VAHE GREGORIAN

If all else is equal among contenders, Yordano Ventura should be Royals’ fifth starter

Updated: 2014-02-09T06:26:09Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

Royals pitchers and catchers report Friday to the club’s complex in Surprise, Ariz., and the dateline will largely be a misnomer. While it’s impossible to know how this intriguing team will perform in this regime-defining season, there is meager mystery to what it will look like to start the year March 31 at Detroit.

With the addition of outfielder Norichika Aoki and second baseman Omar Infante, every starting field position has been cast.

And now almost the same can be said for the rotation, general manager Dayton Moore said Thursday, amplifying what might have been expected but not explicitly stated since the Royals re-signed Bruce Chen in late January.

“I think it’s pretty clear that to start the season, that unless something unforeseen happens, we’re going to be going with (Jason) Vargas and (James) Shields and (Jeremy) Guthrie and Chen,” Moore said. “Just based on how Chen performed last year for us in the second half, I mean, he’s earned the opportunity to begin the season in the rotation.

“We wouldn’t have brought him back at this stage unless we felt he could be in our rotation out of the gate.”

That leaves one enticing opening to solve before the staff dominoes into a bullpen whose exclamation point is All-Star closer Greg Holland.

Moore rattled off five names he suggested are contending for the fifth starting spot, but it sure seemed as if there was a certain extra resonance in his assessment of one:

Yordano Ventura, 22, whose much-anticipated major-league debut last season featured mesmerizing flashes and the fastest pitch, 102.8 mph, recorded in the majors in 2013.

If it wasn’t dominance by the Dominican-born Ventura, exactly, it was enough to suggest he’s not just on the verge of ready but, in fact, is ready.

“We’re going to give him a chance to win a spot right out of spring training, and of our young pitchers we feel like he’s most capable at this point in time to give us 190-200 innings,” Moore said. “So we’re going to give him an opportunity right out of camp to win a spot.”

Now, Moore also said the Royals wouldn’t hesitate to start Ventura in the bullpen “if that’s how it unfolds.” And Moore stopped short of guaranteeing Ventura, who had 155 strikeouts in 134 2/3 minor-league innings last season, wouldn’t start the season in Class AAA Omaha.

Then again …

“We think he’s ready for the major leagues. Certainly spring training will help validate that opinion,” Moore said, adding, “We expect him to be one of our 12 pitchers when we break camp unless something unforeseen happens.”

So nothing is certain, and the Royals obviously shouldn’t force it if they sense Ventura is not quite ready.

But if all else is equal, and it always has to be about the best chance to win now, this is the way for the Royals to go.

Ventura’s upside is breathtaking, and even if he goes through some reasonable growing pains at the major-league level (and there’s a big difference between that and seeming out of his element), it’s worth priming the pump to get him where he’s going to be.

This is a player, after all, that Royals farm director J.J. Picollo has called “critical if we’re going to be a contender.”

And as Moore enters his eighth full season, it’s past time to demonstrate that the team can cultivate its own successful starting pitchers, something Moore also knows is crucial not just to a breakthrough to the franchise’s first playoff berth since 1985 but sustained success as a small-market club.

Ventura was signed, after all, not a year or two ago but in 2008 for an economical $28,000.

Minimal as that financial investment was, much has been banked on him since.

And Ventura’s arrival would say that now is a time of urgency, and for all the hype about potential within the organization to translate into performance, and that the future at some point has to arrive instead of forever looming over the horizon.

For his part, Ventura seemed to understand the moment is here as he spoke with reporters at the Royals’ FanFest through teammate and interpreter Christian Colon.

His three starts last September, Ventura said, were a big help.

“Now I’m really comfortable in the environment, with the guys around me, how things are in the big leagues,” he said. “It helped my mentality.”

As for adjustments he might have to make, considering how hard he throws and his tendency to over-rely on that, Ventura at least is saying the right things.

“I don’t have to throw hard every time,” he said. “It’s about taking a little off or putting more on, even if it’s the same pitch, like a curve. It’s not about how hard you throw. It’s about locating and how you keep guys off balance.”

Now, the Royals don’t figure to be off-balance if someone other than Ventura ascends into the fifth spot initially, but there are perhaps more questions than answers about the other candidates, too.

At least for now, Moore framed the basic group as Luke Hochevar, 30; Wade Davis, 28; Danny Duffy, 25; and Chris Dwyer, 25, who was 10-11 with a 3.55 ERA in Omaha last season and logically is a notch behind Ventura going in.

In December at the Winter Meetings, manager Ned Yost specified he was “anxious” to see Hochevar and Davis compete to start again.

But there’s ample evidence that it may be better for all concerned for them to be in the bullpen.

After struggling much of his career as a starter, lugging a 5.39 ERA, Hochevar was terrific out of the bullpen last year with 82 strikeouts in 70 1/3 innings and a 1.92 ERA in 58 appearances.

Even if his work was seen by some, and seemingly him, as a bridge back to starting, it will be hard to know how viable that is with any certainty until he’s put in that spot in a regular-season game.

The same might be said for Ventura, but at least he provided a recent demonstration otherwise in his three September starts.

And Davis had resurrected his sagging starting career in 2012 by moving to the bullpen in Tampa Bay with numbers similar to Hochevar’s last season: 87 strikeouts in 70 1/3 innings and a 2.43 ERA in 54 appearances.

But Davis fizzled in his return to starting last season. In 24 starts, he was 6-10 with a 5.67 ERA; back in the bullpen to end the season, he gave up just one run and three hits in 10 innings over seven relief appearances.

And then there’s the left-handed Duffy, who after his return from Tommy John surgery was excellent: 2-0 with a 1.85 ERA in five starts.

Like Ventura, Duffy is a homegrown talent and, in fact, an exciting option if he emerges. But he finished the season on the disabled list as a precaution after he’d experienced forearm soreness.

“He did end the season on the disabled list, so until he starts going out there and pitching every fifth day, it’s like with anybody,” Moore said. “But our medical people remain very confident, and it’s their evaluation and judgment to me that they think Danny Duffy’s going to be fine.”

However the Royals set up the fifth starter when they break camp, of course, doesn’t mean it’s not subject to change.

Moore stressed that “We won’t hesitate to make adjustments along the way if we need to, and the fortunate thing for us is we have some depth.”

It has to be earned yet, but one option seems more irresistible, and maybe more inevitable, than the rest.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4366 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/vgregorian.

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