Sam Mellinger, part of the Kansas City Star's excellent baseball team since 2006, was kind enough to answer a few questions over email this weekend from St. Louis. You can also read his work online on his Ball Star blog. In his third interview (the first two can be found here and here) with Review, Sam talks about the tumultuous 2009 season, the possibility of further trades, and what we should think of Dayton Moore.
RR: I can't recall a trade that went over worse, seemingly with everyone, than the Betancourt deal. What's your take?
Mellinger: I'm not really sure what I can add that hasn't been said already by many others, even before I (finally) put something on my blog. It's a bad trade, even if Cortes doesn't make it, because Betancourt is a bad player. The move tells me the Royals think they have too many holes in other places, and that finding their (ahem) shortstop here lets them focus in other areas.
I actually don't think it's as bad as most, but what I mean by that is that I don't think it's the worst trade in the history of the world ever, and something that puts all of humanity in danger. But in this whole thing, here is the most depressing part: Betancourt makes the Royals better at the big league level.
One more thing: was just talking with someone about Betancourt, and the obvious joke about Angel Berroa finally coming back to KC. I know I'm the reporter and I'm supposed to know this, but can you tell me if Dave Owen has a daughter Betancourt can marry?
RR: Does Mike Aviles have a future with the Royals?
Mellinger: Sure he does. The question is what kind of future. The feeling I get is that this is a very "Show-Me" situation, still. Even after what he did last year, scouts have almost no respect for him. But I also don't believe the Royals are entirely sold on Alberto Callaspo, whose defense continues to wipe out much of what he's capable of offensively. I do think that the Royals -- assuming they don't add a 2B -- are willing to sort of write off Aviles' bad 2009 as a product of that injury, and put him in a gotsta-prove-it situation where he's competing with Callaspo (and maybe Bloomquist?) for the starting 2B job next year. It sure would be a cool story if he made it.
RR: The Freel acquisition was generally seen as a portent of future trades to come, but post-Betancourt, it appears that Moore is again trying to position the team for 2010. Do you think we'll see any major trades later this month?
Mellinger: I know they're trying. The feeling in the front office seems to be that the season was absolutely torpedoed by injuries. They really thought they left spring training with a team capable -- emphasize capable -- of competing in the division. They still believe that, injuries aside, which is why they won't break up the Meche-Greinke-Soria nucleus. The problem, of course (on a couple levels) is that they just don't have a lot of valuable pieces outside
the group they won't trade. Teahen could help somebody. I tend to think they should sell high on Bannister. But nobody's taking on Guillen, who has a limited no-trade clause in his contract but a full no-trade clause in his performance, and DeJesus' down year has deflated his value.
This is also a good place to mention I'm not sharing the optimism. I've written about this on the blog, but if you look at the contracts, there isn't a lot of money coming off, and what does come off will likely be canceled out by arbitration guys getting raises. That means not much payroll flexibility for a team that needs it to get better. The two options then seem to be trades, or David Glass approving an even higher payroll one year after approving a 20 percent payroll hike produced one of the most disappointing seasons ever. You're a smart guy, so I won't tell you which is more likely.
RR: You're able to interact with readers on your blog and you've taken issue with some of the persistent complaints that get voiced on blogs and message boards. Do you sense that fans (and maybe media) are growing less patient with the Royals and less willing to give them a pass? Or is it just that people have more avenues to complain?
Mellinger: Absolutely fans are growing less patient, and absolutely fans have more avenues to complain (or praise). I also think it's important to remember that while there very likely has never been a better time to be a baseball fan, with all the information and analysis and everything else out there, it's probably dangerous to read message boards and blog comments and assume it's a perfect representation of how the entire fan base thinks.
The complaints we all read on those boards and blogs are mostly very justified. The Royals bumped their win total each year under Dayton, so I do believe that earns something of a benefit of the doubt. Barring lots of forfeits by opposing teams, that streak will almost certainly end this season. That's the most important thing, and not just because of the payroll hike or new stadium. The honeymoon between Dayton and Royals fans is very clearly over, another thing I've written about on the blog.
This might be a good place to mention that I absolutely love the interaction with fans who are nice enough to read what we do. E-mail, Twitter, the comments section on my blog, message boards in other places, I think it's essential for what I try to do. And that's good because I really enjoy it. I've found the vast majority of readers to be smart, friendly, and willing to respectfully disagree.
There's also a selfish element to all this, because I think the interactions and reading blogs and message boards and everything else makes me better and what I'm trying to do.
RR: You were somewhat critical of both parties regarding the Rany Ban. Since the Royals have come in for loads of criticism already, can you talk a little about the mistakes that you believe Rany made in his post on the Royals medical staff?
Mellinger: Again, I'm not sure what I can add that I didn't put in that blog post. I probably spent more time on that post than just about any other, trying to make sure my thoughts came across clear. I think and hope each side feels I was at least fair and accurate. I talked to Rany and Swanson both, before and since, and I think whatever regrets each guy has do not change their bigger stance on the matter.
Since you're asking about Rany and not the Royals...I think Rany had an intriguing larger point that was clouded a bit by some holes in his arguments, which were made greater by focusing on the trainer (who really is low on the totem pole of decision making) and not at least making a phone call. Then after the Royals overreacted, I think Rany misrepresented what was happening with some of his wording. I think some would be surprised how often reporters and sources have big arguments on this level or higher, but they are usually handled privately.
The Royals never "banned" Rany, and were not capable or interested in canceling his get-together. I haven't talked to Rany or Swanson since all this stuff was hot, but at that time, I still felt there was a chance someone from the Royals could come down and meet Rany's group.
But, like I said, the bulk of the blame goes to the Royals.
RR: When you talk to people around baseball, is there still the old consensus that Dayton Moore can and will rebuild the Royals?
Mellinger: Yes on "can," mostly yes on "will." Some offseason moves are very clearly backfiring, and there's not a whole to add about how miserable this season is turning out. It may very well cost Trey Hillman his job.
The Titanic continues to play three hours a night on Fox Sports KC, sometimes even in HD, so it's hard to keep in mind that the most important stuff is not what's happening at the K, and not even what's going on in Omaha or Springdale, but Wilmington and Burlington. The focus of Dayton and his peeps has always been player development, and the two drafts they've been in charge of were all mostly praised.
In the short-term, things look pretty bleak around the Royals. But in the long-term, Mike Jacobs is irrelevant if Eric Hosmer turns out. Yuniesky Betancourt is irrelevant if Jeff Bianchi turns out. Mitch Maier is irrelevant if Derrick Robinson turns out. is irrelevant if one of the catchers turns out and, to be fair, Gil Meche is irrelevant if Danny Duffy/Aaron Crow/Mike Montgomery/etc DON'T turn out.
But at the very least, the disaster we're seeing at the big league level is taking the shine off the Dayton regime. They should be better than this, even with injuries, and if Trey does end up losing his job (or next season begins with everyone thinking Trey SHOULD have lost his job) it's a major hit on Dayton.
RR: Lastly, I think many people would regard you as a generally positive voice. The 2010 Royals don't figure to be too much different than this year's team, especially after the Betancourt trade. Does 2010 matter for you in terms of evaluating the current administration? Or, is this still a much longer term rebuild?
Mellinger: Yeah, and I think 2009 matters, too. I guess I should've read this question before typing my answer to that last question. My bad.
Look, the Royals are at least still telling themselves they had a division contender when they left spring training (when my prediction of 78-79 wins seemed lower than 90% of fan predictions). Lots of factors have ruined that. If Dayton and his people want to take another shot at it in 2010 with mostly the same team, I'll be interested to see what happens. And if 2010 turns out even close to as bad as 2009 is going right now, then we're all going to feel not just like we're watching Groundhog Day, but keep popping in the DVD every night after dinner.
I've been mostly positive about the bigger direction of the franchise in the last three years, because it's been getting mostly better. Next year will be Dayton's fourth full season, and he's got a big boy job, so, yeah, that's past being able to evaluate a lot of things. Full, final evaluation? Probably not.
We all like to think about Tampa going worst-to-first in a single bound, and I'm guilty of that, too, but it ignores the 10 years of losing that came before. Colorado made the jump to the World Series a few years back, but that came after six years of losing. Both those turnarounds were built on player development (the Rockies had, I believe 17 homegrown players on their WS roster) and player development almost always takes time, no matter what Albert Pujols and Evan Longoria and Ryan Braun would lead us to believe.
I'm not saying we should all wait until Dayton's been around 10 years or even six. I'm just saying that the important stuff is how his drafted and developed prospects progress, and that part of it needs time. What doesn't need as much time is to judge how the current administration put together a big league roster.
Thanks again to Sam for his time.