It's not a question of if there's going to be a young pitching phenom in 2014. After watching guys like Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, Shelby Miller, Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez make their mark in recent seasons, it's more a question of who's next.
Here's a hint: Yordano Ventura.
Prospect hounds know the name. Kansas City Royals fans certainly do. But if you like pitching and that's a name you either don't know so well or don't know at all, well, now's the time to get to know it.
First things first: It's a name to know in part because the Royals have decided to open the season with the 22-year-old right-hander in their starting rotation.
After Ventura came into camp as one of several contestants for the job, Andy McCullough of The Kansas City Star reported on Monday that Royals manager Ned Yost had picked him to be his No. 5 starter.
"It doesn’t do any good to drag this stuff on," Yost said after Ventura's third start of the spring against the Texas Rangers. "Really, after an outing like tonight, and after outings like he’s had all spring, you look foolish if you try to continue to hold your cards close to your chest."
Which points us to the second reason to know about Ventura. Armed with an electric mid-to-upper-90s fastball and a hammer curveball—among, as we'll discuss, other things—all he's done this spring is dominate:
|Yordano Ventura's Spring|
Spring training numbers, obviously, are just spring training numbers. They don't prophesize; they just tease.
But when you see a guy like Ventura—the No. 35 prospect in baseball by MLB.com's reckoning—put up numbers like these, you can't help but be intrigued. Given where he's been and the kind of talent he's packing, his spring feels more like a culmination than a freak occurrence.
Which, I suppose, prompts the ol' Starship Troopers question: Would you like to know more?
The Royals signed Ventura as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2008. He wasn't one of those young studs worthy of blue-chip money, though. In fact, Jason Parks and Craig Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus noted last year that Kansas City paid less than $30,000 for him.
A big reason for that: Ventura wasn't exactly himself just yet.
After the signing, it took a while for him to be more than just a blip on the prospect radar. He spent 2009 and a bit of the next season pitching in the Dominican Summer League before finally coming over to pitch in the rookie-level Arizona League later in 2010.
That's when Ventura first got the attention of Baseball America. In its 2010 scouting report of him (subscription required), the publication dubbed Ventura as the "top pitching prospect" in the Arizona League and noted that he was no longer just some skinny kid with a high-80s fastball.
Suddenly, the diminutive Ventura (he's listed at 5'11") was throwing darts:
He has touched 100 mph on several occasions, hits 98 almost every time out and sits at 94-97. What's most surprising is that he generates that heat from such a small frame, a tribute to his excellent arm speed. His stuff, size and arm slots have prompted comparisons to Neftali Feliz and even the patron saint of small righthanders: Pedro Martinez.
The comparison to Pedro Martinez ended up sticking and even resulting in a nickname: Lil' Pedro.
From there, Ventura took off. He struck out 9.4 per nine innings in 19 starts at A-ball in 2011, tore through hitters at High-A in 2012 (11.6 K/9) and was pitching in Double-A by the end of the year.
Ventura eventually graduated to Triple-A and made his second Futures Game appearance in July. It was around then that Bernie Pleskoff of MLB.com was talking about Ventura's upside as an ace-level starter.
"Ventura has more development ahead, but he has the type of arm strength and mechanics to ultimately succeed at the front of the rotation," he wrote.
It was also around this time that Baseball America moved Ventura from No. 85 in its preseason rankings all the way up to No. 26 in its midseason rankings, with an accompanying note claiming he wasn't far off from cracking the big leagues.
This turned out to be true.
After pitching to a 3.74 ERA and 9.5 K/9 in 15 Triple-A outings (including 14 starts), Ventura made his major league debut on September 17 against the Cleveland Indians, allowing one run and striking out three in five and two-thirds.
That ended up being Ventura's first of three major league starts, in which he did this:
|Yordano Ventura's 2013 Debut|
Ventura was solid in his 2013 cameo, but really only solid. His 3.52 ERA was nice, but his 1.83 K/BB ratio was less than nice and FanGraphs put his WAR at an even 0.0. Basically, he was what the "R" in WAR is all about: a replacement-level player.
Because Ventura didn't exactly amaze, it's no wonder that he wasn't a lock to have a role on the 2014 Royals heading into spring training. And while the prospect gurus still liked what Ventura had, they weren't entirely sure what he was.
The one thing the experts agreed on in their 2014 rankings is that Ventura's fastball-curveball combination is downright deadly. MLB.com saw the latter offering as Ventura's best off-speed pitch. ESPN's Keith Law (subscription required), on the other hand, saw Ventura's curveball as his best pitch, period.
But there were two main gripes. One was over the quality of Ventura's changeup, and the other was over the consistency of his command. Unless he improved on either or both fronts, it was entirely possible that Ventura was looking at a future as a reliever rather than as a starter.
Well, you know how Ventura is a starter now? It's largely because he answered those questions this spring.
That Ventura has walked only one hitter in 15.1 innings this spring speaks to the kind of command he's been featuring. He also had at least one expert impressed with the command he was featuring in his second start against the Oakland A's.
Here's Bernie Pleskoff:
As for Ventura's changeup, Andy McCullough only went so far as to call it "burgeoning" in his writeup about Ventura being named the fifth starter. If you take a good look around, that's largely the sense you'll get about it.
Peter Gammons, however, says that one A's official didn't land on something as conservative as "burgeoning" in speaking about Ventura's changeup:
With five years in the Royals organization, stops at virtually every minor league level and a couple of major league starts under his belt, Ventura isn't lacking in experience.
In his blistering fastball and power curveball, he has at least two elite pitches. If his changeup is as good as that A's official says, he has three. And given what he's done this spring, it looks like Ventura has found some command.
This is most of what a pitcher needs to not only survive, but thrive in the major leagues. Since they've given him a job, that's presumably what the Royals are hoping he'll do.
One question remains, though: Does Ventura have the durability?
According to Andy McCullough, the Royals think so:
Between Double-A, Triple-A and the majors, Ventura only got as high as 150 innings last year. Asking the young right-hander to tack on another 30 to 50 innings is no small favor—especially considering that Ventura will be throwing in the mid-90s pitch after pitch after pitch.
At the same time, however, to a certain extent, this is academic. Who says Ventura needs to live up to Kansas City's innings projections to have a breakthrough season?
Shoot, Jose Fernandez didn't make it to 180 innings on his way to winning the National League Rookie of the Year in 2013. Ditto Shelby Miller. Stephen Strasburg was very good in both 2012 and 2013, and he did it while topping out at 183 innings last year.
If the Royals get so many as 170 innings out of Ventura, they'll be happy. If those innings consist of him featuring the same dominant stuff and command he's had in spring training, they'll be 170 excellent innings.
And if it comes to that, Major League Baseball will have yet another pitching phenom.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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