Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Bobby Witt Jr., Ned Yost, Patrick Mahomes and dad’n

Royals select shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. with second overall pick

With the second overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, the Kansas City Royals selected Bobby Witt Jr., a shortstop from Colleyville, Texas.
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With the second overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, the Kansas City Royals selected Bobby Witt Jr., a shortstop from Colleyville, Texas.

Bobby Witt Jr. graduated high school last week but already has been compared to Patrick Mahomes and labeled baseball’s best shortstop prospect since Alex Rodriguez.

That’s better than Chipper Jones, Manny Machado, both Uptons, Derek Jeter and everyone else.

No pressure, kid.

The Royals, as expected, took Witt with the No. 2 overall pick in yesterday’s amateur draft. People who make their living in this world would believe that Witt is the Royals’ most talented and high-level draft pick this century, and perhaps ever.

Better than Eric Hosmer coming out of high school. Better than Mike Moustakas, who set California’s all-time high school home run record. Better than Alex Gordon, who followed a college player of the year season with a minor league player of the year season.

Better than all of them — Johnny Damon, Brian McRae, Clint Hurdle, Michael Tucker, on and on.

Baseball draft picks are among the most volatile commodities in professional sports. But the history of No. 2 picks is encouraging: virtually all of them make the big leagues, most build long careers, and some top out as stars (Alex Bregman, Kris Bryant) and even Hall of Famers (Justin Verlander will likely join Reggie Jackson someday).

There will be struggles. No prospect reaches the best case scenario on draft day* so baseball people in general and the Royals in particular will want to see how he handles failure.

*Mike Trout and Albert Pujols are the exceptions.

Witt is used to demanding expectations. His dad was a No. 3 overall pick and pitched 16 years in the big leagues. Witt Jr. would have been a top pick if he was eligible in last year’s draft. But he’s never been a multimillionaire (the No. 2 pick is valued around $7.8 million) and he will be competing against professionals for the first time.

What happens when he goes 0-for-4?

What happens when that turns into 0-for-12?

There are a million obstacles between high school and the big leagues, and the vast majority who try don’t make it. Witt is supremely gifted, and it’s hard to imagine how a high school kid could be better prepared — raised by a big leaguer, has outperformed the best competition available to him at every step, and by all accounts has kept a level head and maintained ambition for more.

This is the Royals’ reward for 104 losses last year, and it could be worth the squeeze. Witt is projected as a true five-tool talent, a potential quick mover through the minor leagues, and athletic enough for big league shortstop.

That’s where Adalberto Mondesi plays, of course, so Witt’s best-case scenario would present the Royals with a terrific problem. Mondesi and Witt are each athletic enough to play anywhere. Maybe one moves to center field, or third base, or a corner outfield spot. Whatever.

The first two rounds of the MLB Draft took place on Monday night. Here are where the Top 10 picks went.

The Royals hope to have that debate someday. Choosing Witt was one of the easiest decisions the organization has made. He was clearly the best talent after Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman went first overall to the Orioles, and instantly gives the Royals the high-level prospect many in the industry believe has been lacking.

The hard part starts now, beginning with negotiating a contract, and continuing with getting the best out of one of the most talented prospects the organization has ever had.

The Royals’ best days are still years away, even in the most optimistic projection. But they just got a little closer, and a little more realistic.

This week’s reading recommendation is Dave Sheinin on velocity’s grip on baseball, and the eating recommendation is the ribeye at J. Gilbert’s.

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

There’s some nuance missing here. A lot of nuance, actually. Many people ditched nuance around 2010 or so. If that’s you, feel free to skip ahead. Otherwise...

The Royals’ general philosophy is that you don’t choose between development or winning. You do both, which is hard, but if you’re able to pull it off one side helps the other.

You develop by winning, basically. You win by developing.

This is, perhaps, the biggest disagreement I have with the front office. I respect the ambition, but think they should be more realistic. They missed a chance after the 2016 season to choose between winning and developing, for instance. We’ve talked about that here enough already so we can leave that deceased horse alone.

But the point here is that when club officials talk about the second wild card, they’re not talking about it the same way a fan would. They’re talking about it as a goal, as something to strive for, as something to keep the work focused the results important. This is aim-for-the-stars-and-land-on-a-cloud stuff.

Let’s say it plainly:

They don’t truly believe they will win the second wild card.

This is intentional messaging with a higher hope or purpose.

The openness to trade discussions isn’t as drastic as it sounds, either. Did anyone think before the season that the Royals wouldn’t be open to deals? The truth is that most players on most teams are available for the right offer.

Mark Feinsand’s report said a source told him “the Royals have started to let it be known that nearly anybody on their roster is available in a trade.” Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier are “among the select untouchables.” Unless something drastic has changed in the last few weeks (and it hasn’t) you can add Brad Keller and Nicky Lopez to the list.

Then once you take away guys who don’t have much trade value, what we’re really talking about here is that the Royals are willing to trade Whit Merrifield, Jorge Soler and Danny Duffy for the right offer.

All of that has been true for a long time. I wrote about the Royals listening on offers for Merrifield last year. When he signed his extension, that was as much about trade value as long-term certainty.

So, two ways to look at this. On the surface, sure, you can construct a flimsy throwaway line that the Royals have gone from contending to a fire sale in a few weeks. But that’s not an accurate reflection of reality.

If anything is embarrassing this season it’s a 19-40 record, the pitching staff’s underperformance, and the bottom of a lineup that’s dragging everyone down.

Soler, Duffy and Merrifield make a lot of sense as trade chips — and probably in that order.

Let’s go through them.

Soler is a bad fit for the Royals in a lot of ways. He’s a power hitter who struggles to cover his position playing in a ballpark that limits home runs and exaggerates insufficient outfield range.

His value is hitting for power and getting on base. He’s hitting for power, but that .293 on-base percentage causes hesitation. He has two walks and 21 strikeouts since May 10. That’s a problem.

But if that changes, it is an obvious opportunity for a mutually beneficial trade.

Duffy is a talented left-handed pitcher and there is always a market for talented left-handed pitchers. He’s performing well so far, though teams may see injuries, the 2017 arrest and 2018 struggles as red flags.

But he could make sense for the Royals to trade: he’s past 30, a bit of a stretch to be in the next championship window’s rotation, and could be expendable with the farm system loaded with pitching.

He could make sense for a team to trade for, too: 30 isn’t 40, and he could help a lot of teams right now in the rotation or bullpen. There are worse commodities to trade for than a versatile pitching talent. He’s owed a little less than $40 million through 2021. That would have to be worked out.

Merrifield is the best player in this group, which makes the discussion a little more complicated. He will be a big part of the Royals’ future one way or the other — either as a versatile All-Star caliber player or a relatively cheap talent to bring back a prospect or two.

If the Royals truly believe Nicky Lopez is the second baseman of the future then trading Merrifield becomes more palatable. But if you project it forward, Merrifield could also be part of the Royals’ outfield in the next championship window and provides a heck of an insurance plan against any particular prospect (Lopez in particular) falling short of projections.

The Royals listened to offers on Merrifield before signing him to the extension last offseason. The offers left the club nonplussed. Maybe that changes going forward, but it would take — Will Wade voice — a strong-ass offer.

Technically no.

But in practice, yes.

It’s a weird thing to process, too. Because I believe in the tank, and those 104 losses last year just earned the Royals a superstar prospect. A hundred or so more would earn them another stud next year.

The 2015 parade* came in no small part from picking Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer with top four picks in consecutive seasons.

*Drink.

But it is concerning when it’s an unintentional tank, you know? You’ll take a hangover if you partied and planned on it, but when you feel awful for no reason it’s a bit different. You start to wonder if your body is breaking down.

In general, I haven’t moved much on my view of the Royals. The 2019 team always looked like one that would lose a lot but also be interesting with some crucial pieces progressing.

The important stuff was, is, and remains the development of the pitching prospects (all good so far), certain position players (very mixed results so far) and the high-end big leaguers.

That last one can’t be summed up in a few words. Mondesi has been as good as anyone had a right to expect. Dozier has been better. Merrifield has established a high level. Soler is hitting for power, but the on-base percentage is a concern. Keller has been inconsistent. Scott Barlow might be a find. Jake Diekman can help. And so on.

There’s a lot going on here. TV ratings remain generally strong, but attendance is plummeting. That gets the club’s attention on every level — financial, relevance, development, everything.

They can talk about and promote stars like Mondesi and Merrifield, but a 104-loss club from last year is now on pace for 112 more.

I can sit here and be generally optimistic about the long-term future with Mondesi, Dozier, Keller, and a farm system that just added Witt Jr.

But I’m not the target audience. The Royals need to sell themselves to people making decisions based on now, not three years from now, and in that way this is a small money club with dwindling attendance and a new TV contract is only going to fix so much.

Not very?

Brady Singer was just promoted to Double-A Northwest Arkansas. That is both ahead of schedule and means the most ambitious timeline is for his big league debut to be sometime next season.

And he is the closest, highest-ceiling arm they have.

Tim Hill will be up, but that’s not what you’re talking about. Josh Staumont could get a call at some point, but not until he shows better command (23 walks in 27 2/3 innings).

Singer joins some interesting arms in Northwest Arkansas, but nobody imminent. The cluster remains in High-A Wilmington — Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic.

Wilmington is famously pitcher friendly (though not so pitcher friendly to explain the rotten numbers of Seuly Matias, MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto) so the jump to Double-A is about more than just competition.

So, anyway. A year from now is the most ambitious timeline. Two years is much more realistic. It’s also often said that to get one good big league pitcher you need three or four very good prospects.

Don’t throw things at me. I’m just the messenger.

It’s an interesting question, and I haven’t written a column on this because I’m still sorting through a few things in my head.

The most important thing a manager can bring is credibility with players, and Ned has that. This is a small thing but illustrative of the point: Nicky Lopez wore No. 3 in the minor leagues, but changed to No. 1 as a big leaguer. Someone asked if he thought about keeping No. 3.

“No, no, no,” Lopez said. “He won a World Series with that number.”

Again. Small thing. But still.

I do wonder if the message is getting stale, though. I do think that Yost’s approach has changed in some fundamental ways that just aren’t coming back. He’ll be 65 soon. He’s already won a World Series. Human nature is a formidable opponent.

Yost will be celebrated forever as an important part of Royals history. He was the manager everyone said couldn’t do it, and who then did it anyway.

Many of the same people who mocked him worst before the 2014 Wild Card game caught amnesia and celebrated him the hardest afterward. That goes for media and fans.

But we all have an expiration date, and Yost has openly talked about “handing this thing over” to the next guy when the Royals are ready to win again.

I know there’s at least some tension with this inside the organization. Teams don’t lose this much without tension. Something is going to change.

I’m also a little conflicted because I don’t believe managers matter all that much. I believe good players make good managers and bad players make bad managers. I’d present Yost as one of the most telling examples, because when the players stunk he took the heat and when the players were great he rode in the back of a pickup truck in the parade*.

*Drink.

I can get behind the idea that Yost’s experience is a good fit for a team trying to build again, and at some point I might cross the threshold to believing a new voice would help.

But at least for now I don’t have much passion in choosing a side because the newest and most perfect voice would still be filling out a lineup card with three easy outs many nights and choosing between bad options on the pitching staff.

That looks like a picture of a 23-year-old unicorn on the victory lap of an MVP season that quite literally changed a franchise whose last (and only) championship is nearly eligible for AARP.

I know I’m supposed to have an opinion about him wearing a St. Louis jersey, but honestly, I could not care less about that.

It’s probably good for the Chiefs’ #brand for him to do that, and definitely picks at some insecurities and distaste that many people here have about St. Louis, but I just don’t have it in me to be genuinely passionate about this.

He did the requisite QB Beer Chug, and I adore Travis Kelce dancing with chicken fingers, but I just don’t care about what either of them choses to wear to a hockey game.

I don’t think they did it to promote any #brands, and I don’t think they should have to think about offending some overly sensitive Kansas Citians. They’re young. They’re rich. They’re successful. They’re having fun, eating chicken, drinking beer.

That’s the dream, you guys.

Here’s one more issue I’m conflicted about.

As a college basketball fan, I want all the best players to spend at least some time in college. I enjoy following the development of the best young players, and that’s much easier with someone like Draymond Green spending four years at Michigan State and then changing his game in the NBA than it is when Brandon Jennings goes to Europe or a high schooler sits on an NBA bench for a few years.

But I also believe that college basketball is a hot mess that won’t change until it reaps what it’s sowed. I believe that people should be free to make a living the way they want, and wonder if the NBA will twist the screws a bit and make the G League a better experience to make sure prospects like Hampton who don’t want to go to college at least stay in the States.

We’ve seen high school prospects go overseas or to the G League before, so the reactions about this representing a monumental shift are premature at best. But it is interesting, and does have the potential to be important.

It’s also worth noting that basketball isn’t the only sport facing some potential changes. The XFL will launch next spring and will not employ the same age limits as the NFL. Maybe some guys will want to make money after a year or two of college. A broader awareness of football’s dangers and the NCAA’s tilted business model might be enough.

Also, this hasn’t received a lot of attention, but pitching prospect Carter Stewart signed a six-year contract worth $7 million to play in Japan. He’ll be eligible for free agency at 25, which is younger than the vast majority of major leaguers, and get more guaranteed cash up front.

I happen to generally believe in markets, so I’m all for all of this. It’s not up to young prospects to maintain the status quo. It’s up to leagues to make sure they remain the best option for those prospects.

Nobody can know for sure if Hampton and Stewart are making the right decisions in the long-term, but it’s an interesting thing to follow, and they should have the choice.

To your point, yes, I hope that it’s the beginning of some changes for college basketball and major league baseball to make themselves more attractive.

College basketball can start with allowing athletes to profit off their likeness, as well as incentive programs for guys to stay in school.

Baseball can start by paying their minor leaguers livable wages, and by teams investing in minor league facilities to at least match what’s widely available at many college programs.

Let me start by saying that in relative terms of the industry I don’t think either is under enormous pressure.

Martin took over a dog program and is entering just his third year and (hopefully) first where is best player won’t have a season-ending injury. He led Mizzou to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years.

Odom just signed a contract extension. He took over a different version of difficulties, but has now made two bowl games in a row. Things are positive for both men.

But if you’re making me choose, I’m going to choose Odom for a few basic reasons:

football is a higher profile job in general, particularly in the SEC.

the way Mizzou’s recruiting has worked, this is in some ways year one of the sustainable model built around what people in college basketball call “program players.” There’s enough momentum that even a bad upcoming season can probably be answered by a good 2020-21 season.

Kelly Bryant gives Mizzou a top quarterback talent, which is another way of saying he gives Odom higher expectations.

the South End Zone Project is done, finally, which means fans in general and big donors in particular will be less forgiving about any missteps.

Again, let’s be clear. Neither is in realistic danger of being fired soon. But a bad year from Odom will bring more heat than a bad year for Martin, which I think is basically what you’re asking.

Two lists? Two lists!

Right now:

1. Bill Self

2. Chris Klieman

3. Barry Odom

4. Les Miles

5. Cuonzo Martin

6. Bruce Weber

But, man. That’s a hard list. I could argue Klieman anywhere from 1 to 4, and Weber anywhere from 3 to 6. The three football coaches are interchangeable. The first time I did this list I had Self at 3, thinking about the FBI and third-place Big 12 finish and not getting out of the first weekend. But he’s also the only rock star on the list, so he goes on top.

Anyway, let’s do a year from now.

1. Bill Self. Right now the talk is about not landing a top 50 recruit and not winning the Big 12. But a year from now, the investigation is going to be over, KU is going to have one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, and they’re going to have just won the league behind Devon Dotson and a loaded front court. He’ll drop once he takes an NBA job.

2. Barry Odom. The schedule is relatively soft and Kelly Bryant gives the Tigers a dynamic playmaker. This should be Odom’s best season so far, and could be a springboard toward a better future.

3. Chris Klieman. I liked the hire initially, and the more I think about it the more I like it even more.

4. Cuonzo Martin. They’ll be solid. Should be, anyway, and Martin is plainly likable.

5. Les Miles. He’s going to be the head coach of a very bad football team. It won’t be all his fault, and he’ll talk about making progress with the program’s infrastructure, but still. He’ll be a 66-year-old coach coming off a lot of losing.

6. Bruce Weber. In the last two years he’s made an Elite Eight and won a Didn’t Share It With KU Conference Championship and I don’t sense a big swell of support. Hard to believe a season on the bubble will change that. I get all the reasons some fans find him hard to love, but he is also very under appreciated.

But, again. Man. This is hard. Lot of these guys are close. I’m looking forward to seeing how wrong I am about this.

First: it was a great story and you should read it.

Second, I have an emphatic answer.

I didn’t work last week. Originally, we had a fishing trip planned. But that didn’t happen, and I hadn’t taken a week off since last August, so I figured what the heck. It wouldn’t be a staycation, necessarily. More like a Mr. Mom Meets Low Level Handyman kind of situation.

The main goal was to give my wife as much of a break as possible. Unfortunately, she’s the one that ends up contorting her work schedule around mine and everything the kids need so I wanted at least a week where we reversed that. Among other accomplishments, I had the most glorious game of wrestling with the kids in Mellinger family history and played a fair amount of chase.

The second goal was to knock out as many things that I’ve been putting off around the house as possible. We just put in a new patio, so the list is especially long, but I tightened screws, cleaned out the garage (sort of), raised the seats on the kids’ bikes, did most of the cooking for two dinner parties, and laid out what I’m conservatively estimating to be eleventy tons of mulch.

But, you guys, the biggest accomplishment of the week — if I’m being honest, the year and probably longer — was putting in about 45 rolls of sod. Our already feeble backyard was trashed by the patio construction, so sod made the most sense and when Jay our sprinkler guy came out we honest-to-goodness had the following exchange.

Me: You think the sod is going to make it?

Jay: Yeah, looks good. Who’d you have do it?

Me: Me! I did it! You think it looks like a non-idiot did it? That’s amazing!

Jay: Yeah, you did a good job staggering the seams. That’s why I thought you might’ve hired someone.

Me, thinking: Staggering the what?

Me, talking: Well, of course. Gotta stagger the seams.

In conclusion:

GIVE ME MY TUNNEL YOU GUYS.

I could talk about this for days, starting with the fact that I trust no man who doesn’t first say the best burger and the best steak is the one he makes. Even if it’s clearly not true. But, moving on.

Normally, we stay away from chains here mostly because you already know about them but also for parochial reasons. That said, it should be noted that Five Guys and Shake Shack each earn the highest of praise. If you are lucky enough in this life to find yourself around a burger from either of those places you should eat the bejesus out of it.

But, moving on.

Westport Flea Market is the standard answer, and I do love pretty much everything about that place. I’m not exactly sure where it ranks or (perhaps more importantly) where it should be categorized and to explain let’s do it this way.

Best burger from a place that will give you a cloth napkin:

1. Corvino. Pretty much perfection.

2. Tannin. It’s wagyu, which is sort of cheating, but they also put bacon on it and it’s so good.

3. Westside Local. But I dig pretty much everything they make.

Best burger from a place that’s not fancy but also that you’d feel OK taking your grandma to:

1. Pigwich. Everytime I eat this burger my first bite leaves me shaking my head in appreciation.

2. Beer Kitchen. There’s so much going on with this burger, and it’s too much for some, but the fried jalapeños put it over the top for me.

3. Q39. If you consider this fancy, I won’t argue. But either way, it’s really good. But you should be ordering the barbecue anyway.

Best burger from the rest, which, let’s be honest, means the best burger available:

1. LC’s. In general, I play for Team Thin Patty. You get more crust, and it means you’re getting a double, and the cheese between the patties is the best cheese. I also appreciate the lightly toasted bun.

2. Kitty’s. I’ve only had it once, because the pork tenderloin is so good, but it’s hard to top.

3. Town Topic. There are a lot of late night spots you don’t want to eat at with all your senses. Town Topic is the exception.

First of all, Marshall is a hero for insinuating that I keep my skills/writing/reporting from stagnating. Even if all he’s doing is insinuating that I try, hey, I’m taking that compliment and running. Come catch me.

The broadest and probably most important thing is to just read. A lot. A lot. There are a million reasons you should read a lot, and I’m not sure how high on the list this would be, but it’s on there.

Reading a lot means reading writers more talented than you, or more creative than you, or more whatever than you, which means seeing strategies and approaches you might not have thought of. My friend Rustin Dodd is so good at thinking of fresh approaches. It’s probably his best strength, and he has a lot of them.

Sometimes, you can mirror someone else’s approach for the right situation.

Other times, it simply sparks something new in your brain.

I also have a rule-but-sometimes-more-like-a-goal that I call or talk to one person I’ve never called or talked to for every story. Sometimes that’s easy because the story is about something entirely new. Sometimes, it’s impossible or otherwise unfeasible because it’s a game column and you’ve talked to every relevant person in the room at some point or another.

But, generally speaking, if you adhere to the spirit of the rule-but-sometimes-more-like-a-goal you’ll stay fresh.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer one other strategy:

Paralyzing fear.

I happen to be terrified that I’m going to wake up one day and lose the ability to do this, or lose whatever level of credibility and connection I have with readers and sources, and the realization that I would then have to get a real job to make sure my family is nourished helps keep me looking for new angles or strategies.

One more list? One more list!

10. A good hose. I know. I kind of hate that I started here, too. But it’s a proxy for being selective, surgical, and smart with how you stuff your garage. Took me too long to realize this, but an expandable and non-rubber hose is so much better than the primitive rubber caveman hose. You need to know your way these potential pitfalls.

9. Amazon prime account. You see a need coming, and you know you’ll need it in a few days, and you don’t want to take the time or risk for a Target run. You know where you’re going.

8. Griddle. Bacon, pancakes, burgers, whatever. You’re literally cooking with grease.

7. Garage fridge. Ours is currently filled with juice boxes, milk, and beer. The essentials.

6. Grill. If you’re not grilling, are you even a dad?

5. At least one over the top thing you cook that your kids love. Every day I get on my knees and thank all that’s holy that my kids’ answer to this question is ribs.

4. A good babysitter. You need balance.

3. A go-to move to make each kid laugh. Our kids are still into the oak tree joke (don’t ask) but I can tell that’s fading. The 3 year old is still an easy mark with wrestling and tickling, and the 5 year old can be had with the same but I know my days are numbered there, too. Probably have through the summer, but around the start of football I’m going to need a backup plan.

2. An understanding of your wife. We can go in and out here, but you need a sense for when to step in, when to back off, and when to call that babysitter so you guys can go out.

1. An understanding wife. Because you’re going to screw up. You know it’s true.

This week I’m particularly grateful for a full week of no work and no travel. Just home with the family, playing or doing stuff around the house. I know that 22-year-old me would be shocked and probably disappointed, but honestly: top 1 percent week of my adult life.

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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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