Monday, April 26, 2010

Pressure Is On Cassel Now

Now that the NFL Draft is complete, football fans across the country finally have a chance to take a step back and see what their favorite teams did and didn't do over the off-season. Not that the off-season is over, there's still about three full months until training camp starts, but any big improvements a team needed to make should have been made by now.*

*It's worth noting Jacksonville Jaguar DT John Henderson and New England Patriot LB Adalius Thomas, both former Pro Bowlers, were both released by their respective teams today. Expect one (probably Henderson) or both of these players to be in Chiefs' red by the end of the week.

And if you're like me and you're already ready for football because of the way the Royals have been playing, you'll eat up anything and everything NFL, especially with regards to the Chiefs. The problem is, I don't have a strong opinion about the Chiefs' draft. Well, maybe it'd be better put this way: I have an opinion about the draft, but it's probably no more relevant than my 11-year old niece's opinion about the draft. Any real fan knows the history. It's a crapshoot. Some players will end up being busts, few will be stars, and most will be average NFL players. That's all we really know. We don't know who will do what, and that's really the beauty of the whole thing.

So in looking at the Chiefs' off-season as a whole, it seems blatantly obvious to me as to what will determine the Chiefs fate this upcoming season: Matt Cassel. Sure, there are other factors and storylines. How much impact will first-round pick Eric Berry have on the defense? Can the defensive front seven improve, specifically Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey? Can Branden Albert prove himself to be a real NFL left tackle? Is cornerback Brandon Flowers ready to emerge as a superstar? And so on.

Really, to be fair, without most-to-all of those questions being answered positively for the Chiefs, Matt Cassel's play probably won't matter too much. It does, though, seem obvious that GM Scott Pioli is determined to find out wheter Cassel is the real deal by the end of this season. There were plenty of scapegoats last year, including the offensive line's struggles and Head Coach Todd Haley scrapping the playbook two weeks before the season started. It's also easy to forget WR Dwayne Bowe's four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, handicapping an already depleted receiving corps.

Cassel's time to shine starts now. He must show substancial improvement this season to justify the contract Pioli gave him after trading for him last off-season.

The excuses, most of them at least, are gone, and the improvements on the Chiefs' offense are everywhere. It started with the addition of new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Weis was the Patriots' offensive coordinator for their three Super Bowl victories in the 2000s and some credit him for Tom Brady's emergence into superstardom.

In free agency, the Chiefs improved their offense with a flurry of moves. They re-signed two former Chiefs on the offensive line, guard Ryan Lilja and center Casey Weigmann. On top of that, they used one of their third-round draft choices on Illinois guard Jon Asamoah, who some think could be a starter as early as next season. Along with standout guard Brian Waters, the Chiefs, at least on the interior line, finally have some stability.

The Chiefs also added my personal favorite off-season addition, RB Thomas Jones. Jones ran for over 1,400 yards last season for the Jets, and should help keep the smaller, yet more explosive Jamaal Charles fresh. All of this equates to the Chiefs all the sudden having one of the better rushing attacks in the league, at least on paper.

If it seemed like Cassel couldn't develop any chemistry with his receiving options last year, he certainly will have the opportunity to this year. Along with Asamoah, the Chiefs also drafted potential slot receiver Dexter McCluster from Ole Miss, and TE Tony Moeaki from Iowa. Both are expected to come in and have an immediate impact. While McCluster grades out to be a Dante Hall-type who will create matchup problems for defenses, Moeaki should emerge as Cassel's best friend on third down. I really like this pick for the Chiefs, as long as he can stay healthy (he had injury problems every season he was at Iowa). He won't be Tony Gonzalez. I'm reminded more of a Chris Cooley-type.

With last year's surprise addition of WR Chris Chambers and a (hopefully) more mature Bowe, the receiving corps, and all of Cassel's receiving options as a whole seem to be more solidified. More importantly, though, they seem to be BETTER.

The Chiefs' confidence in Cassel may not have been anymore apparent than when they passed on QB Jimmy Clausen in the second round of the draft on Friday. Clausen was expected to go much earlier in the draft, and Weis recruited and coached Clausen during their time together at Notre Dame. That may have been the Chiefs' best chance at improving the quarterback position on their roster, at least in the next few years. Theoretically speaking, passing on Clausen means the Chiefs feel Cassel is and has the potential to be better than Clausen. This is a great sign for Chiefs fans.

I think the Chiefs can win with Matt Cassel. I don't know if it will be this season, but we should certainly expect an improved Cassel, and with that, an improved team. I like Cassel. I think I like him more than the average Chiefs fan. This season is a chance for Cassel to prove (most of) Kansas City wrong. It's a chance for him to prove Mel Kiper wrong.* It's really an exciting time for Chiefs fans, and I, as much as any of us, cannot wait for what's to come.

*Before the Chiefs passed on Clausen in round two, Kiper noted that he thought Clausen was a very competitive and fiery quarterback, and he didn't feel Cassel was fiery enough to be a winner in the NFL. I hate Mel Kiper.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Big Inning

On my way to work yesterday morning I got a chance to listen to my favorite sports talk radio announcer, Soren Petro. For reasons I cannot control, I haven't gotten a chance to listen to sports radio 810 in awhile, let alone Soren.

Soren is my favorite radio personality (on all formats) for many reasons, but none more than his no b.s. tone when it comes to the inadequacy of the Chiefs and Royals. Maybe it was his time away from Kansas City at Syracuse University that helped shape his view of what we, as fans, can and should expect out of our local teams. In any event, I guess I just feel like my level of frustration with the professional teams in Kansas City is echoed during his show.

Anyway, in the first segment of his program, which happens to be called "The Program", he discussed the Royals 10-5 victory over the Twins on Sunday. The game was more or less decided by the six spot the Royals' offense posted in the third inning. I caught only a couple minutes of the segment, but the general point of Soren's spiel was that the team that scores the most runs in any one single inning, or more generally the team that has the biggest inning, will usually win the game.

Soren cited that after Sunday's win, in all Royals games, the team that had the biggest inning was 10-1-1 in those 12 games (the tie being when neither team had a bigger inning than the other). Pushing further, he raised the possibility that teams like the Royals, who often play "small ball" and sacrifice and move runners to maximize their chances of scoring at least one run in an inning, are actually hurting, not helping, their chances of winning.

So after the Royals' forgettable 8-1 loss in Toronto Monday night, I decided to research it a bit. After checking on Soren's tally and adding in Monday's game, the team that has the biggest inning is now 11-1-1 in all Royals games.

I wanted a bigger sample, though. Reviewing all Major League games through Monday, the team that has the biggest inning is 132-19-46. That's an .874 winning percentage.

I wanted to see if the trend changed from good teams to bad teams, so I researched what the records were for the teams with the best and worst records in baseball. That would be the Rays (best) and Orioles (worst). But because those two teams have played eachother six times already this season, therefore making the comparison between the two fairly obsolete, I ditched the Rays for the Phillies, who are probably the best team in baseball, anyway.

For Philadelphia's games, the big inning team was 8-2-2, and for Baltimore it was a glaring 10-0-4. So the trend continues.

Managers like the Royals' Trey Hillman will often cite the team's lack of power (lack of talent) as to why they play small ball. More or less, they're saying, "We don't hit well enough to count on the big inning, so we ought to make sure and at least score one when we can."

Soren, naturally, has a different take. He actually looks at it the opposite as Hillman or any other small ball defender does. He believes that teams like the Royals, who openly admit they're at a talent disadvantage basically every night, can even less afford to ignore a glaring trend like this, because, as previously stated, they don't have the talent to make up for it. In other words, teams like the Phillies and Yankees can win in spite of the numbers (or in spite of not "playing the numbers") more often than a team like the Royals because they're more talented.

I don't know if any of this means anything. I, as much as any other baseball junkie, have this thing with numbers. You see, it doesn't matter what the numbers are, or really, how relevant they are. You just have to have numbers, and we're happy.

I do know I'll be thinking about this the next time the Royals play for one run in an inning. Especially in a game that ends up being decided by two or three runs. "What if they didn't bunt him over? That guy might have singled, and the extra guy up in the inning would have hit the three-run home run we needed!" And so on.

I also know that with the way the Royals' bullpen has pitched, they'll be the ones GIVING UP the big inning more often than not. Actually, that's already true so far, given the Royals' record is 5-8 through Monday. Okay, so maybe the talk should be more about minizing the big inning while pitching.

And so there you have it. Another trend directly correlating to victories that can be traced back to the bullpen's struggles. Many a Royals manager have tried and failed at solving that riddle. My guess is, possibly to no fault of his own, Hillman won't find the answer, either.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Royals Haven't Learned Anything

After a full week of baseball, I wanted to throw around some thoughts I have about the 2010 version of the Royals, and what got us here.

The first is obvious. This team is bad. They're not horribly bad. This Royals squad shouldn't approach '62 Mets status, though it might make for better entertainment value if they did lose more.

I think that might be part of the problem. There's enough decent veteran presence on this team to the point where the games aren't laughable on most nights, but at the same time, they're still losing most of the time. They aren't particularly good or bad at any one thing (although blown saves by the bullpen is becoming quite the trend). They just seem to be a below average team that has absolutely no star power on the nights Zack Greinke isn't pitching.

And I'm not jumping to any conclusions on Greinke, but let's face it, expecting Zack to follow-up his Cy Young performance last season with the same results this season is unreasonable and unfair. So if Zack comes back down to earth this year, why would anyone want to watch this team?

It's who we're watching that makes it so frustrating. When Dayton Moore was first hired as general manager of the Royals, he made it clear the goal year for the tide to turn in Kansas City was 2010. Well, as weird as it sounds, it is 2010, and the Royals major league roster is no more talented than it was ten years ago when Allard Baird was calling the shots.

The Royals have spent records amount of money on scouting and in the draft, yet half of their starting lineup on opening day were retreads who couldn't catch on with any other team. They're stop-gaps*. Rick Ankiel signed with Kansas City this offseason strictly because the Royals were the only team to guarantee him a starting position. That means, in theory, that every other major league team decided that their current center fielder was as good as or better than Rick Ankiel. More so, in theory, it means the Royals starting center fielder is considered the worst (or more fairly, one of the worst) starting center fielders in all of baseball, according to the scouts and GMs on the 29 other teams. After putting that altogether, it seems almost unbelievable that the aforementioned player was the Royals' biggest improvement in the offseason following a 97-loss season.

*Of the nine hitters in the batting order on opening day, five of them (Scott Podsednik, Ankiel, Jose Guillen, Willie Bloomquist, and Jason Kendall) are stop-gaps, or guys who will not be here the day, if it ever comes, that the Royals start winning. Where are the prospects? Are we drafting the wrong guys or is the problem in development? I'm reminded of the 2003 Detroit Tigers team. That team lost the most games ever in the American League, but they did it with a very young pitching staff and a few young hitters who would eventually develop into a talented enough group to help the Tigers win the A.L. pennant in 2006. This Royals team is losing mostly with guys who won't be here in two years. There'll be no return on any fan investment this year, next year, and judging by the last two decades, not ten years from now. It's like they're losing for nothing.

I don't want it to sound like I'm picking on Ankiel. Actually, in the small sample we've gotten so far, he seems like a guy who hustles and plays the game hard. His bat certainly has some pop, as he showed in a four-hit performance on Friday in the Royals' only winning effort over the weekend.

He is, though, a microcosm of what's gone wrong with the Royals and why they still aren't winning. After a tough, injury plagued season last year, the Royals gave Ankiel a contract based on the hope that he'd return to form and hit 20 or so home runs. Now, maybe it will pay off. More likely, though, it won't.

The Gil Meche signing before the 2007 season is a prime example. The Royals gave Meche the biggest contract in team history - $55 million over five years - on the hope that he would take the step from average pitcher to good pitcher. It's the equivalent to you going to work Monday morning, and your boss greets you by letting you know you'll be getting a sizeable raise because, though your work hasn't improved recently, he/she has a hunch you're about to turn the corner. And then, of course, three years later, you not only missed the turn, but you took a u-turn and are a worse employee than you were to start with. Of course, you're still getting paid.

This all trails back to Dayton Moore. I was a fan of owner David Glass hiring Moore at the time, and I haven't completely given up on him yet. Something's got to give, though.

The Royals' brass decided the bullpen would improve by default this year after repeated bad performances last season. And that came after a 2008 season that saw the bullpen emerge as a strong point for the Royals. The start of the downturn came in the offseason before the 2009 season when Moore made two very pivotal mistakes. The biggest of the two was when he traded away the young and cheap hard throwing reliever Leo Nunez to the Marlins for overpaid, low on-base percentage strikeout king, Mike Jacobs. The other mistake was trading another young reliever, Ramon Ramirez, to the Red Sox for center fielder Coco Crisp. The Crisp deal made much more sense, adding speed and defense to the team, but an injury took him out of the lineup for good by May, and the Royals never saw a return on him. Both players are now playing for other teams, which tells us both moves were definitely bad decisions in hindsight.

What made it worse was how Moore replaced Nunez and Ramirez. Enter Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz. Some $10 million later, the Royals haven't improved their offense, have less talent in the bullpen, and less money to shop for free agents in the coming years to try and right their wrongs.

It seems simple, I know, yet we're really just scratching the surface here. These kind of mistakes are what got the Royals here. If a remedy isn't found soon, we'll surely be in for another decade of the same.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

These Are Certainly Our Royals

Don't act like you didn't see it coming. Let's not pretend for one minute that what I, along with 40,000 overly-faithful Royals fans saw on opening day at Kauffman Stadium Monday wasn't in the back of our minds the whole time. Yet still, we just couldn't believe our eyes.

After six strong innings from Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke, the Royals took a 4-2 lead over the Detroit Tigers into the bottom of the seventh inning, needing two decent innings from their middle relievers to get the game to their lights-out closer Joakim Soria.

Hold your breath, everybody!

Roman Colon, Robinson Tejeda, and Juan Cruz combined to give up six runs on six hits in the inning. By the time three outs were recorded, the cheers at the K had turned to boos - loud boos - and the Tigers had blown open an 8-4 advantage. Game over.

Though it wasn't game over, right? There was still two innings to play. No, we just know these Royals all too well. Everyone at the ballpark yesterday knew the game was over because these are OUR Royals. In the eighth, with two on and one out, and the Royals' best hitter Billy Butler on deck, third base coach Dave Owen sent CATCHER Jason Kendall home from second on a single up the middle off the bat of Scott Podsednik. Kendall, naturally, was thrown out. Had he stayed at third, the bases would have been loaded for Butler and clean-up hitter Rick Ankiel, where one swing of the bat could tie the game.

Being down four runs late in a ball game, that's a dream scenerio for a team to find itself in. Yet the Royals took themselves right back out of the opportunity without the obstacle of oppositional skill.

It's classic Royals baseball folks. I'd expect nothing less.

What's amazing is the Royals tried to give us a sign of things to come early on. The Tigers scored the first run of the game in the top of the first because of a dropped pop-up by third baseman Willie Bloomquist. That's right, third baseman Willie Bloomquist. That in itself deserves a chuckle. But after a winter of defensive-minded free agent signings and a spring of 'pressing the fundamentals' and 'going back to the basics', the Royals found a way to drop a pop-up in the top half of the first inning of the first game of the season. Wow.

I've heard the argument that it's just one game, there are 161 more to go, and so on. Actually, I've made that argument a time or two. And the argument surely holds water. I was on hand for the miracle ninth inning comeback on opening day in 2004, just six months removed from the near postseason run the 2003 squad made. Driving home that April day in 2004, I absolutely was convinced those Royals were finally ready to bring playoff baseball back to Kansas City. Obviously, that didn't happen. Those Royals lost 100 or so games and most-to-all of that roster has never been heard from again.

So, we know one loss doesn't mean the end the world. Both the Yankees and Phillies, last year's World Series teams, lost on opening day.

But opening day means something more. It's the unofficial start of summer. The Royals are undefeated. Hope is alive and well. I've attended a handful of opening day games at the K in the last couple decades, and one thing about them remains constant every year: For one day, the city gathers and parties and gets to watch a ball game for the first time in months. It's a celebration that's bigger than the Royals or any other team. It's really something special.

Yet it is an opportunity, with more eyes watching than normal, for the Royals to show something to the non-believers. Yesterday was a chance for the Royals to start a new, as we fans have been begging to happen for nearly two full decades. Yesterday was a chance for the Royals to start winning.

With 40,000 fans along side myself in attendance, loyal to the unloyal and hearts on our sleeves, we watched as the Royals walked out on us once again, testing our patience and our faith. But we knew this would happen. These are OUR Royals, and they may just never change.