Days of speculation and anticipation and fretting about solving the Royals’ most glaring vulnerability peaked and then ended Sunday afternoon with the acquisition of Cincinnati ace pitcher Johnny Cueto — a development entwined with a separate boost to the Royals rotation.
Coinciding with a resurgent performance by Yordano Ventura, the coming of Cueto made for a scene that has potential to become the flashpoint we’ll look back at as when one of the best teams in baseball morphed into simply the best.
It wasn’t just that the scoreboard in Kauffman Stadium’s center field trumpeted the trade for Cueto (in exchange for left-handed pitching prospects Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed).
The power of the moment also was in the anxieties leading up to the convergence of pivotal events: the arrival of a new ace, Cueto, and the apparent revival of the old one, Ventura.
As doubts continued to linger over Ventura going into his latest start, premature reports about the Cueto trade remained publicly unvalidated — and thus subject to change — into early Sunday afternoon.
Which in turn led to another cycle of anxiety, in the filter-free world of social media … and beyond.
“He was coming — then he wasn’t,” said manager Ned Yost, who repeated the point for emphasis.
As late as just before the 1:10 game against Houston at Kauffman Stadium, Yost was told by general manager Dayton Moore that he wasn’t sure the deal would happen. In turn, he tried to tamp down excitement in the clubhouse about the apparent inevitability.
From Moore’s perspective, even when it was being reported as official, “the deal was far from done” until about 1:50 p.m. Central time.
That’s when Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty finally called and said, “We’re prepared to move forward at this point in time if you are.”
It was worth the wait.
As it happened, the announcement came exactly as the previously reeling Ventura was walking off the field following a scoreless third inning on the way to his most auspicious start in weeks as the Royals beat the Astros 5-1.
“Yordano, the way he threw today, that’s who he is,” Moore said. “That’s why he’s special.”
This improbable outcome, of course, came days after Ventura had been optioned to Class AAA Omaha but never left because of the quirk of Jason Vargas’ season-ending injury.
After mustering just 15 innings (and yielding 15 runs) in his last four starts for a team that entered Sunday’s game 29th in the major leagues in innings pitched by starters (530), Ventura gave up just one run in seven innings.
He looked like the “old Ventura,” as Yost put it, “a good sign for us” and … “a bad sign for everybody else.”
That doesn’t mean Ventura can be assumed to be fixed. He’s had other productive starts that proved to be fool’s gold in a tumultuous sophomore season.
But it does mean he’s got a foundation for a fresh start — a foundation built on legitimate confidence in command of his breaking pitches and bolstered in several ways by the addition of Cueto.
Adding Cueto, to whom Moore referred as at the top of the rotation, enhances not just the depth of the volatile starting staff but the very alignment of it.
The move is another signal to Ventura that he can relax and can disabuse himself of any notion he has to be more than who he was last season, a mind-set that some in the Royals organization believe has been part of his tribulations since he was anointed their opening-day starter.
Moreover, Cueto also is from the Dominican Republic and is looked up to by Ventura, making Cueto another potential voice of influence along with veteran countryman Edinson Volquez.
Not that the acquisition of Cueto was tethered to Ventura.
It stands profoundly on its own.
Cueto, 29, is a 5-foot-11 right-hander who is 7-6 with an ERA of 2.62 this season, a performance entirely consistent with what he’s done every season since 2011: His final ERA has been between 2.31 and 2.82 each season since.
“Johnny Cueto is obviously an impact talent,” said Moore, adding that the Royals had been tracking each of his starts for months.
Moore suggested the urgency to acquire Cueto or someone of his caliber hadn’t changed in the wake of the injury to Vargas, an injury the Royals had worried was developing.
But between the doubts that led the Royals initially to demote Ventura and the Vargas injury hours later, the Royals had to feel their rotation was only getting murkier.
With Chris Young’s numbers apparently ebbing from the wear and tear of the season and Jeremy Guthrie’s ERA at 5.35, only Volquez and the revived Danny Duffy could be said to be inspiring faith more than hope.
And with so many other components in place, Moore was moved to think big and seize the precious present even at the expense of prospects.
This, despite now being 21 games over .500 (59-38) with a 7 1/2 game lead over Minnesota in the American League Central.
This, because the Royals were 90 feet from tying game seven of the World Series a year ago and are intent on making that only the prelude, not the end, of their rebirth.
There is no guarantee, of course, that Cueto will lead the Royals there. Similarly seismic moves didn’t do that last year for Detroit (David Price) or Oakland (Jon Lester).
But every dynamic is different, and it sure beats leaving an evident void unfilled.
Yes, it’s at a cost, including the unlikelihood the Royals can meet what Cueto will command on the market after this season.
Finnegan, of course, was a sensation last year, helping the Royals to and through their first postseason in 29 years as a rookie just weeks after starring in the College World Series.
But he’s struggled for consistency this season as he’s been up and down between Kansas City and Omaha, and there’s a school of thought that he’ll never be of higher value and a tweener in terms of what his future holds — starter or bullpen.
Still, the Royals couldn’t have been eager to move him. Or Lamb, 9-1 with a 2.67 ERA for Omaha. Or Reed, 2-2 with a 3.45 ERA for Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
The future, though, is now.
“As I’ve said over and over, if you focus on what you’re losing or giving up or trading away, you’ll never make a deal,” Moore said. “And we felt Johnny Cueto was the very best pitcher for our team, the right acquisition and somebody we could put at the top of the rotation and move forward with.
“If we’re getting the right player back, we’ve always tried to be very aggressive to win the negotiations.”
False steps notwithstanding, that they did on Sunday.
In one fell swoop, they could welcome Cueto to the team and, at least for a day, welcome back Ventura.
And register a claim as the team to beat.
Seeing the Cueto deal on the board as Ventura seemed himself, Yost said, was like “icing on the cake.”
A 1-2 punch, he said that would make for “a real nice flight” to Cleveland and a restful night after a restless one.
“When we get to Cleveland,” he said, “I think I’ll sleep real well tonight.”