On a (presumably) cold January morning, Sam Mellinger, sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, and I discussed the insanity of the postseason and what it meant to him.The Royals were proud owners of three major new free agents and, for the first time since General Manager Dayton Moore took over, were without stalwart Billy Butler.
Now, the Royals are 22 games over .500 and stand at 60-38. They have won only five fewer games than they did in 2009, the worst year under Moore's tenure, and it is not yet August. They have recently acquired legit ace Johnny Cueto and are still aggressively in the market for the other big fish in the trading pond, Ben Zobrist. The goal: not make the playoffs, win the division, or win a League Pennant. The goal is to win a World Series this year.
All this is very strange, so with all the hubbub and foofaraw surrounding this particular team, I thought another chat with Mr. Mellinger was in order. What follows is that discussion. The questions I originally asked and received were pre-Kansas City Cuetos, which is the price of doing business in trade deadline season. In a bizarre coincidence, I happened to ask about two of the three guys in the trade, so I might be psychic. Regardless, enjoy.
With lots of games there come a lot of storylines, especially for this particular team. What do you think is the biggest storyline of the year? What do you think is the most underrated storyline of the year?
The biggest story is that the Royals -- the freaking Royals, the team of Mike Sweeney's back and Buddy Bell's disappointment and Carlos Beltran's rearview mirror and Ken Harvey's back -- are the best team in the American League. They are backing up what some thought was a flukey pennant with a relentless and stubborn resiliency, all done with smiles and swagger.
You probably want a more specific answer than that, so I think I'd go with the Royals' transition from cute to something of a national annoyance. The bench-clearings (most of that was the Royals' fault) and the All-Star votes (a combination of an insane passion from Royals fans and a stupid system from MLB) and a general feeling around the game that the Royals should show more "professionalism" (baseball is so freaking outdated on this, and it needs to change).
The most underrated storyline is that, despite what I wrote a month or so ago, Wade Davis really might be from outer space.
The trade deadline is quickly approaching. Are the Royals leaning towards starting pitching, right field, or second baseman help? Who do they seem willing to part with in the minor leagues, if any?
This changes all the time, and for a lot of reasons, from the needs of the Royals to what's being made available by other teams to the asking prices being dictated by supply and demand. The Royals have gone from most needing pitching to most needing a second baseman or right fielder and now back to most needing pitching. Of course, even if they throw five straight no-hitters, they could still use an upgrade at second and in right. You never know what the actual asking price is and what the realistic value will be, but if the top trade targets -- Price, Zobrist, Cueto, those guys -- are going to require something like Mondesi, Herrera/Duffy AND something else, then, well, that's just silly. The Royals will and should be active. I don't think they'll do a blockbuster, for a lot of reasons. I do think they'll acquire a mid-level guy. Someone like Aaron Harang.
Nobody expected the team to be this good now--from ESPN analysts to projection systems to our own Royals Review staff predictions. Is there any amount of surprise in the clubhouse or front office about just how dominant this team has been?
No, but they're young (ish), and they're athletes, and they did win the pennant last year, so it's what you'd expect. I did sense some surprise from the clubhouse last year, particularly late, and I think that was both because of how dire things felt in July and the nutso trajectory of the last part of the season. I don't think they would've expected to be this far up in the division, particularly with all the injuries and everything else, but I think once you're sort of inside it you lose track of things and surprise isn't really a thing.
Brandon Finnegan has more in common with a yo-yo this year than a premier starting pitching prospect. Do you have any insight into their handling of him?
They don't have a plan, or at least not one that they're sticking with, or one that has consensus support within the organization. Finnegan was an enormous and unexpected help last year, but I do think people sort of got him confused with Walter Johnson at some point. He pitched 13 innings in the majors, total, between the regular season and postseason. He gave up eight earned runs. That's suboptimal.
I think they've mismanaged him this year. I've always thought they should develop him as a starter, and resist the temptation to use him as a reliever, at least until September or so, because they have so much depth back there. Actually, if I was going to give a serious answer to your underrated-storyline-question, this might be it. When teams are bad, the good storylines tend to be undertold. When teams are good, the bad storylines are undertold. Which is the way it should be, obviously.
John Lamb's numbers in AAA have been about as good as Ventura and Duffy's were when they were called up. Does the team consider him a legitimate prospect or mere depth?
Legitimate prospect. But he's also having his first good year after Tommy John surgery. Part of being a good team is that you don't always need to promote every player who has a good few months. The most aggravating thing about following the old Royals was that a guy could get hot for like two weeks and get promoted from AA to the majors. This is a good problem.
Kauffman Stadium was sold out for three weekday evening games last week. What is the reaction from players, coaches, and the front office in regards to this outpouring of support?
It's been a game changer, truly. There have always been club officials -- not all, but certainly more than one or two -- who were a bit skeptical of hearing how the fan base was strong, but just needed a reason to cheer. That all changed in a beautiful way last fall, and to have it backed up by the huge attendance bump this year just reinforces the point. The business folks made what they thought were cautiously optimistic projections about attendance, but two or three weeks into the season rewrote them. Everything's better when you win, but I do sense a genuine bond there between team and fans.
When Ned Yost retires, who among Raul Ibanez, Chris Getz, Mike Sweeney, Mitch Maier, or Jason Kendall would be most likely to manage?
Haha, this one I haven't put much thought into. A year ago, or more, I would've said Jason Kendall would be a good fit. He's an ass kicker, has the respect of (most) players, and is absolutely hooked on baseball. There are some rough edges there to smooth, but if he wants to manage -- and Lee would know this much better than I -- he'd be very good. But among that list, Ibanez would make the best choice, I think, both in familiarity and skill set. He played for five different teams and has friends and admirers throughout the game, so if he wants to manage, he won't lack for options. I don't know this for sure, but I sense that Getz wants to be more on the GM track than the coach/manager track. I also have to point out that Mike Jirschele would make for a fine big league manager, and that Rusty Kuntz would be fantastic, but I don't know if he's interested.
What is your favorite anecdote or story from this year's club that fans wouldn't know about?
This might just be a top-of-mind thing, but when I was talking to Rusty for that energy giver column that ran the other day, he was going on like he tends to do, and I said something like, "I think a lot of people try to fake that attitude, but yours seems so genuine that I bet you get really excited to go mow the lawn." He paused, then: "Oh my gosh, yes, are you kidding me? It's like, 'Let's go mow this fucking lawn, that grass is too long, and it's time to change. That lawn is not going to beat me. I'm going to beat it.'" Rusty really is the best.