How Yordano Ventura’s hurting back is affecting the Royals’ mood and (possible) playoff rotation

08/26/2014 9:04 PM

08/26/2014 9:04 PM

You didn’t need the reminder. You’d probably do without. But here comes one anyway about the fragility of any baseball season, and especially this baseball season with all the wins and magic numbers and scoreboard watching in Kansas City.

Yordano Ventura will miss his scheduled start against the Twins on Wednesday. Internally, the Royals maintain honest hope that this is the extent of it, just one start, a little rest, and back at it early next week. But it’s a cautious optimism, a sort of anxious hope, the kind of thing that one club official admits has him “holding my breath.”

In the meantime, the biggest takeaway is this feeds a growing organizational belief that Ventura is the most likely starting pitcher to move to the bullpen if the Royals make the playoffs.

Ventura’s back is tight and sore. Tests show nothing out of the ordinary. If anything, the pain confirms some minor worry about Ventura in the last month or so. Until his last start, he insisted he felt fine. But trained eyes saw something different. He wasn’t always “finishing his pitches,” in the scouting parlance. That can be an indicator of an injury or fatigue. Of course, it could also just be inconsistent mechanics from a 23-year-old rookie.

His fastball velocity dipped in recent weeks, though remained well above average. He walked 22 in seven starts since the All-Star break, an enormous rise from the baseline he set over the first three months, but he was still getting big league hitters out.

If a little extra rest helps Ventura recapture his mojo, then this is one step back and two steps forward.

But however this plays out, it’s worth remembering that these types of setbacks have been remarkably rare for the Royals. Ventura missed one start at the end of May with elbow discomfort. If the current organizational mood on Ventura’s back can be described as cautious optimism, it was desperate optimism about his elbow. Jason Vargas missed four weeks following an appendectomy. Other than that, the Royals have avoided the injuries that have wrecked rotations across baseball.

Liam Hendriks will take Ventura’s place on Wednesday, just the eighth starting pitcher used by the Royals this year. Only the Nationals, with seven, have used fewer. James Shields (28), Jeremy Guthrie (26), Ventura (24), Vargas (24) and Danny Duffy (21) have started 123 of the Royals’ 131 games. By Tuesday night, only three other teams will have five pitchers with 20 or more starts. All of them — the Orioles, Astros and Dodgers — will have used more fill-in starters than the Royals.

For perspective, the A’s have used 11 starters. The Twins and Yankees 12. The Marlins and Rangers 13. The Rockies have used 15.

Injuries to pitchers have long been the rule in major league baseball, but this year, the Royals have mostly been the exception.

Hendriks, by the way, is with the Royals essentially because the front office and coaches were so horrified about the last time they needed a fill-in for Ventura. That was May 31, when Aaron Brooks turned in one of the worst performances in recent big league history — seven earned runs, five hits, three walks and two outs. Hendriks has been pretty brutal himself — a career 6.06 ERA in 33 games for the Twins and Blue Jays — but his velocity is up and the Royals like what they’ve seen from him in the minor leagues.

But no matter what Hendriks does on Wednesday night, it is far more important for the Royals what Ventura does the rest of the week. It’s hard to imagine the Royals popping champagne if they have to work around a fill-in starter every five days to get there.

Ventura probably could have talked his way into making the start, but part of handling injuries is reading the player. Ventura is 42/3 innings shy of pitching more professional innings than any year of his life, and teams will always err on the side of caution with young pitchers, especially the small ones who throw 100 mph.

As with any organization that has big dreams, Royals coaches and officials are always thinking about how they’d set up the playoff rotation. Shields and Vargas are locks. Duffy is close to it. So the debate has typically been between Guthrie and Ventura. Guthrie is more experienced; Ventura more dynamic.

The Royals won’t decide until they have to, even privately, but Ventura missing a start in a pennant chase is a point for the side arguing for Guthrie to be in the playoff rotation.

Ventura figures into all sides of this debate, because even if he’s a bit more gassed in October, he would likely make for a nasty reliever. If the Royals felt like they could count on him for an inning, they would only need five — at the most — from any starter to lock up a lead with Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland.

So no matter what, the Royals are counting on Ventura to help them in October. But in the meantime, they can only hope they’re doing the right thing for Ventura to help them get there.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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