Sam Mellinger

Twitter Tuesday: All-Star Game is finally here, Justin Houston, Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer

The Royals' Salvador Perez during batting practice for the  All-Star Game on Monday in Cincinnati.
The Royals' Salvador Perez during batting practice for the All-Star Game on Monday in Cincinnati. AP

Enjoy it. More than anything else, I hope Royals fans just enjoy tonight. Because as much as anyone else, they deserve this.

They deserve having this All-Star Game in large part about them, and that’s not only a reference to their takeover of the voting. That became the story of baseball’s first online-only vote, of course, among other things exposing a slew of flaws in the way the whole thing was set up. Royals fans voted four of their own in, and after Alex Gordon’s groin injury will see three of them start Tuesday night.

Lorenzo Cain will bat fifth, Salvador Perez seventh, and Alcides Escobar ninth. Assuming Cain and Escobar face Dodgers and National League starter Zack Greinke, it will make for a nice bow around what turned out to be as important a trade as the one that brought James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City.

But Royals fans deserve this All-Star Game for reasons more than the voting, and even more reasons than a generation of irrelevance and jokes. They deserve it because they were part of it. The investment made from Royals fans was hard for some who worked in the organization to understand. You could see this when some in the organization talked about getting more love outside Kansas City or when Ned Yost whined about a crowd last August.

But the investment was always there. It was just hard to see sometimes, buried under years and decades of disappointment. You can only have your heart broken so many times before you become skeptical, even cynical.

Royals fans were as much a part of last October as a fan base can be. When Eric Hosmer and some teammates treated fans to a $15,000 bar tab, it made national headlines, but my favorite two anecdotes were James Shields saying he could literally feel the ground shaking as he prepared to throw the first pitch of the Wild Card Game, and the way cars continually parked on the side of I-70 to take pictures or catch a glimpse or hear the sounds. Royals players also had a way of befriending some fans in a genuine way that’s outlasted the playoff run.

The point is, they deserve this. The All-Star Game is a showcase, and despite the This Time It Counts thing, I think most of us see it that way. But it’s the only baseball game happening most of this week, and it sure has been a long time since Royals fans could see more than one of their own on this stage and know they belonged.

This week’s eating recommendation is the chicken pad thai at Lemongrass, and the reading recommendation is Jason Buckland on Marcus Lattimore.

As always, thanks for the help and thanks for reading.

The Shuttlecock Curse — as inarguable as it once was — died on Sept. 30 last year. I think we all knew it, even then, even before the Royals went on to sweep the Angels in the division series and then the Orioles in the ALCS.

Teams that are cursed do not win games like that, down 7-3 against Jon Lester in the seventh, then scoring three in the eighth (with only one ball hit in the air to the outfield), one more in the ninth (on a single, pinch runner, sac bunt, stolen base, sac fly) and then two more in the 12th (after a draft pick turned into Goose Gossage, and Sal Perez did this).

Or, rather, if teams that are cursed do happen to win games like that, they are no longer cursed.

I don’t know how you can measure something like this, and this is exactly the kind of thing that’s so ripe for recency bias, but I don’t know when there’s been a better time to be a sports fan* in Kansas City. I certainly don’t think it’s been in my lifetime.

* Or sports columnist, I have to say.

Part of growing up in or around Kansas City has always been this sort of understanding that your teams would never really be that good, or at least they would NEVER be good at the same time.

It feels like I’m in the majority in expecting the Chiefs to be very good this year. I’m thinking 10, 11, even 12 wins are possible. The success of Sporting Kansas City (and, to a lesser degree, FC Kansas City) is only strengthening Kansas City’s case as the soccer capital of America. Each of the major local universities have a lot going for them, too, K-State and Mizzou with football, and KU with basketball.

Kansas City sports fans have a long and justified history of expecting the worst. But here, now, finally, they have reason to expect the opposite.

The narrative machine is up and cranking with this one. No matter what happens tonight, an easy story to write will be the Royals’ impact on this game. If none of their position players get a hit, or someone makes a key error, or a reliever gives up the winning run, it’s going to be easy to write and say that the Royals’ All-Star vote takeover cost the American League — and, perhaps, the Royals themselves — homefield advantage in the World Series.

To me, that’s silly for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the expected profit from homefield advantage in the World Series is vastly overstated, but I do understand the angle, and it’s one that will be popular to write and read.

The same thing is true in the opposite. If Lorenzo Cain makes a diving catch in the gap, or Mike Moustakas hits a home run, or Wade Davis cleans up a mess in the eighth, it’s going to be easy to write and say that the Royals are the best team in the American League, dammit, so get out of their way and let them do their thing.

What I’m absolutely certain of, though, is that for a city and fan base that care FAR too much about national perception, it will be a big deal here locally either way.

Eh, maybe. I mean, baseball is an entirely unpredictable thing, and for proof — I mentioned this in the Alex Gordon column the other day — the Royals have used the disabled list 12 times already, have had their starting third baseman leave the team twice for a family emergency, and had four players suspended a total of six different times. All of that is true, along with a few stretches of scuffling bats, and the Royals have the biggest division lead in baseball* and the best record in the American League by four games.

It really is remarkable.

Now, if you are of the mind that this is all smoke and mirrors, that the Royals are a product of luck* and unsustainable energy, you can make that case, too. I happen to think it’s a weak case, but it’s a case that can be made.

* Their pythagorean record is two games worse than their actual record, and their BABIP is second in the American League.

That A’s team stopped hitting, and at least in hindsight, sure seemed deflated after trading away Cespedes. We’ll get into more of this later, but I would be shocked — SHOCKED — if Dayton Moore’s front office made any trade that the clubhouse would not love* and I’m not sure who on the team is having the kind of first half that you’d expect to fall off dramatically.

* If you are reading this as dripping skepticism over the Jeff Samardzija talk, then good for you.

I do think how the team handles Alex Gordon’s injury will largely define the second half and the season, but you have to say, so far, so very good.

I don’t know, and this is exactly the kind of story that would be dominating the conversation in Kansas City if we were still in the years where the Royals stunk.*

* Did you realize that as recently as 2010, the Royals were 10.5 games back at the All-Star break? In 2006, the year Moore was hired, the Royals were — children, turn away — 27.5 games back at the All-Star break.

I haven’t had many conversations with people who would know about this lately, but the feeling I get is that Justin Houston is very serious about getting paid, and is willing to walk the plank a little bit here.

I tend to side with NFL players in these disputes anyway, what with their short careers, low job security, and the NFL’s ugly greed and exploding profits, but with Houston that’s especially true. NFL teams overreacted to a reported failed marijuana test, and so far Houston has been nothing short of a revelation.

He is a star, a massively disruptive force, and if not for J.J. Watt, I think more people around the league would understand this. The Chiefs are a franchise of pass rushers — this is Pass Rush City, after all — and Houston just set the all-time single season sacks record. He is a more complete player than Derrick Thomas, and I know that’s blashphomous around Kansas City, but it’s also true.

He has also been a model teammate, allergic to taking credit, and happens to be a perfect fit for what the Chiefs want to do defensively.

Pay this man his money, is what I’m saying.

Not really. I mean, sure, mention him, if that’s a thing, but I don’t see the use and I certainly don’t see an eighth-inning reliever — even if he is an alien — winning the Cy Young.

I thought baseball did a smart and long-overdue thing last year when they created what is essentially a Cy Young award for relievers, and Davis is a strong candidate there — along with Dellin Betances, David Robertson, and a few others.

Davis is incredible, and by now everyone in baseball knows it, but when you compare the value of a starting pitcher who goes 230 or so innings, it’s just so hard for a 60- or 70-inning relief pitcher to match up.

The Royals are helping change the way baseball views relief pitching. They’ve been on the cutting edge here, of hoarding and unleashing power arms to dominate the last three innings, but it’s also very true that Chris Sale is far more valuable than any relief pitcher.

Not trying to go all Bill Clinton here, but it depends on your definition of noteworthy. Someone good enough to make the playoff roster? I would say the chances are better than 50-50. Someone a casual fan would look at and say, “holy crap, good for the Royals”? I would say the chances are worse than 10 percent.

These things are fluid, and every trade talk has a different context and different rules, but every time I’ve talked to Moore or anyone else in the front office, they have been steadfast about keeping their core together and of maintaining the team’s strengths. To make a trade for someone like Johnny Cueto — or, really, even Ben Zobrist — would require a departure from that philosophy.

You’re not going to get a big piece like that back unless you’re willing to trade Raul Mondesi, along with someone like Danny Duffy or Kelvin Herrera. Might be more than that, even.

The Royals have a 4.5 game lead in the division, and a team that gets along as well as you are likely to see in pro sports. They are also going to add Kris Medlen and Alex Gordon between now and the end of the season. Any team that would add Medlen and Gordon at the trade deadline would be written about coast to coast. If Yordano Ventura and Duffy can be better in the second half than the first, I’m not sure the Royals will feel like they truly need to make a move.

Filling second base and right field would be nice, obviously, but especially in the outfield the Royals might have enough on the roster already to cover it.

Yeah, I think so. Alex Gordon and Sal Perez, at least in my estimation, are the two most popular players within the organization. That includes teammates and coaches, but I am mostly here talking about executives and scouts.

Gordon is, in many ways, the personification of what Dayton Moore wants in baseball players and also in human beings. We all used to make jokes about Dayton’s man crush on Jeff Francoeur — but I’m here to tell you that if Dayton was on a sinking ship with Gordon and Frenchy and only one life jacket, Frenchy better be a good swimmer.

The Royals always knew they would lose James Shields to free agency, and they were OK with that. Take the extra draft pick, take Wade Davis, and keep the trains moving. Gordon is different. He was inherited by Moore’s front office, but he was also very much brought to stardom under Moore’s front office.

I may be buying the rhetoric too much, but I do believe the feeling is mutual. This is where the Royals might have an opportunity here. James Shields is from southern California and came up through the Rays system. He did not have any particular ties to Kansas City, other than being a major part of the franchise’s rise for two years. But that was never going to be enough for him to take significantly less money.

Gordon could — could — be different. He’s not going to leave tens of millions on the table, but if the Royals can get close to what would be available on the open market, they could at least give Gordon something to think about. If keeping Gordon long-term was always the goal, the Royals haven’t done themselves any favors by apparently not having any negotiations so far. But there is a long and strong enough relationship that the two sides may re-marry if the money is close.

Free agency is a strong pull, though. Gordon has never gone through that process. He may be curious. But there are good reasons on both sides to keep this going.

I don’t see it. Starting in the spring, the Royals have made subtle indications that Gordon may require more care and rest than in the past, and if he does sign somewhere else, the chances are better than 50-50 that he’s already had the best year of his career.

Players are certainly less reliable into their 30s than they are in their 20s, but I don’t see how durability is a problem for Gordon. He’s played 151, 161, 156 and 156 games the last four years. This was a freaky thing. He is an indefatigable worker, keeping himself in impeccable shape, and his athleticism should keep him productive longer than some other players.

When he first went down, based on my advanced medical knowledge, it looked like an ACL to me. If it had been, I do think it would’ve increased the odds that Gordon stayed in Kansas City long-term. That would’ve been a year of recovery, meaning Gordon likely would’ve picked up his player option for 2016, and the two sides would’ve had more time to work out a deal.

They could’ve done that deal in the context of Gordon being reminded how fleeting the opportunity to play can be, and the Royals being reminded of what life is like without their best player.

I’m not saying it’s impossible that Gordon stays long-term. I’m not even saying it’s unlikely. But, usually, if a player is going to stay, he doesn’t go to free agency.

No.

Wait, you wanted more?

OK, fine. My amateur batting coach eye, combined with an oversimplification, comes up with the following scenario:

Eric Hosmer changed his approach at the beginning of the season. He was more aggressive, and started what hitters call their load sooner, meaning he was taking more chances and attacking certain pitches in certain counts in certain parts of the strike zone. It did not always work, but when it did, Hosmer had big results, and on May 15 he was slashing .333/.410/.574. A good-looking man even said he was a star.

Around that time, the league adjusted back to him. The scouting report got around that Hosmer was attacking more, taking more chances, and the pitchers adjusted in kind. They figured out his tendencies, and used that aggression against him. Fewer pitches in the strike zone. I referenced this on the Border Patrol yesterday, and double-checking, I was actually conservative: among American League hitters, only Adam Jones has seen fewer strikes than Hosmer.

So, the shorter explanation is that Hosmer is now on the second round of adjustments here. He changed what he did, which caught some pitchers by surprise and helped him hammer baseballs all over the league. Then pitchers adjusted back, and now it’s been long enough that Hosmer needs to make the next move.

The complicating factor in all of this, of course, is health. He’s had this finger injury, and those can be tough — not so debilitating enough for a DL stint, but the kind of thing that can cause overcompensation and an unintentional break in mechanics.

Even with the slow last two months — he’s hitting .257/.303/.320 since May 16 — his OPS and OPS+ are close to career bests.*

* He’s at .786 and 117, respectively, compared to career highs of .801 and 118 in 2013.

Of course, he is 25 years old, in what is basically his fifth full big-league season. He should be having a career year. I believe in Hosmer’s talent. I think he is a star. Or, at least, I think by the end of the year he’ll have shown himself as one.

I actually do think it will help. Wayne Selden seems like a different player, and of everyone on that roster, he may’ve needed a confidence boost the most. Frank Mason looks like a star in the making, and besides all of that, I think that college basketball is such a transitional sport — rosters are put together and then developed very much on the fly — that teams with extra practice and game time have a significant advantage.

We fans and media, I think, tend to overrate the importance of bowl practice as it relates to the future of a college football program. I’m not saying those practices are worthless, but there are times it seems that people talk so much about the benefit, you’re surprised any team ever makes a bowl game without having extra bowl practices the year before.

Well, I think those practices are actually as important in basketball as is so often said in football. There are things put in place, both in strategy and cohesion, that just aren’t replicated with open gyms and pick-up games. I think this was, in large part, why Kentucky was so damn good at the beginning of last season.

For KU’s purposes, it would’ve been nice if Cheick Diallo and Svi could’ve played, but as it is, the benefits could be enormous.

Kansas was always going to be good. They are almost sure to be in the top five of most preseason rankings. I don’t know how much those things take into account the university games, but I do believe it gives KU a chance to start the season with a headstart.

How much they maintain that is up to them.

I don’t have any insight as to Jayson Tatum’s priorities, or the specifics of how he was recruited. He’s the No. 2 recruit in the country, and guys like that often end up at Duke or North Carolina or Kentucky (or Kansas), so maybe this would’ve been a longshot in any scenario.

But it also might be a spotlight of sorts on the importance of getting a program built up, and soon, at least to the point where you can be the kid’s hometown finalist instead of SLU. That, as much as anything, is Kim Anderson’s charge now.

His first season was bad enough that even folks like me who believe in Kim have to be open to reconsidering as time goes on.

I don’t know if Puerto Rico is, technically, Latin America or not. But it’s close enough that I can tell this story about how people from Latin America see the weather very differently than, say, Kansas Citians.

So, this is more than a few years ago. The Royals are opening the season in Chicago or Detroit, I can’t quite remember which, but I do remember it was freezing cold. The kind of weather where Jarrod Dyson would wear that hood thing that makes him look a little bit like a human condom. Anyway, it’s probably around 40 degrees, maybe colder, and a Royals coach from the Dominican Republic comes out on the field dressed like he’s hiking on glaciers. He’s got thick gloves, a jacket over a sweatshirt, and a hood pulled as tight as he can get it. He still looks miserable.

“Back home,” he said to nobody in particular, “when it gets this cold, people die.”

There’s a pause.

“No,” he says. “Seriously. People die.”

So I’ve never judged anyone for how they dress for the weather. I’d imagine Alex Rios would think it was quite strange to see me in 45 degree weather rocking shorts and a long-sleeve T.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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