As I type these words the Royals are pacing for 108 losses. No team in baseball is further out of first place. Still, you can find positives, if you want.
Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier and Whit Merrifield are each on terrific starts and under club control through 2023. Alex Gordon is on pace for the best offensive season of his career. Brad Keller has been mostly good.
Others have shown promise, and a run differential of -13 says the Royals are better than their awful record would indicate.
But, still. Nothing short of a miracle is required for this team to contend. Attendance is down from last year, when attendance was way down from the year before that.
Kansas City has always been sort of a baseball town in waiting, and right now fans have every reason to concentrate on other parts of their lives. They can always come back if this takes.
So, anyway, you could argue that nothing outside the long-term development of the younger players is important now. I wouldn’t debate the point with much passion.
But I would also point out that Danny Duffy is making his third start of the season, against a loaded lineup in Houston, and he holds a disproportionate level of import the rest of the way.
This was once a player-team marriage of bliss. The Royals supported Duffy and believed in him, even as he walked away from the sport as a minor-leaguer. In turn, few big-leaguers have ever been as loyal to an organization.
Eric Hosmer called Duffy the best teammate he’s ever had. Duffy has made himself part of Kansas City, and will always be loved by fans here for the “Bury me a Royal” line.
Duffy was the best pitcher on the 2014 team that finished a swing away from a world championship. An injury limited him in the 2015 postseason run, but he went 12-3 with a 3.51 ERA and 188 strikeouts over 179 2/3 innings in 2016, earning a five-year contract worth $65 million.
He has not been the same since. He was arrested while on the disabled list in 2017 and eventually pleaded guilty to DUI. He had a 4.36 ERA and surrendered more than 12 batters per nine innings over the first two years of the contract.
Some around the league have questioned his commitment, wondering if the contract diminished some of the edge that seemed to fuel him at his best. He spent the first four weeks of this season on the injured list.
Duffy is in a different part of his career now. Only Alex Gordon has been with the team longer (Sal Perez debuted three months after Duffy). He came into the league full of potential, with a mid-90s fastball and wicked breaking stuff. Back then, his curveball dazzled. Now he throws more sliders. He and the windup have an on-again, off-again relationship.
But if the ceiling is no longer quite what some of us envisioned, he is still an important part of this team going forward. He is owed about $40 million through 2021. The Royals would prefer he remain in the rotation. Talents like his get every chance. But he also might make for an effective late-inning reliever. It’s a nice backup plan, anyway.
The Royals still have hope. Duffy still has talent, and a relationship with the club that makes him more important than most. If nothing else, it would be nice to see him succeed after his struggles.
The next step comes tonight, in a season that’s gone off the rails in terms of the standings but retains interest if you know where to look.
This week’s eating recommendation is the wings and onion rings at Johnny’s, and the reading recommendation is my friend Gregg Doyel on the teacher who pushed him into writing.
Nicky Lopez has long been among the Royals’ most valued prospects. He profiles as an above average defensive second baseman with a mature approach to the game and sharp mind.
He turned 24 in March, and has succeeded at every level of the minor leagues. At the moment he is hitting .333/.426/.455 with seven stolen bases in 10 attempts. He has 15 walks and three strikeouts. He has never struck out more than he’s walked as a pro.
Bubba Starling was once the gravitational center of the Royals’ minor-league system. A club executive called him the most important draft pick they’d made. He grew up in Gardner, and had the elite athleticism that baseball often fails to attract.
He has mostly struggled as a hitter, but depending on the scout, the reviews of his defense in centerfield range from very good to amazing. He started to hit last year at Class AAA Omaha, but an oblique injury ruined his chance for a call-up.
At the moment, he is hitting .358/.398/.469 with five stolen bases in six attempts. He’s hitting the ball in the air more than ever, though his plate discipline remains a concern with 18 strikeouts and six walks.
Dayton Moore has uttered some version of the following thought at least a gajillion times: for a player to be called up to the big leagues, two things are required — he has to be performing and there has to be an opportunity available.
Both players are obviously performing. The opportunity appears more open for Lopez than Starling now that Chris Owings is no longer playing every day. Lopez could be viewed, rather simply, as a younger Owings with a better bat and a future with the club.
Starling’s opportunity is a little different, particularly if a promotion for Lopez moves Whit Merrifield to the outfield. Starling in center would mean Billy Hamilton to the bench, and I heard you all just cheer, and I get it, but the roster crunch comes pretty fast.
Starling has injury concerns beyond the unknown of how he’ll adjust to big league pitching. If the Royals don’t think they can carry Hamilton on the bench for whatever reason, they’d be leaving themselves exposed going all in with Starling in center. We’ll talk more about that in the next question.
Now, there are workarounds here, and here is a logical lineup:
Whit Merrifield, RF
Adalberto Mondesi, SS
Alex Gordon, LF
Hunter Dozier, 1B
Jorge Soler, DH
Kelvin Gutierrez, 3B
Martin Maldonado, C
Nicky Lopez, 2B
Bubba Starling, CF
Maybe you take it easy with Starling in the beginning. He’s a right-handed hitter but has generally hit right-handed pitching better in the minor leagues. Maybe in the beginning you make centerfield a platoon — Hamilton is a switch hitter without a major platoon split.
Gutierrez’s promotion makes the rest of the active roster a little more crowded, but to me Merrifield’s versatility means you have options. Ryan O’Hearn is struggling, but I’d want to see more.
Basically, the option would be to use Terrance Gore’s roster spot for Starling and Chris Owings’ spot for Lopez. The bench would be Hamilton (who would play often), Cam Gallagher and O’Hearn. You retain flexibility, and gain some ceiling.
I’d be surprised if this or something similar doesn’t happen relatively soon.
Owings was a curious signing from the beginning, particularly at $3 million. His positional flexibility and athleticism are pluses, but neither was necessary for the rest of the roster.
Hamilton always made a lot of sense. He struggles getting on base, but the Royals were really buying his defense. They saw it as an investment in their pitching staff, especially with the big outfield at Kauffman Stadium, and it’s logical when viewed through that prism.
The Royals have a total of $8.25 million invested in the two. Any trades would probably require the Royals to cover at least some of the salary. Owings would likely clear waivers.
I know it’s easy to think of the two as a pair. They’re both veterans from the National League, and underperforming mediocre offensive expectations while on one-year deals. The potential of Lopez and Starling in Omaha amplifies the point.
But they’re not a package. Owings, to me, is expendable. Particularly if the Royals believe in Gutierrez and think that Lopez is ready to compete, the only concern would be a backup shortstop to give Mondesi rest. Lopez has split his time between second base and shortstop in Omaha. He would probably be the best option.
The Royals, like all big-league teams, value inventory. Baseball executives often operate with the philosophy that you don’t make a decision until you have to. That provides protection against surprises. Over the years the development of guys like Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Wade Davis are local examples of how players don’t develop in straight lines.
We’re also still relatively early in the season. Moore is among those who typically want 40 games to determine what a team is and needs. The Royals will play their 40th game on Saturday.
To me, it’s pretty clear. This team is 12 games under .500 and either way a shakeup is warranted. If you want to chase the dream, then maybe the youth and ceiling of the minor-leaguers can provide a boost. If you want to build a future, then you want to see whether Lopez and Starling can be part of it.
Again, it makes sense to me to keep Hamilton for his range and as centerfield insurance in case Starling struggles or is injured.
But Lopez appears to be Owings with more youth and potential, and on a roster that already has Merrifield, I’m just not sure he’s needed.
Well, Kennedy has been very good in the bullpen, but I understand the point you’re making.
You probably aren’t going to want to hear it but I believe Martin Maldonado was a good signing. You aren’t going to want to this either, but I believe he’s an upgrade over Sal Perez defensively, that his preparation and framing and presence are helping the pitchers.
But, that’s not what you’re asking about.
The 2015 World Series winners were helped by free agents Edinson Volquez*, Kendrys Morales** and Chris Young
* Pitched 200 innings, was the best starter on the team, and who could forget the strong start in the World Series clinching win shortly after his father’s death?
** Led the team in doubles, homers, RBIs and slugging percentage.
*** Was great as both a starter and reliever, often referred to by Moore as the most valuable pitcher on the staff.
Jason Vargas was an excellent free-agent signing. The Royals took a lot of silly grief when they teased the introductory news conference as “a major baseball-related announcement” (like a $32 million contract is chump change), but Vargas was worth every penny.
He pitched 187 innings with a 3.71 ERA and pitched well in the postseason for the 2014 American League champions. He was limited to 55 innings in 2015 and 2016 with Tommy John surgery, but in 2017 made the All-Star team, led the league with 18 wins, and pitched 179 2/3 innings with a 4.16 ERA.
There are other, more low profile moves that are easy to forget about now like Jonathan Broxton. Ervin Santana was, basically, a free-agent signing disguised as a trade.
But the broader point you’re making is true, that the Royals’ best players have generally come through the farm system — either signed and developed like Perez, or with farm-centric trades like Cain and Davis.
You could probably say the same about most baseball teams.
The problem with the Royals right now isn’t free agency. It’s that their drafts and international signings haven’t developed enough big-leaguers.
The Chiefs will go to the Super Bowl because they have a 24-year-old quarterback who is the reigning MVP and swear-to-God has room to get better. With or without Tyreek Hill (more on that soon) this is one of if not the best offense in the league, and particularly adept at scoring late and coming from behind.
That offense is young and dragged the league’s worst defense to, basically, a coin flip from the Super Bowl. They lost a total of five games. Three came down to the literal last play. The other two were by three points on the road against the NFC champs, and by seven points on the road against a Hall of Fame quarterback and playoff team.
The defense is overhauled, including the additions of two players who each would’ve been the best or second-best player on that side last year. Just as importantly, the coaching staff has been turned over, led by a coordinator who is basically strong everywhere the last one was weak.
The Chiefs will fail because nobody does what Mahomes did last year twice in a row. NFL defenses are too smart and too athletic not to come up with a viable counter. Maybe it doesn’t happen in the opener (though Jacksonville will be a challenge) but as soon as one team cracks the code then everyone has the answers to the test.
Nobody is going to shut the Chiefs down, but any slip in production* is going to be exaggerated by a defense so awful it would be trusted only by its mother.
* They were sixth in 2017, and have averaged between eighth and ninth in Andy Reid’s time here.
And the defense, well, talk all you want about Frank Clark but the pass rush is still a net loss with the departures of Justin Houston and Dee Ford. And talk all you want about Tyrann Mathieu but the cornerback group is still so shaky that Keenan Allen is literally laughing about it.
Also, an under-appreciated key of Steve Spagnuolo’s system has always been the linebackers. There’s a lot of hoping that Breeland Speaks and Anthony Hitchens will be unlocked simply by scheme change. Lots of hope is rarely a good strategy.
Which one is it?
I tend to be more optimistic about this group, particularly if the Chiefs can keep Hill through a suspension. Mahomes is a generational talent, a ridiculous combination of talent/guts/brain that’s only amplified by Andy Reid’s creativity and attention to detail.
In another reality not all that much different than this one, the Chiefs win the toss, or Eric Berry isn’t still so debilitated that he can’t cover what’s left of Rob Gronkowski in the biggest moments, and they go to the Super Bowl last year.
If you believe the defense will be even a little better then you have to believe this thing has a real chance.
Here’s where I’m at with Hill: I believe he doesn’t know the difference between abuse and discipline, that he and his fiancee Crystal Espinal have a toxic relationship, and at this point no piece of information on its way will surprise me.
Video of Hill doing something ugly? Sure. Damning video of Espinal that puts Hill in a much more positive light? Sure.
An incomplete list of developments so far: Hill and the woman he once pleaded guilty to punching and choking are involved in a child abuse investigation, news surfaces that the child in question suffered a broken arm, the Johnson County DA holds a remarkable news conference in which he is visibly frustrated while saying a crime was committed but he doesn’t know who to charge, audio leaks with Hill telling his fiancee “you should be terrified of me too, dumb bitch,” and shortly after saying he could not comment on the matter Hill’s lawyer sends a four-page letter to the NFL denying Hill ever hit his son and includes text messages he says have been authenticated but sure read fishy as heck in which she accepts all blame.
That’s a lot, and we didn’t even include the part where the Chiefs used their first pick (their first pick they didn’t trade for Frank Clark, anyway) for a short and fast receiver who sure seemed like Hill insurance (but also might be the Chris Conley replacement).
This situation is endlessly complicated, and loaded with emotions of every kind.
The three points I’ve hit hardest:
- The most important part of this is the little boy and the twins due soon.
- If it’s shown that Hill abused his son he should never play in the NFL again.
- No matter what the investigation concludes or the NFL decides, I hope Hill’s future includes the support and help he needs.
You could argue that each of those points is so obvious they don’t need to be made, but with all the noise around this I think it’s worth the time.
Your question centers on Hill. Whatever the DA decides, and whatever the outcome of the potential — let’s emphasize potential — charges he will be suspended.
But his lawyer threw a bit of a Hail Mary with that letter, and it worked enough to change the conversation. I remain skeptical that we’ll ever really know what happened, or have a certain feel for the worst of what’s gone on between Hill and Espinal.
There is simply too much money at stake for Hill and Espinal and too much football at stake for the Chiefs — not to mention all the reasons these cases are often hard to prove.
America has a tendency to believe the powerful and to discredit women in domestic abuse cases. That’s true even now, after Me Too and everything else. That’s not fair, and we should all work to even the scales, but for now it’s the reality of this and all similar cases.
Even if — let’s emphasize even IF — it’s shown that those texts are something other than an honest and spontaneous and undirected exchange of ideas, they still exist. It’s part of the story.
So, again. I don’t know what will happen. I never have. From the beginning, the likeliest outcome has teetered between a suspension and Hill’s release. There have been points where I thought I had a good and more specific guess, but at no point have I ever been sure. I think the same would be said in honest moments by Chiefs executives and lawyers on all sides.
The biggest development of the last week or so is that the letter from Hill’s lawyer presented his side firmly and at least creates a path where he’ll be suspended but remain with the Chiefs.
At some point, maybe, we can then talk about broken cycles and modern masculinity and a million other issues.
I can’t, so I won’t.
Sporting has issues. Big issues. Deep issues. Lots of issues.
The most obvious is injuries. This is a hard thing to measure, because all teams have injuries, and by definition the only teams that use injuries as an excuse are losers.
But look at this: Matt Besler, Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza, Gerso Fernandes, and many others are all hurt.
Missing just one of those guys would make a difference. Two would be a challenge. The way the roster is built, Sporting just doesn’t have a suitable replacement for any of the first three. The back line is a mess, which means that any tiny mistake by Tim Melia — like not being able to catch Ezequiel Barco’s shot in the 39th minute, for instance — can be a literal game changer.
All losses are tough but that one was particularly so. Atlanta is struggling, Sporting prides itself on homefield advantage, and that was a heck of an opportunity to change the story of the season.
Instead, Sporting was outshot, outplayed, and gave up three goals to a club that entered the match with just six.
That’s 11 goals surrendered in three matches without Besler, and 24 over a seven-match winless streak that included the emasculation by Monterrey.
I’ve grown skeptical of worries about Sporting. Every year, at least once, there seems to be a widespread freakout. They’re not scoring enough, or they don’t have a striker, or they just sold a star for allocation money. Whatever.
The team always recovers, always makes the playoffs, and is usually a legitimate championship contender. Often, a trophy of some sort is involved.
But this feels different. Some of the new pieces aren’t fitting like expected, it’s hard to say the team will ever be fully or even largely healthy, and the confidence is undoubtedly shaken.
With the new playoff format, and a shorter regular season, the chances to fix those problems go by faster than ever.
You can say they’re only a point out of a playoff spot with a match in hand and a positive MLS goal differential and you would be technically correct.
But the standard has not been mere playoff qualification for some time, and with the increasing speed of the league it feels a little like Sporting might be losing ground in more ways than the current standings.
This reminds me of a story from years ago — long enough that Bob Dutton was the Star’s beat writer and Alex Gordon was the Royals’ third baseman.
Gordon had a habit of catching everything with one hand. Popups, lineouts, foul balls, everything. There must have been a couple inside of a week that he caught but seemed to have problems with, because Bob caught Gordon in the clubhouse.
Bob: “You know if you drop one of those with one hand I’m going to have to write about it.”
Gordon: “Well I better not drop one then.”
And that was that. Gordon didn’t drop one. Bob never wrote it.
About the scuffed balls, it should not surprise you that this is something Lee Judge has written a lot about.
There are a few ways to answer the question. Umpires are more diligent about keeping fresh balls — pearls, if you’re into the lingo — in play. Hitters can be paranoid, too. That’s created an environment where fewer scuffed balls are in play, which means pitchers have less reason than ever to practice throwing them.
And no matter what, if you don’t practice it, you shouldn’t do it in a game.
I’m all for this development, by the way. Have you seen these freak shows on the mound?
They do not need help:
What’s really wild is that 98 mph fastball from Cole ... is similar to the one that went 443 feet with a fairly casual and not at all from-the-heels swing by a switch hitting shortstop:
Mercy. Don’t let anyone tell you that baseball doesn’t have athletes.
It’s definitely not just your family. Here’s what I imagine to be a typical experience: your fandom is at its best and purest around 10, its most intense in the years after, and once you go out in the real world tends to be a winding path.
For some, it’s a lifelong obsession. You need to watch the game. Need to read the stories. Need to find the stat that will tell you why, or the clip that will show you how. You have to win the argument.
For many, it’s a lifelong companion. A conversation starter. An excuse to see friends. An escape, or a connection to childhood or family.
For others, it loses the charm. Maybe it’s the realization that athletes aren’t all heroes, or that your favorite college team is loaded with guys who weren’t just interested in the business school, or simply the prioritization of life.
The same way some are drawn to sports as an escape, others find it hard to care about games when there are more important things going on.
I have friends that would fit each of those three categories. I’m guessing you do too.
To me, one of the most valuable parts of following sports has always been the relationships. Most of my best friends, in one way or another, I have because of sports. Many of my best memories involve sports. I want our kids to make friends and challenge themselves and succeed and fail in sports. They really can help us get closer to our best.
But, yeah. If you find yourself at a certain point in life and it’s hard to follow a losing baseball team while your kids need help with their homework and your bills are due and there’s a hole in your roof* then I’m not sure where to find fault.
* I might be projecting with that last one.
I’ve spiked stories. Probably not as many as I should, but I’ve had an idea, made the calls, done the work, and just decided it wasn’t worth my time to write or (much more importantly) my readers’ time to read.
Journalism is so much different now, and normally that’s a cue for people like me to complain, but one change I welcome with open arms and a foot massage is that quantity has never been less important and quality has never been more important.
If I give you seven columns in a week, but only four of them are good and the other three are trash, you’re probably going to remember the trash.
If I give you three columns in a week, but all three are good, you’re going to think I’m worth your time. You’ll keep coming back. I haven’t wasted your time. I haven’t failed your trust.
Again, I probably haven’t done this as much as I should. But just in the last six months or so I can think of three ideas I spent time on (one that I even made a road trip for) that I never wrote.
But the answer to the spirit of your question is a little different, I think. You’re asking about profiles, and I believe the VAST majority of athletes good enough to reach the NFL or Major League Baseball or even major Division I basketball or football have interesting stories to tell.
If you give a writer enough time and access and he or she can’t come up with enough to write a thousand interesting words on a professional athlete then you have found one of two things: a very unlucky writer, or a very crappy writer.
Ultimately, our job is to write interesting stories. It’s not to write about certain people. Some coaches or athletes are interesting primarily because of the job, and others are interesting for reasons that transcend the job.
You have to do both. But if the story you’re writing isn’t interesting enough to read, then you shouldn’t be writing it.
Depends on the sport, and the level, but in a perfect world not much.
I don’t say that disparagingly. It’s probably true that most media relations folks put in more hours than I do. It’s definitely true that most in media relations are friendly and smart and understand the rules of engagement. They are valuable employees who perform an important function for both team and media.
For the team, they are the first line of defense in what might be termed narrative management. They know where the bodies are hidden, so to speak, so they know what to sidestep and who to put out front. They correct mistakes, or misperceptions. They promote stories we might not know about.
They organize interviews, compile stats, and discover interesting facts that are then dispensed by media outlets and usually without attribution.
From my perspective, I rely most heavily on media relations as a gatekeeper and a sort of guardrail. The first is fairly obvious. If I or anyone else wants Patrick Mahomes for 10 minutes, we’re not getting it without media relations approving.
And when I say guardrail, I don’t mean approval. I always say they can’t tell me how to do my job, and I can’t tell them how to do theirs. But there are times I have a perspective, or a developing opinion, and if it doesn’t feel all the way there I’ll ask someone in media relations if I’m missing something.
Both of these scenarios have happened: they’ve presented things I didn’t know and talked me out of writing something that would’ve been negative, and they’ve either sort of shrugged their shoulders or otherwise been unable to change my mind.
Either outcome is helpful to me and, I hope, to our readers.
But what I meant with the first sentence is that I don’t ever want to feel like I can’t do my job without them. If I’m relying on them for stats or opinions or history then I’m woefully unprepared and should call it a day.
In all of my life the only times anyone has ever paid me for work has been for mowing lawns as a kid, one miserable summer at Walgreen’s, and as a journalist. My point here is that I don’t know a whole lot about the mechanics of a lot of jobs, but I do believe that what I’m about to write is applicable to most any field. Not just media.
Your goal is to learn, right? Or at least, that’s what it should be.
There is a lot going on in an internship. Uncertainty. Insecurity. Temptation. Stress. Opportunity. Angling for future employment.
That last one is a reality for everyone, but if that’s how you approach it you’re doing a disservice to everyone involved — most notably you.
This is easier said than done, I understand that, but to me this is the difference between trying to lose weight with a crash diet or doing it with a lifestyle change.
If you approach the summer thinking everyday about angling for a job you’re taking the crash diet approach. You’re going to end up doing things that just aren’t sustainable. You’re going to go Eddie Haskell around the office, and the people you’re trying to impress are going to see through it. You’re also going to miss some real opportunities to get better.
If you approach the summer thinking about learning, and getting better, you’re taking the more long-term approach. Say yes to every assignment. Find someone in the office to take a particular interest in you. Ask them lots of questions, including some that you think might be stupid. Do extra.
If you see a piece of work you admire, ask about it. Find out how it came together. Find out the challenges involved, or the breaks.
I know some of this stuff might sound like the Eddie Haskell stuff I mentioned before, in the crash diet part, but I promise you the people you’re working with will know the difference. And what’s more important is that your experience will reflect the difference.
What I mean is that if you spend the summer trying to finesse the system, by aiming at the end result without putting in the work, then your whole time will be empty calories. You might actually achieve the end result, if you fool the right person, but you’ll have wasted an opportunity to make the most of the result.
You’ll set yourself up for failure.
Look, being an intern is hard. You can’t be sure where you fit in. You want to be respectful but also ambitious. Sometimes that line is blurry.
But if you approach it honestly, with the right goals in mind, it’s an experience that can literally change your professional life. I believe that’s what happened with me, anyway.
Oh, man. Two come immediately to mind.
The first is as a kid, my dad waking us up somewhat early to go downstairs and make breakfast for mom. I don’t remember what we made. Probably eggs and toast and fruit and coffee. At the time, the menu seemed the most important thing in the world. Looking back, I understand it was never the point.
The point was the presentation. Breakfast in bed. The point was all three of us walking in the room at the same time. The point was doing something nice for the person who basically spent all of her waking hours doing nice stuff for us. The point was gratitude.
The second is the first Mother’s Day after our first son was born. That’s a hell of a mile marker in life: now the holiday is more about your child’s mother than your own mother. Or, at least, the same.
It’s a sort of reshuffling of life that can catch you on your heels, and at least for me, one of those moments that made me feel like a bona fide adult.
I’m actually not much for holidays. I love Thanksgiving and having kids has transformed how I look at Christmas. Most everything else can go kick rocks, especially Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve.
But Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have always been important. I know I won the lottery by being born to my parents. We had problems, and made mistakes, like all families. But everyday of my life I’ve known I had two parents who loved and supported me unconditionally. That’s a hell of a thing, and now that I’m an actual parent I’ve taken these holidays as a reminder of just what kind of parent I want to be.
I’ll think of my parents, and things I want to emulate as well as correct. I’ll read some of those corny lists of advice parents give kids. I think of these things as sort of New Years Eve for parenting and make resolutions:
More patience. Demand more responsibility. Never say no to a request to play. Get the younger one sleeping all night in his own bed more. Be the best husband possible. More will come to mind. Anyway, you guys always know how to get me going.
This week I’m particularly grateful for the Nelson and Classic Cup, my mom’s two favorite places in Kansas City.