With Yordano Ventura pitching, Royals opener would have been awesome

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04/05/2014 5:03 PM

05/16/2014 1:01 PM

The popular decision would have been for Yordano Ventura to greet fans in Kansas City by throwing the first pitch in the home opener of the most promising Royals season in a generation. Ventura is a legitimate pitching phenomenon, and not just in Kansas City’s little corner of the baseball world.

He is 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, the size of your typical high school senior, with a flaming baseball tattooed on a right arm straight from the heavens. Scouts tend to walk away from his starts shaking their heads. Managers wonder where the Royals found this kid with the 102 mph fastball and the improving curveball. Even the world’s best hitters know they are probably helpless if Ventura throws the pitch he wants in the spot he wants — which, by the way, he seems to be doing more often every time.

So, yeah. The popular thing — the

awesome

thing — would’ve been to unleash this freak in front of what may be Kauffman Stadium’s biggest crowd of the season.

The Royals, you probably heard,

are not doing the popular thing. Manager Ned Yost is not doing the awesome

thing.

He’s keeping his plan intact — the productive but rather boring Jeremy Guthrie starts the home opener Friday and the other starters stay on their scheduled days. The unknown and completely fascinating Ventura, who would have pitched Thursday if the Royals’ game in Detroit wasn’t rained out, heads to the bullpen this weekend and starts sometime next week.

And nobody can be sure whether it’s the right thing for the most precious, precarious asset the Royals have.

So when in doubt, the Royals are protecting their most vulnerable piece.

The decision to push Ventura back can be debated with both support (“Guthrie is a veteran who may better handle the bigger crowd”) and criticism (“Ventura is better than Guthrie so he should be ahead of Guthrie”) but the real message here is the uncertainty that all baseball teams have in growing star pitchers.

They’re making it up as they go along, all of them. Guessing.

Maximizing the ability and minimizing the surgeries of young pitching prospects is the biggest unclaimed competitive advantage for baseball teams, even with all of the modern world’s advancements in medicine and technology a multibillion dollar industry is still in the dead ball era. If they knew how to fix it, then Jarrod Parker, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Luke Hochevar and so many others wouldn’t be out because of season-ending and career-altering elbow surgeries.

The Royals spent most of spring training saying that Ventura was full strength. No restrictions. Ready to throw 200 innings. Now, they’re walking that back a bit, clarifying that the range is 180 to 200. Next week or next month, don’t be surprised if it’s 160 to 200.

When explaining the decision to push Ventura’s start back to next week, they talk about Guthrie’s experience being a good fit for the home opener, that an 11-man pitching staff can benefit from an extra arm in the bullpen for a few days, and that if they push everyone back that means James Shields will go a full week between starts.

There is some merit to that, but also remember that baseball people (especially those with the Royals)

love

to talk about Ventura’s major-league debut, when he walked the first batter he faced on four pitches. The next man up hit a sharp comebacker, and this is where you’d almost expect the rookie to speed up in starting the double play and launch a ball into center field. But Ventura gathered himself, threw a strike to the shortstop, got the double play and out of the inning.

The message behind the retelling of this story is always the same:

this guy’s different. He doesn’t panic.

That — and his undeniable talent, of course — is part of why the Royals felt comfortable with Ventura opening the season in the rotation.

So now they get worried about being able to handle the home opener?

They spend spring training talking about the restrictor plates being off, but now they get a rainout and they want to save innings?

No. The truth is, in a lot of real ways, they are making this up as they go along, just like the other 29 teams in baseball.

Nobody knows if this is the right thing. Nobody knows if this move will actually protect Ventura, if it will allow him to be more successful or healthier. The Royals are guessing with their most vulnerable asset, just like other teams are guessing with their own pitching prospects.

It is hard to imagine the Royals making good on the promise of this season without Ventura breaking through. They’re right to be cautious with him, because the regret of recklessness would be difficult to overcome.

But let’s all recognize that it’s guesswork, in Kansas City and around baseball. Guesswork that will largely help determine the course of both a critical Royals season and the career of another promising prospect.

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