merrifield could be playing second, and there is no question that would make a better lineup than what the Royals are left with.

Dayton Moore talked about Duda’s professionalism, and reliable plate appearances, and I don’t want to minimize the point. There are so many holes in the Royals lineup. Duda has shown himself to be somewhere between solid and good as a hitter for most of his career. If he took some pressure off O’Hearn or Schwindel at times, well, that’s not a terrible thing.

But this always felt like the Royals overthinking things. O’Hearn has an extreme platoon split, an issue that was already diminished with Schwindel. The Royals have been unsure whether Schwindel could hit big league pitching, but even if that went south they could play Hunter Dozier at first against a tough lefty.

So, no. I don’t have an answer that makes sense here. I also don’t think Goodwin is the solution for what’s wrong with this team, but still.

It’s weird.

There is no place in baseball with higher yearly turnover than bullpens. Many, many bullpens are remade every year. Some relievers transition to rotations, some lose effectiveness, most are on short term contracts.

I know we all got used to the HDH group, but even those guys were together in those roles for only about a year and a half*.

*That’s not an exaggeration. Davis joined the Royals in 2013, and was a starter until September. Holland started to wobble about halfway through 2015.

The current bullpen is a mixture of experiments (Brad Boxberger and Ian Kennedy), dreams (Kyle Zimmer) and figuring out who guys are (Wily Peralta and Kevin McCarthy). At some point we’ll see some promotions from Omaha.

This is easy to forget now, but there was a time that some fans saw bullpen construction as Moore’s only strength. The rest of the roster was often a mess, but Moore usually did well finding relievers. Economics changed drastically, and the Royals’ success in 2014 and 2015 was part of that.

Constructing good bullpens now is more difficult. More expensive. It used to be the first piece you could put together, but now it’s closer to the last.

The Royals won’t be competitive until they get the lineup and rotation in place. The front office certainly didn’t think the bullpen would be this bad, but if the rest of the team looks contender-ish then I think you’ll see them transition away from experiments and dreams and figuring out who guys are.

Oh, sure. Absolutely. If the big league team loses 125 games, and Moore develops a habit of mooning the opposing team just before first pitch, and he’s caught stealing and sniffing David Glass’ dress shoes, then absolutely, he’s gone.

Other than that? Not so much.

Now, I know I’ve said this before here, but I do believe there’s a path for Ned Yost to be replaced.

Maybe replaced is the wrong word. I don’t mean to imply fired. But I do believe there are some in the organization who’ve wondered how consistently and deeply invested he is in the process. Yost has a good life, and no matter what, he’ll be inducted to the team’s Hall of Fame someday.

But the team lost 104 games last year, and if they’re on a similar pace in July or August it’s easy to imagine him walking into a special adviser’s role that includes time on the farm and the Royals going with a new voice.

You might roll your eyes at this. But keep it in mind.

O’Hearn has played all but one game, and all of those are starts but one. Both games he didn’t start were against left-handed pitchers, which makes sense to me.

Dozier has started all but two games. You’re not going to see me stump for Chris Owings getting more time, but Dozier is 3-for-23 so you’re not going to see me stump for him either.

Also, you might be using “young players” as a synonym for “long-term control” but Hamilton is only two months older than Goodwin. Again, I didn’t agree with the move on Goodwin, but it was never a matter of him or Hamilton.

I don’t think Hamilton is a long-term fit for the Royals, and I don’t think they see it that way either. He’s an investment in the pitching staff. He covers a lot of ground, and in a big ballpark with young pitchers, that’s a valuable thing.

OK. I’m disclaimer-ing here, because I know I sometimes take these questions too literally. If your overall point is that the Royals are going to have to keep turning the roster over, particularly as it relates to the bullpen and younger arms available in the minors, then we are in absolute agreement.

Moore has often said you need 40 games to have a feel for what a team is. That’s the quarter-pole of a season, and we’re not even to the quarter-pole of that quarter-pole yet.

Change will come. That was always the plan. Get another week or two like the last week and it’ll come faster than originally expected, though still slower than a lot of fans would like.

Hell yes.

There are reasons not to. And I get it. This draft is deep enough that a talent like LSU’s Greedy Williams may fall to No. 29, and Ramsey would want a new and very large contract soon.

But Ramsey is a top shelf talent at a position of need. Draft picks tend to be overvalued. Ramsey is due $7.4 million in 2019 and a decision on his fifth-year option (2020) would need to be made by May 2.

That’s all palatable. Trading for Ramsey would officially turn a position of weakness into a strength for the Chiefs. I don’t know if they could hold onto him long-term but two (highly motivated) seasons from a top talent at a premium position of need is a heck of a return for the No. 29 overall pick.

Now, this all comes about after a Bleacher Report speculation, so this is the silliness we find ourselves in — speculating about speculation.

My guess is it would take more than the No. 29 pick to get Ramsey, and if it would also take one of the second-round picks or another pick in the future then this becomes a different conversation.

Also, it’s probably too obvious to mention that Veach should and will be influenced by Steve Spagnuolo’s opinion. If Spagnuolo thinks Ramsey is overrated or not worth the trouble, then this is a waste of time. If he thinks Ramsey is a star, then maybe you go do it.

The Chiefs are really close with this thing. Making NFL predictions about one season based largely on the results of the last season is an efficient way to look like a fool but it remains true that Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid were good enough to drag the league’s worst defense kicking and screaming and straight into overtime of the AFC championship game.

Even marginal improvement on offense would be enormously important.

Ramsey would represent more than a marginal improvement.

The club is fine. The club is good. The club will probably again prove to be one of the best in its league, and compete for a championship.

All of that is a judgment by MLS standards, which is sort of the point.

You might’ve seen where Sam McDowell reported a dozen Monterrey players would qualify as designated players in the MLS. In other words, the lowest paid player in Monterrey’s best 11 is likely richer than Sporting’s highest paid player.

Money isn’t everything, but it does buy depth, and it does buy talent.

So I’m not sure Monterrey vs. Sporting is the relevant question, particularly since that’s as far as any MLS has made it in the CONCACAF Championship League.

The relevant question is how MLS can close the gap on Liga MX and here it’s worth noting that MLS trails both England’s Premier League and Mexico’s Liga MX in popularity in America.

The short version of how MLS does that is pretty simple: grow media rights revenue, and reinvest that cash into talent (both in salaries and the pipeline), hopefully creating a sort of feedback loop that pushes MLS closer to the world’s best leagues.

That’s a complicated process, though. MLS’ TV ratings are generally poor, and the future of sports rights fees is both uncertain and complicated. Securing more money and enough more money to close the gap on talent is a big challenge.

There’s a lot to be optimistic about. Demographics and interest polls indicate a bright future for soccer in America. MLS is still relatively young, and in just a short time — five years, even — the talent has increased substantially. Who knows what it’ll look like in another five years?

My main concern about the league is whether it is expanding too quickly, that the bang of the expansion fee and new markets is not worth diluting talent at a point when the league needs more talent to become more relevant on television.

So, yeah. Like we said. Complicated.

But until those bigger issues are better addressed I’m not sure we should ever take an MLS team losing in the CCL as anything other than the expected result after a nice run in the tournament.

After all, it’s not like Sporting couldn’t compete overall in Liga MX. Toluca is a playoff team in that league, and Sporting won that round.

But the gaps remain.

This is a ridiculous thing to say, because I’m not sure Mondesi has ever touched or thrown a football. I know he doesn’t follow the sport.

But I believe he might be a star quarterback, and if not then probably a top receiver.

He’s 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds. For reference’s sake, Patrick Mahomes is 6-3 and 230. Baker Mayfield, who some thought was too small to be a star, is 6-1 and 215.

Mondesi would be heavier if he was a football player, and he’d be one of the NFL’s fastest players. He obviously has enough arm strength, and you never know how different sports would translate but his baseball IQ is strong. It would stand to reason that if he grew up with football he’d understand that sport well too.

This is an interesting point, and something I think about fairly often, because multiple baseball scout-types have made the point that if Mondesi grew up in the States he probably would’ve gravitated to football or basketball.

He’s just so supremely gifted. The speed, the agility, the arm strength, the hand-eye coordination, the mind. It’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have had a future in just about any sport.

This has become cliche by now, because it’s mentioned in every broadcast, but Mahomes was a star baseball player before football stole him away. Michael Kopech is one of the baseball’s top pitching prospects. ranked him 18th overall before this season. He was also a high school rival of Mahomes, and told me he thought Mahomes was very similar as a baseball talent.

You don’t think the Royals could use young pitching talent, do you?

Well, thanks and, shoot, sorry guys, this is awkward but I lost the ... oh, here’s the link.

One line I couldn’t fit in there. Scott Gaffney was an assistant coach on Keller’s high school team. He was a bird dog scout for the Royals, so the first one to tip them off, but he worked closest with the outfielders and hitters.

I asked how Keller was a hitter. Gaffney laughed.

“Let’s just say he was a work in progress,” Gaffney said. “And still is.”

Anyway, the obvious answer here for the Royals is Albert Pujols. Baseball drafts are not totally dissimilar to drawing straws, and Pujols was the 402nd player taken that year. Just after Alfredo Amezaga, and just before Marc Bluma.

So everyone missed on him, including the Cardinals, who took 10 players ahead of Pujols who never reached the big leagues (including their first two picks).

But none of those other teams had the benefit or convenience or luck of having Pujols play both his high school and college baseball within a lunch break’s drive of Kauffman Stadium.

That’s just an awful miss, and one that has changed the way some teams (including the Royals) view local talent.

For the longest time the answer to the Chiefs side of this was a quarterback. They took Todd Blackledge in 1983 with Jim Kelly and Dan Marino still on the board. They took Donald Stephenson with the pick immediately ahead of Russell Wilson in 2012.

But it’s a little harder to get worked up about that now, you know? Maybe not the Blackledge pick as much, but in that unpredictable and constant game of dominoes if the Chiefs took Wilson they would almost certainly not have Mahomes.

And if Russell Wilson was drafted by the 2012 Chiefs, well, I’m predicting they still would not have won the Super Bowl after the 2013 season.

So, anyway ... well, who am I kidding? The answer is Marino. It will always be Marino.

First, here’s Ty’s story, and it’s terrific. I know some have expressed an unease with all the unnamed sources but there’s some new stuff in there and Ty’s reputation is stellar. He’s too smart and too good to not have this nailed down.

Now, to answer your question, oh my gosh, of course. I would love that.

I should say right here that my bosses have been absurdly generous with me. They give me a lot of freedom. Here is a paraphrased excerpt from my last performance review:

Boss: Anything you’re not doing that you’d like to?

Me: Sometimes I wish I could take more time on stories.

Boss: Then you should do that.

Me: Oh.

There’s a story I might write this week that I’ve been working on for a while. There are more coming. I’m writing other columns in the meantime, sure, but I want to be clear that if I went to my boss and said here’s an amazingly kickass story but I need to not do anything else for the next month I’m relatively confident he’d say OK.

Maybe he’d ask me to still do this weekly time suck. I don’t know. But my point here is that any lack of doing this already is on me and these weird conflicting motivations and insecurities and pressures I feel internally.

Now. You asked about the pluses and minuses. The pluses are everywhere. More time means exploring paths and possibilities and sources you might not even think about with less. More time means more conversations with sources, better understanding of the subject, and more editing.

Generally, more time means a better chance to rise above the normal noise of sports media to write something truly memorable.

The minuses are a little less tangible, but basically speak to pressure. If you’re taking four months on a story it better damn well be good. If it’s not, you have some explaining to do with your boss, and no matter the explanation you’ll have a tough argument the next time.

Also, writers tend to be insecure and paranoid. If you’re not writing for that long, it’s hard to feel relevant. It’s hard to feel valuable. It’s hard to feel like you’re earning your money.

But, typically, you’re not going to spend four months on something unless it’s good. If the reporting isn’t going the right way you’ll pull the chute much earlier.

This is the time of year where we can do more of that, and I have some ideas. Nothing that I’m going to spend four straight months on with nothing else, but this is the season of pulling the slingshot back a little more.

Hopefully it’s worth it.

I am incapable of given you a top 10 list because the only Easter candy I care about is Starburst jelly beans, and brother, I’m here to tell you that I care about Starburst jelly beans so completely and deeply that I am left with no room to care about anything else.

This is (unfortunately) not an exaggeration: I will eat Starburst jelly beans until a) there are no more Starburst jelly beans or b) I am quite literally and physically sick from eating so many gosh dang Starburst jelly beans.

I’m like a 3 year old, is what I’m saying. Or a goldfish.

It’s so bad my wife sort of apologizes when she brings them in the house. Like, she’s trying to be nice. To be good to her man. To give him something that brings him joy. She also knows I’m going to end up sick, with teeth that feel like they’re about to crumble, so the emotions are conflicted everywhere.

As I type these words, I’m realizing that I just put a third stick of delicious Starburst gum in my mouth and am chewing like an addict. It’s probably time to move on.

Never bothered me.

Charles Barkley is sort of the exception to every rule, but even if he wasn’t, they made that so transparent and genuine that I’m not sure how you could be offended.

The only thing that bothers me is insincerity. That can go both ways. There are some in this line of work who root for certain teams but pretend they don’t, and others who fake it to ingratiate themselves with viewers/listeners/readers.

That’s obnoxious, but also usually pretty easy to spot.

I had a sort of old-school introduction to this industry. I worked at the Lawrence Journal-World in high school and would help cover KU games. Chuck Woodling was the sports editor back then, and I’d ride to games in his car, the one with the “Mizzou Alumni” license plate frame.

I never asked, but I always wondered if Chuck took any grief in Lawrence for where he went to school. I’m guessing he did from time to time, but I’m damn well certain he didn’t care either way.

There are some in this business who are sort of pridefully apathetic when it comes to teams. They love to talk about how much they don’t care, and will go on, unprompted. The problem with this approach is that many who use it end up jaded and out of touch.

This is just me talking, and I don’t have any proof, but it seems to me that if you talk about and are so adamantly outgoing about your disinterest in who wins you can also lose track of what makes sports fun.

I think I’ve found my place, for whatever that’s worth. I am deeply into moments and stories and explanations but generally unbothered by who wins or loses.

I don’t know if it’s the right way. But it’s the most honest way I know, which is the only thing that really matters.

First Friday dinner at Extra Virgin, followed by a drink on a rooftop somewhere. Saturday morning donuts from Fluffy Fresh, but get the grill going early enough for a brisket or ribs. Play baseball at Loose Park with the kids, crush all the food on the deck. Royals game on Sunday afternoon.

What’s wrong with that?

This week I’m particularly grateful for our younger son, who on Sunday: turned 3, never stopped talking, played with any kid in sight, ate the ribs he asked for, and took a nasty fall that left him with blood dripping from his mouth and a big scrape across his face like a champ. He went from crying at the pain to crying because he wanted to go back out and play in about 90 seconds and in that moment I was so psyched I could’ve wrestled a dragon.

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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.