They will gather at a baseball complex in suburban Phoenix in the next few weeks and they will think about the one who isn’t with them. He didn’t have the biggest personality in the room, not even close, but you knew when Yordano Ventura was there. Big heart. Bigger laugh. An easy smile.
Three weeks before the start of spring training, this Royals season is already largely about tragedy. The men on this team have cried. Their hearts ached. And now they must prepare to play 162 games in 183 days. A Major League Baseball season is the most draining grind in sports, even in the best conditions, and this will be more difficult than most.
They say baseball is slow, but these things move fast. So even as the grieving over Yordano Ventura’s death on Jan. 22 continues, Royals executives are already discussing and pursuing options on how to move forward without a key part of the starting rotation.
The season is coming — 18 days until pitchers and catchers report, 29 days until the first spring training game, and 66 days until opening day. And this team — entering the last season of the original “window,” a year in which they’d touted they would “take back what’s ours” — will be without an important and beloved piece.
Grieving for Ventura will continue, but as coaches and executives have said to each other already, “We’ve got a baseball season to play.”
About a week after the pitcher’s tragic death, it’s natural to wonder: What will the Royals look like this season?
In pure baseball terms, how will this affect the results on the field?
Let’s talk specifics first. Ventura would’ve likely been the Royals’ No. 3 starting pitcher, with the talent to pitch like a No. 1 on any given night or during any stretch of games.
He had just completed a disappointing 2016 season, with career worsts in ERA (4.45), hits (9.2 per nine innings), walks (3.8 per nine), strikeouts (7.0 per nine) and home runs (1.1 per nine).
ZiPS, a projection model by Dan Syzmborkski at FanGraphs, generally predicted Ventura to be better — a team-high 172 2/3 innings and a 3.96 ERA that would’ve made him a good-but-not-great starting pitcher.
Internally, the Royals had been expecting much more. Ventura was most famous for his fastball, but a year ago, it was one of the least effective pitches in the major leagues, according to FanGraphs.
Royals executives believed the primary culprits were a lack of deception and command, both of which they hoped would be addressed with mechanical fixes. They also saw improvement in the quality and consistency of Ventura’s curveball and changeup, and believed the combination would produce a breakout season as the young Dominican, who would’ve turned 26 in June, hit the prime of his career.
“It was all there,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “I believed this was going to be a big year for him.”
That’s a lot to replace, especially this close to the season. The Royals have insurance on Ventura’s fully guaranteed contract, but sources said it would likely take months to sort through.
In cold baseball terms, that means the 2017 Royals will be playing with a hole in their starting rotation and operating without corresponding payroll relief. An already difficult path to playoffs just took on a big obstacle. Ventura was set to make $3.45 million this year, so even with payroll relief the Royals would not be able to find even a fraction of Ventura’s production for the same price.
The front office is already sorting through options. The team was always going to monitor the low-risk, make-good deals that are available every spring — like they’ve done in the past with Chris Young, Kris Medlen and others.
They’d planned to concentrate more on bats than arms. Ventura’s death may change their calculus, but it’s more likely they’ll see the prices of the potential impact pitchers still on the market — a list headlined by Jason Hammel, Tyson Ross, Doug Fister and Colby Lewis — as too expensive or risky or both.
That means the recent trade for pitcher Nate Karns — we’ll get back to this in a minute — becomes more important.
Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy and Jason Vargas are locks for the rotation. The Royals had planned to open the final spot to competition — Karns, Chris Young, Matt Strahm, Alec Mills, Josh Staumont and others.
Others could be needed, too. Club officials retain hope that Kyle Zimmer might finally stay healthy. Two years ago, some of them believed Miguel Almonte was farther along than Ventura at the same age. They could explore trade options, though the farm system is still thin after the 2015 trades of Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, Cody Reed and Sean Manaea.
This is how the Royals have typically wanted to address holes or departures — internally. But here, considering the financial restraints from owner David Glass, the front office has little choice but to hope for good fortune and better-than-expected progress from pitchers whose best days are likely years in the future or past.
Filling one rotation spot like this can be tricky. Filling two is the kind of thing that can sometimes push a season sideways.
Now let’s talk about emotions. Few organizations in baseball or any other major professional sport believe more fully in the power of positive culture and team emotion than the Royals.
This is difficult to predict, and impossible to script. A homegrown and loved player is gone, in the most tragic and heartbreaking way imaginable. This is a massively emotional thing thrown into a grind that is best approached with consistency.
The front office was overwhelmingly in favor of trading for Karns for reasons both baseball and financial, but now some coaches and executives believe Jarrod Dyson’s presence will be missed even more. The Royals have other leaders — Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Sal Perez and Alex Gordon among them — but nobody can cut through quite like Dyson.
Professional athletes are among the most adaptable people in the world. They have to be, to keep up. And when they achieve great things, they often look back and believe the adversity they faced made them better. This happens so often it is a cliche across sports.
The Royals will be tested here, in so many different ways, like never before. Replacing Ventura, as a man or a baseball player, will be impossible. Moving forward is all that matters. Coaches and executives believe they’ll know how well that process is going early in the season.