Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Chiefs hope, Royals surging, Paul Kruger’s purpose and KU football

Sam Mellinger on Eric Berry and the Chiefs

Kansas City Star sports columnist Sam Mellinger offers his thoughts on safety Eric Berry and the Chiefs.
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Kansas City Star sports columnist Sam Mellinger offers his thoughts on safety Eric Berry and the Chiefs.

The complete list of teams to have won more games than the Chiefs in the last three years:

Broncos, Patriots, Seahawks, Panthers, Cardinals, and Bengals.

The Broncos, Seahawks and Patriots have won Super Bowls in those seasons. The Panthers won the NFC last year. The Cardinals lost last year’s NFC championship. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1990.

I bring this up for a few reasons:

▪ most of the questions this week are about the Royals, so let’s even it up.

▪ the Chiefs are about to begin their most promising season in a decade.

▪ even the first streak of three consecutive winning seasons since the 1990s puts them closer to teams like the Bengals (just good enough to let you down at the end) than the teams that win trophies.

That doesn’t mean the Chiefs can’t get there this season. Terez Paylor, who is awesome, has the Chiefs going 10-6 and winning the AFC West. I’ll do a game-by-game prediction here next week, the last Minutes before the regular season, but I think you and I would agree you should pay more attention to Terez’s anyway.

The point here is that the Chiefs are facing their first season of real expectation in years. Players and coaches always say they’ll be disappointed in anything less than a Super Bowl, and they mean it on a certain level, but the Chiefs have been able to get to this point while winning just one playoff game and never truly underperforming compared to expectations.

This year, that will be much harder. They have legitimate reason to expect better than a year ago, which means at least playing for the AFC championship.

They have holes, of course. We’ve talked plenty about those already. But they also have real strengths, and even as so much of this depends on who’s healthy in January, you don’t have to think too hard for reasons to believe they can play for the Lamar Hunt Trophy. There is no invulnerable team, particularly in the AFC. It’s all there for them.

This week’s eating recommendation is the combo plate at Slap’s, and the reading recommendation is Steven Brill’s exhaustively researched piece about whether America is safer against terrorism. It’s a heavy read, and long, but there is so much important stuff in there.

Anyway, please give me a follow on Facebook and Twitter. The Facebook Live chat seemed to go well last week, so we’re going to make that a regular thing. Hope you join us later in the week. I’ll post the details.

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

The day the Royals clinch a playoff spot, I will write a mea culpa for last week’s column that will be mocked from Olathe to Oak Grove. It’ll be fun!

I have been wrong many times in my life — especially in my 20s. Heck, just this morning I was wrong, when I thought the weird shadow thing in a light fixture was dust but it turned out to be water from a hole in the roof. If given the choice, I would much rather be wrong about the Royals than my roof and, as a matter of fact, I would love to be wrong on the Royals.

The Royals have, if nothing else, made this season interesting again. They’ve changed the way fans look at them, and changed the way they will operate the final month.

It’d be fun to write about another playoff run, and it’d be great to write about a playoff run like this, one so bonkers that it would swing many fans from wanting the Royals to sell at the trade deadline to three weeks later (mostly good-naturedly) yelling at a sports columnist for pointing out that a playoff run remained unlikely.

Baseball seasons are so long, and include so many wild turns. The consistency of the 2015 Royals — their drama came in bench-clearing, not results — may have clouded the fact that good teams nearly always have moments of a season when they appear to be dead.

For the Royals, that was Aug. 5, when they were 51-58 and had the look of just being very, very … tired.

Even now, with the Royals having won 18 of 22 games*, they remain unlikely to make the playoffs. I don’t necessarily buy into the projections — which put the Royals’ odds anywhere from 9.4 percent to 13.3 to 27 — as much as simpler #math.

*Only the Cubs, Rangers, and Giants have runs that good this season.

There are seven teams within 3  1/2 games of each other, and only two playoff spots to go around. We can get into different scenarios — actually, we will get into different scenarios — but none of these teams are likely to make the playoffs.

For instance, here’s something that’s true: the Royals won two tough road series and five of seven games since that column ran, and only made up 1  1/2 games in the wild-card standings, without passing the Tigers or Astros.

It’s absolutely possible.

Glad you asked!

There are two ways to answer this. One is specific to the Royals, one more general about the world around them. Let’s go specific first.

Before these last three weeks or so, the Royals had the worst offense in the American League. They were hitting .262 with a .312 on-base and .395 slugging percentage, and averaging just 3.8 runs per game. I think most of us figured them to be better than that, but 109 games is plenty of sample size, and the Royals just had so many guys — Alex Gordon, most significantly — struggling.

During the team’s rise, the most significant difference offensively is power. They are actually strikingly similar in both batting average (.263) and on-base (.318). But they are slugging .425, much of the added power coming from Gordon (.603). Combined with Lorenzo Cain’s return from the disabled list, has really lengthened the lineup.

The Royals don’t need to continue scoring five runs a game — last year, they scored 4.5 per game — but to make up ground they’re going to have to win at least a few shootouts.

The win in Boston on Sunday was a particularly good sign — Yordano Ventura was let down by his defense, but gave up four runs (three earned) in 4  1/3 innings. The Royals won anyway, with that wild sixth inning.

Speaking of the rotation, I still think that’s the weakest part of the team, even as the starters have been nothing short of terrific for about three weeks. Beginning with Aug. 4, Royals starting pitchers have surrendered more than three earned runs in just four of 23 games.

If you could promise me that will continue, I would bet diaper money on the Royals making the playoffs and begin writing that mea culpa.

Now, about that bigger world…

This is true! It could happen. Could.

Here are the wild-card standings as of this morning:

Team W-L GB

Boston 73-58 +2

Baltimore 71-60 —

Detroit 70-61 1

Royals 69-62 2

Houston 69-62 2

Seattle 68-63 3

New York 67-63 3  1/2

A breakdown of the remaining schedules:

Boston: 12 at home, 19 on the road, 20 vs. contenders, 11 vs. bad teams. Five vs. Rays, three vs. A’s, three vs. Padres, six vs. Blue Jays, seven vs. Orioles, seven vs. Yankees.

Baltimore: 16 at home, 15 on the road, 21 vs. contenders, 11 vs. bad teams. Five vs. Blue Jays, six vs. Yankees, seven vs. Rays, three vs. Tigers, seven vs. Red Sox, three vs. Diamondbacks.

Detroit: 16 at home, 15 on the road, 16 vs. contenders, 15 vs. bad teams. Five vs. White Sox, six vs. Royals, three vs. Orioles, seven vs. Twins, seven vs. Indians, three vs. Braves.

Houston: 15 at home, 16 on the road, 19 vs. contenders, 12 vs. bad teams. Five vs. A’s, six vs. Rangers, four vs. Indians, three vs. Cubs, six vs. Mariners, seven vs. Angels.

Royals: 19 at home, 12 on the road, 14 vs. contenders, 17 vs. bad teams. Two vs. Yankees, six vs. Tigers, six vs. Twins, seven vs. White Sox, four vs. A’s, six vs. Cleveland.

Seattle: 17 at home, 14 on the road, 15 vs. contenders, 16 vs. bad teams. Six vs. Rangers, six vs. Angels, seven vs. A’s, six vs. Astros, three vs. Blue Jays, three vs. Twins.

New York: 16 at home, 16 on the road, 25 vs. contenders, seven vs. bad teams. Two vs. Royals, six vs. Orioles, seven vs. Blue Jays, seven vs. Rays, three vs. Dodgers, seven vs. Red Sox.

Reasonable minds would agree the Royals have the easiest schedule — the most home games, and the most games against bad teams. That could be particularly important for this Royals team, since they have baseball’s biggest gap in performance at home (41-21) and on the road (28-41).

The other thing you see there is that while AL East teams currently hold both wild-card spots, it could be difficult for that to remain the case when it matters. Toronto, Boston, Baltimore and New York each play more than half their remaining schedule against each other.

It is possible for each team to maintain its current win percentage, but unlikely for all four. It is well within possibility for the AL East to take both wild-card spots, but I’m not sure it’s something you’d want to bet on.

Each team has strengths and weaknesses. Boston’s bullpen is shaky, and the Orioles’ rotation is shaky even if Chris Tillman returns soon. The Yankees gutted their bullpen at the trade deadline, the Astros have been very inconsistent, and the Mariners have some holes in their lineup.

If you’re simply looking at the Royals portion of this, you might say the toughest part is behind them — merely getting back into it, and without Wade Davis — but that the most important part of the journey is ahead of them.

They can absolutely do it. They are confident, they are experienced, and they have a mounting pile of momentum.

The odds remain against them, and I still see it as unlikely, but neither of those things has mattered much before.

There’s no good way to answer this without knowing how the postseason turns out, and there is some fundamental vagueness about what to rank (moments vs. games, games vs. stories) but whatever, I think we all agree how serious this all is so here goes.

I’ll just start listing until I hit a tired 51-58 team winning something like 38 of their last 53 games to get back into the playoffs:

Sept. 30, 2014: remains the most incredible sporting event I’ve covered.

The 2015 World Series champion Royals. That parade, man.

The bonkers second-half run that took them to Sept. 30, 2014. Changed a city.

Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS in Houston. They were DONE, I’m telling you!

And … yeah. Here’s about where I’d put a run from 51-58 into the playoffs. You could argue with me here, and I wouldn’t put up too much of a fight. Maybe you think Game 6 of the 2015 ALCS should be here, or the Chiefs winning their first playoff game in a generation. Maybe I’m forgetting about something.

But that’s my list. Not bad for two years, huh?

Sports are great.

The usual disclaimer goes here, the one about this being irrelevant as long as Bill Self is charge at Kansas* but here goes anyway.

*And I mean that literally: in charge. Not just coaching. In charge.

Eighty percent?

Maybe more?

I say that in a specific way. I believe there are many fans on both sides of the aisle who genuinely, at this specific moment in time, would tell you they don’t care or do not want the schools to play again.

There are times we tell ourselves something we want to believe, but I think this is true. Many, many fans — probably a majority, even — would be telling their genuine truth in saying they don’t want it or don’t care.

But I’m looking at this a little differently. My 80 percent number is coming from if the rivalry came back, how many fans on both sides would care about it more than their current “rivalry” games with K-State or, what, Arkansas? Georgia? South Carolina?

That’s probably not the question you’re asking, but dammit this is the Mellinger Minutes, not the AJ The Hater Minutes.

No. Kruger’s a fine player. It’s always a good idea to be skeptical of players cut by bad teams, but Kruger has film that shows him getting 11 sacks in 2014, and 19 in the three seasons before that.

He had a precipitous drop last year, and has criticized how the Browns used him, but he’s still just 30 years old so you would think there’s some life in there.

I guess the biggest concern I’d have is whether Kruger would, actually, be a short-term solution to the Chiefs’ pass rushing woes. I’d want to know if he can still play, whether he still has the drive, whether he would push himself to be the best version of himself even on a roster where he knows he would not be the best pass rusher.

I don’t know anything about him to doubt any of that. These are just questions I’d have.

This particular Chiefs’ leadership group — and I would say the front office in particular — has earned trust. The benefit of the doubt is theirs. They took a talented-but-extremely-top-heavy group and in three years turned it into the franchise’s best roster in at least a decade.

They do have this potential fatal flaw, especially until Justin Houston returns, and GM John Dorsey has always been open to adding guys off the waiver wire. He and his scouts are well-positioned to know whether Kruger could help them.

My vote would be Danny Duffy, because he’s been so spectacular, and the Royals’ best weapon at a premium position of need, but I respect where you’re coming from.

The advanced metrics won’t back you up. Cuthbert’s defense is dragging down both versions of his Wins Above Replacement — 0.5 on Baseball-Reference, and 1.0 on FanGraphs — but I think we can trust our eyes a bit, too.

Cuthbert has been, perhaps, their most consistent hitter. His .767 OPS is second on the team, behind only Eric Hosmer’s .772. His defense has been inconsistent — he misplayed that ball the other night in Boston, and his arm has betrayed him at times — but he’s made some nice plays, too.

But I think your MVP case would center around his ability to fill what would’ve been a gaping hole after Mike Moustakas’ knee injury. Even if he’s not the leader or personality of Moustakas, Cuthbert is extremely well-liked by his teammates, and his success this year has been celebrated by everyone around him.

It’s enough that the Royals face a genuine and good problem next year in what to do with him when Moustakas is recovered.

It’s hard to imagine the Royals at this point without Cuthbert’s strong season. You could say that about a lot of guys, of course.

Escobar.

The Royals could, in theory, save $6 million by not picking up a team option on Escobar for 2017, but in the current baseball climate, even with his lagging bat* he’s worth $6 million.

*And, if we’re being honest, diminished defense, at least this year.

I understand the point about the quiet bats. The obvious hope is that both would not be so quiet in 2017, but it’s worth remembering that Escobar was terrible in 2015, and for varying stretches the 2015 Royals were getting nothing out of second base and right field, and they still did OK.

Good shortstops are hard to find. Guys who can play the position and hit are gold. I don’t know what the better option is for the Royals. I suppose they could let Escobar walk, play Mondesi at short, and either give second base to Cuthbert or an available veteran to be determined later, but you might not even save money that way, and you’d be giving up some level of comfort, familiarity and, almost certainly, defense.

My guess is that Mondesi is going to improve offensively, and there’s nothing wrong with having such terrific defense up the middle.

My wife chose to see my face everyday, and my kids were born into it. You guys didn’t sign up for that. You shouldn’t have to be put through that.

Besides, the cartoon makes me giggle. An old friend from college drew it.

True story: I once “tried out” for an Arena Football League team here in town. That team, the Brigade, has long been extinct, in no small part because they let people like me tryout and one of their owners (Neil Smith, the former Chief) kept calling the team “the Brigades.”

Anyway, I ran the 40 twice. The first time, I finished in 5.24 seconds, which, I noted at the time, wasn’t terrible for an offensive lineman or a toddler. The second time, I was EVEN FASTER, finishing in something like 5-flat, which was cool, except I also ripped my hamstring and then had to cover the baseball playoffs limping around like an idiot and having to tell people what happened.

So, anyway, to answer your question … if Mondesi ran 11.2 seconds, and coasted into third, I’m guessing I could do it no slower than 21.2 seconds.

I’m a believer!

One other point: I’ve enjoyed how we all look at Statcast measurements, and just automatically tout them as amazing, even if we have no frame of reference. I mean, I assume 11.2 seconds is smoking fast, but I’m curious what, say, Jarrod Dyson’s time is.

One of the many reasons I have to be thankful is that my children are too young to watch much TV. The baby is a baby, and the toddler is sticking mostly with Wonderpets and Chuggington.

He knows enough that when mom or dad are watching a game, he can point to the TV and say, “baseball player,” or whatever, but if he was watching the Chiefs preseason game his toddler brain is not yet sophisticated enough to process the horror of a professional athlete celebrating a touchdown with a basic gymnastics move he’ll learn someday in Gymboree class.

Well, they’re not really revelations. Was anyone under the assumption that Billy Butler was Jeff Francoeur in the clubhouse?

I do think Billy’s problems have been exaggerated some. He could be annoying, and painfully self-unaware, but he has a genuinely good heart and even those who find him obnoxious would at least admit he’s harmless. Point is, people who’ve spent enough time in or around the Royals over the years knew all this was going on behind the scenes.

But, well, now the biggest headlines Billy has made in years come from breaking a clubhouse code so dear he got punched in the temple, missed a week because of a concussion, and apologized.

But the thing is, we all have short memories. Butler will be eligible three years after he retires. He will likely be caught in something of a logjam of (better) players involved in the push of the last three years, but he has a strong case — currently in the Royals’ career top 10 in hitting, hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs and walks.

He was one of the steady faces of the rise, one of the guys who was around for both The Process and The Champagne.

To me, yes, that’s a Royals Hall of Famer.

They will beat Rhode Island badly this weekend, because Rhode Island is not only an FCS team, but a bad FCS team. It went 1-10 last year, beating only Delaware, and losing to, among others, Stony Brook, Towson, Maine and Brown.

That would be David Beaty’s first win, but that can’t be it. There has to be some other piece of tangible progress. Most obviously, that would be in a conference win. Any conference win.

This is a roster that’s said to be improved, even if it’s still inadequate for the top level of college football, but nobody is demanding bowl games here. Just win a conference game.

Just one.

This is not do-or-die. I don’t think anyone will be demanding Beaty fired if they go winless after Rhode Island. Reasonable people understand the hole Beaty is tasked to dig out from. The program is in such bad shape that even if he fails at KU and is fired after four or five years, I don’t think we can know for sure whether he can be a head coach.

But this one seems pretty clear to me. Win a conference game, and you have something to point to. Don’t, and you’re still trying to convince yourself the shiny object on the horizon is water and not a mirage.

You’re welcome!

Maybe!

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