In 2013, the Kansas City Royals finally made their move from “eternal rebuild” to “competitive window.” They cashed in many of their chips ahead of the season, trading for both James Shields and Ervin Santana, losing top outfield prospect Wil Myers in the process. The Royals improved by 14 games over 2012 but still missed the playoffs, winning more games than they lost for just the second time since the strike season of 1995.
But Santana became a free agent and is now a member of the Atlanta Braves. The Royals signed Jason Vargas, an eager innings eater but hardly a superstar, to bolster their rotation. They didn’t exactly do much to make up the four or five wins required to get them more squarely into the Wild Card hunt.
Rather than tiptoe through the free agent minefield beyond the relatively safe Vargas, the Royals are going to improve from within. They officially announced that Yordano Ventura, the 22-year fireballer from the Dominican Republic, will start the season in their starting rotation. And if the early returns from Ventura’s career continue, KC won’t miss Ervin Santana for a second.
Ron Washington poses a worthwhile question. The Royals signed Ventura out of the DR when he was just 17. He didn’t make his full season debut until age-20 and started last year at double-A. He made his big league debut in September, making three solid starts.
It is easy to make solid starts when you propel baseballs as the right-hand of Yordano Ventura can. His fastball touches 99 or even 100 miles per hour, with a filthy knuckle-curve that he can throw for strikes (as well as a developing change, a cutter and sinker.) In putting his final stamp on a guaranteed trip north with the Royals, Ventura put all facets of his arsenal on display against the Rangers.
The half-smile and look Elvis Andrus shoots Prince Fielder, after a Ventura curve sent his legs a-jimmying, says a lot. Later in the same highlight pack, Ventura opts for high-nineties heat that Andrus waves at, muttering to himself and, I assume, questioning his place in the world.
But this is a young, smallish (listed at 5’11″) pitcher. Surely the Royals will impose an innings limit on him. The kid gloves treatment, especially noteworthy given the recent cluster of arm implosions ruining baseball this week. Nope! The Royals, throwing caution and potentially millions of dollars to the wind, are counting on/hoping for Yordano Ventura to throw 200 innings this year. No pressure!
It won’t all be quite as easy as Ventura’s shown this spring. Despite doing a nice job of keeping the ball in the park as a minor leaguer, repeating that feat against the best hitters in the world is another story. While his curveball is an obviously dominant offering, developing his change up further is job one as Ventura looks to make life more complicated for left-handed batters. Not that lefties have it easy against the big curve, a pitch with smaller platoon splits than other breaking balls.
Control for any young pitcher falls under the “show, don’t tell” category as well. A big time arm and strikeout pitcher like this has a little more leeway when it comes to free passes but the walks are an obvious concern.
But the upside is huge and could be exactly what the Royals require. Between Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie, Kansas City already has a pair of determined back of the rotation-types. James Shields is a near-ace who can also put 200 innings in the bag. Between Bruce Chen and Danny Duffy, the Royals have two disparate pitchers to fill out their rotation.
Ventura’s upside gives the Royals options and a variety of looks, but the sort of guy who can ease his way into a role to his liking. Last season, the Royals coaches and pitchers credited James Shields with helping bring some of the young Royals along with his experience, making him the perfect (and eager) mentor for Ventura.
The season is long and there are just as many questions surrounding Yordano Ventura as their are sure things. But if Spring Training is the time for hopes and dreams, Ventura is the perfect guy for Royals fans to dream on as they face the uphill battle of catching Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles and the rest of the AL Wild Card crew.