In their quest to remain in the American League wild-card race, the Kansas City Royals are promoting right-hander Yordano Ventura, who was ranked as the No. 33 prospect in baseball in Mike Rosenbaum's midseason top 50, to start Tuesday night's game against division rival Cleveland Indians.
This is a huge step for the Royals, who have been cautious with their top prospects in recent years. Just last year everyone was screaming for Wil Myers to at least get a look in September, but the team let him finish the season in Triple-A before trading him to Tampa Bay in a package that brought back James Shields and Wade Davis in the offseason.
Ventura's ceiling as a starter is huge, which we will dive into. But there are a few flaws, some physical and others performance-based, that point to a future in the bullpen and turning into Kansas City's version of Craig Kimbrel. Not to say that's a bad thing, because every team would love to have Kimbrel.
I do believe that Ventura ends up as a late-inning reliever/closer because his fastball-curveball combination is so effective, especially in a one-inning situation, and his size will make it very difficult to be effective for 180-200 innings every year.
We have the comparison to prove it, just in case you wanted actual evidence.
The Physical Comparison
One of the reasons that Kimbrel was always destined to be a reliever, and why Ventura is most likely going to end up there, is size. It sounds like, for lack of a better term, a cheap stereotype to say that the short right-hander is going to end up in the 'pen.
After all, we can look at current pitchers like Jonny Cueto and Tim Lincecum as short right-handed pitchers who had impact in the rotation. But it takes a long time before you can find another righty under 6' who has carved out a long career as a starter.
Plus, Cueto has had durability issues in the past and has been limited to just 53.2 innings this year, and Lincecum's performance has fallen off since the start of 2012.
These are the kinds of things that scouts and evaluators look at when determining the future for a player and where to draft him. I guarantee you if Lincecum were 6'3" instead of 5'11", there is no way he is around when San Francisco made the 10th pick in the 2006 draft.
Kimbrel is listed at a very generous 5'11". Ventura is also listed at 5'11", which I would also argue is giving him the benefit of the doubt or he's measured in his cleats.
There are obvious physical differences between Kimbrel and Ventura.
Kimbrel is a stocky 5'11", 205-pound pitcher. He looks like a small truck ready to come at you as soon as he steps on the mound. Even without the size, you can see why Atlanta's closer is able to get in the heads of opponents just by looking at him.
Ventura is a thin, lanky 5'11", 180 pounds. He doesn't have long limbs, per se, but he makes excellent use of what length he has. Nothing about his physical appearance really screams impact arm at you.
That's where the magic of evaluating takes a left turn, because sometimes even the most innocuous-looking pitcher can surprise you.
Here is where we get into the excitement surrounding both Kimbrel and Ventura. When you can't impress evaluators physically, you better leave them with something to remember on the mound.
Kimbrel was drafted by the Braves in the third round of the 2008 draft out of Wallace State Community College thanks, in large part, to his overwhelming fastball and potential for more to come.
Baseball America had Kimbrel ranked as the No. 10 prospect (subscription required to view full scouting report) in Atlanta's system entering the 2009 season, citing his strengths as a bulldog-like mentality on the mound and ability to dominate in a late-inning situation.
Though he's somewhat undersized, Kimbrel has a strong frame and a lightning-quick arm. Throwing from a low three-quarters delivery, he has a fastball that resides at 92-95 mph and touches 98 with heavy sink. His heater tends to run in on righthanders before exploding just prior to reaching the plate. He has a closer's mentality.
What's interesting about that write-up is Kimbrel's fastball has gotten even better since he was drafted, which is not something you usually see from a college draftee. According to Fangraphs, his average fastball in 2013 is a career-best 96.9 mph.
When you put that kind of velocity with a fastball that has the kind of movement Kimbrel features, you are going to average more than 13 strikeouts per nine innings.
It also doesn't hurt that you have a wipeout breaking ball to complement it. Kimbrel started his big league career throwing a slider, but that has since evolved into more of a curveball.
That makes sense because Baseball America also noted in 2011 that Kimbrel's breaking ball was a "slurvy curveball" even though it was still rated as a plus pitch.
Ventura boasts the same arsenal, though he can actually claim to throw a fastball that's harder than Kimbrel's. He started the 2012 Futures Game in Kansas City, which I was able to attend, and I saw him touch 102. It also has late, explosive movement that gives hitters nightmares.
Since height is an issue, Ventura isn't able to stay on top of the fastball, meaning it is prone to coming into the zone straight and easily elevated.
The curveball is also a deadly pitch, looking at times like a 70-grade pitch on the 20-80 scouting scale. It is sharp with very tight two-plane break and gives him a weapon to keep opponents off balance as well as miss bats.
Like Kimbrel, at least when he was coming up, Ventura also shows a changeup, but it is clearly his third pitch and lacks deception because it can come out of his hand too firm. It will flash above-average at times, though he needs to develop a better feel for it.
Here is where things start to veer off course for the comparison. That's not a complete shock, as you will rarely, if ever, find two players who have the same kinds of mechanics (pitching or hitting).
Baseball is a game about timing and balance, so what works for one player isn't going to work for someone else. Mechanics are a constant work in progress, especially for pitchers, because it is imperative that you repeat them in order to develop command and throw consistent strikes.
I say that to lead into Kimbrel's mechanics and arm action, which are actually very violent and not something you would want to teach your kid. It obviously works for him, thanks in large part to one of the fastest arms in baseball.
There are times we talk about how a pitcher's legs will do a lot of the work and help generate velocity, but Kimbrel is all about the arm speed and action. That did limit him coming through the minors, as he was having difficulty reeling it in enough to throw strikes.
Kevin Goldstein wrote about Kimbrel's arm and control in the 2011 Atlanta Braves Top 11 for Baseball Prospectus (subscription required for full scouting report), saying, "he doesn't make it look easy, and had a career minor-league rate of 5.7 walks per nine innings."
Eventually that kind of delivery could cause Kimbrel problems, but you can make a laundry list of pitchers with violent mechanics who have put together terrific careers. Chicago's Chris Sale immediately springs to mind, because that delivery and lanky frame holding up as a starter is a minor miracle.
Ventura looks so smooth on the mound. He can generate huge velocity like Kimbrel, but is able to do it without breaking a sweat. His arm speed can sit right alongside anyone in baseball.
Because of his size, however, Ventura isn't able to really drive the ball down in the zone with his lower half. That can lead to issues commanding pitches in the zone and lead to some erratic moments.
Rosenbaum's midseason report on Ventura said that the 22-year-old has made some headway in those areas:
"Both command and control are raw but have improved this season; has shown a more consistent feel for arsenal."
Ventura's walk rate actually got worse in 2013 compared to 2012 (3.45 to 3.54), which is also another reason he likely ends up a reliever. But this was his first exposure to Triple-A when the Royals promoted him midseason, so some of his struggles can be forgiven, especially since he was able to strike out 81 in 77 innings at Omaha.
But that walk rate will have to improve in order for Ventura to reach his full potential, assuming you think he can stay in the rotation.
If you believe Ventura can stay in the starting rotation, he projects as a No. 2 starter. He might have the best fastball in the minors right now, with the ability to touch 100 when he reaches back and a knee-buckling hammer that will miss bats.
However, if the size and durability questions are a problem, as they are for me, Ventura slots right into the conversation as one of the best closing candidates in the minors. He can turn into the AL version of Kimbrel, to bring the conversation full circle.
That doesn't sound as appealing as having a top-of-the-rotation arm, but there certainly is value in that kind of player; especially one who is going to be under team control for six years and three years away from arbitration.
The Royals are absolutely making the right decision by letting Ventura start. You don't move a player from a role until he proves beyond a shadow of doubt he can't handle it, especially a young pitcher with an arm like this.
But if things don't work out the way Ventura and the Royals hope, the team has one more great option it can add to what is already one of the deepest bullpens in the American League.
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