On Tuesday afternoon, as the Royals organization breathed a collective, public sigh of relief, general manager Dayton Moore sidled up to head trainer Nick Kenney as the team took batting practice. Kenney patted Moore on the back and conferred with him for a few minutes.
The night before, Kenney operated as a calming influence during a period of anxiety. It was Kenney who assured team officials, like Moore and manager Ned Yost, not to fret about the elbow pain of 22-year-old pitcher Yordano Ventura.
“If Nick’s worried, I’m worried,” Moore said. “Nick wasn’t worried.”
In the annals of franchise lore, May 27, 2014, could have been remembered a crushing day for the team’s short-term aspirations and long-term plans. Instead, the events merely reminded how capricious the process of developing young pitchers can be. The final judgment will not be rendered for weeks and months and years to come.
In the morning, the team announced a recurrence of injury with top pitching prospect Kyle Zimmer, who is effectively ruled out of big-league action this year. A few hours later, the team managed to flaunt the positive results on an MRI with Ventura, who they say will miss at least one start.
For Zimmer, the No. 5 pick in the 2012 draft, the setback represents yet another blow for a talented, but fragile pitcher. The team had hoped he could be a full-time member of their starting rotation at the start of 2015. That hope appears sunk.
For Ventura, Monday’s events marked the first blemish on his resume. An MRI and subsequent examination by the training staff on Tuesday revealed inflammation on the outer portion of his elbow. The official diagnosis is a mild valgus extension overload, the product of the bones in his elbow colliding when he delivered his fastball. The condition has been linked as a precursor to bone chips, bone spurs and cartilage damage in the elbow.
Ventura’s ulnar collateral ligament, the one repaired in Tommy John surgery, is healthy, the team insisted.
“He’s completely asymptomatic this morning,” Yost said. “Which means he doesn’t feel a thing.”
Ventura admitted he felt “a little scared” on Monday night. He had never before experienced a sensation like this, a blend of pain and unease he called “unnatural.” But his spirits appeared brighter on Tuesday.
“Right now, he doesn’t feel any pain,” said pitcher Bruce Chen, who translates for Ventura. “And he’s very grateful to God, and to the trainers that are working with him so that he can get better.”
Ventura will not pick up a baseball for three days. His tentative schedule calls for a pair of bullpen sessions before he returns to action. Yost deemed the decision a “precautionary skip.”
The team has not yet decided on his replacement. Chen, who has a bulging disk in his lower back, will join the team in Toronto but said he is still weeks away from big-league action. The internal options include Aaron Brooks and Sugar Ray Marimon.
“We’ve got four days before we need to make a decision on that,” Yost said.
Moore framed the injury as part of Ventura’s development. Ventura must learn to harness his fastball, which can leap into triple-digit velocity, to protect himself. The process will not be easy.
Pitching coach Dave Eiland has said Ventura risks injury if he manipulates his velocity to decrease the speed of his pitches.
“History tells us there’s not too many guys who pitch for 10-15 years throwing 98 to 100 from the first pitch to the last pitch,” Moore said. “So he’s going to have to evolve.”
If team officials expressed relief about Ventura, they appeared perplexed by Zimmer, a 22-year-old righty. On May 19, in an intrasquad scrimmage at the team’s Arizona complex, Zimmer saw his fastball velocity decrease as low as 89 mph. He felt tightness in his back.
The subsequent testing revealed a strained latissimus dorsi muscle, located beneath his right shoulder. He cannot resume playing catch for six to eight weeks. At that point, the team must consider the risk and reward of attempting to utilize him this year.
“You do the math, and you’re running out of time,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “You’re running out of days. But I don’t want to rule it out, because we haven’t had those types of discussions just yet.”
The Royals projected Zimmer to throw 150 innings this year and make his big-league debut in September. Now, he’ll need to pitch in either the Arizona Fall League or the winter leagues in the Caribbean to even accrue 30 innings.
Zimmer converted to pitching as a freshman at the University of San Francisco, and has experienced a series of injuries ever since. He underwent surgery to remove bone chips after the 2012 season. He hasn’t pitched in a regular-season game since last August, when the team elected to shut him down.
During the winter, he felt discomfort in his shoulder once again. The team doctors diagnosed him with biceps tendinitis. Now comes another ailment.
“We’ve had so many different images on his shoulder,” Picollo said. “We know that his shoulder’s fine. So we’ve ruled that out. I hate to say: It’s just one of those things. It’s almost a mystery.”
At times, the entire enterprise of keeping young pitchers healthy appears to be a mystery, too. Now the Royals hope to protect Ventura upon his return.
“He’s not invincible,” Yost said. “Everybody goes through it. And it’s not a common thing. So it’s not something we have to watch for every time. Sometimes, it happens.”