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September 17, 2013

The Call-Up

Yordano Ventura

by Jason Parks and Craig Goldstein

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The Situation: The Royals find themselves in the playoff hunt for the first time since the advent of manned flight, and adding a potent weapon to an already potent bullpen could help propel the team toward October baseball. With the grind of a long season wearing heavily on the legs and the hands of hitters, a high-octane flamethrower capable of hitting over 100 mph on the gun can be a devastating force, even more so when you consider that the league is unacquainted with the young arm.

Background: Yordano Ventura was signed out of the Dominican Republic in the fall of 2008 for less than $30K. The Royals took it slow and low with Ventura, keeping him in the Dominican for all of 2009 and parts of 2010, before bringing him stateside for a taste of the Arizona League and Fall Instructs. A strong full-season performance in the Midwest League brought Ventura more attention, as the bat-missing skills were hard to overlook despite some concerns about his size; at the time, Ventura was listed at 5’11’’ and a generous 150 lbs. (depending on the source).

But it wasn’t until his breakout performance in 2012 that Ventura started converting some of the doubters about his ability to pitch in a rotation. Over two levels (three if you count his AZL appearance), the Dominican righty made 23 starts, logged 109.1 innings, and struck out 130 batters. Thanks to this strong performance, Ventura found himself on the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 for the first time, ranking 62nd overall coming into the 2013 season. The 22-year-old built on his strong performance with an even stronger performance in 2013, making more starts, logging more innings, missing more bats, and pitching well enough in the upper minors to get the much anticipated call to the majors.

The Scouting Report: Ventura is short and slight, with the body of a utility infielder, not a frontline starting pitcher. Because of his size (or lack of size), questions about his durability and ultimate projection have been attached to him since he signed, but the power of the arsenal and the ease of the delivery could make Ventura an exception to the standard rule. It all starts with his arm speed, which grades out as elite. Outside of a young Neftali Feliz, I can’t think of another arm I’ve scouted in person whose arm moves from pickup to release with such quickness. It’s remarkable. He uses his lower half well and creates explosive energy with his stride, but the star attraction is the whippy arm, capable of delivering baseballs up to 101 mph.

Despite the aforementioned size, Ventura can hold velocity into games, reaching back for the upper-90s when he needs it and working comfortably in the mid-90s with good arm-side action. Ventura will be able to find success with his fastball at any level of baseball, and if he can refine his command within the zone, it’s a game-changing pitch that will elevate his entire arsenal to another level. His curveball is a second plus pitch, but its success is predicated on his ability to locate his fastball. When he can throw it for strikes, the curveball forces a lot of unbalanced swings and weak contact, as hitters are prone to cheat on the heat and can’t recover enough to stay back for the bender. When he can’t locate the fastball early, the curve can’t stand alone on its own break and depth, as the deception is its best attribute.

Ventura has long fingers and puts a lot of action on the ball, regardless of the offering. But the sleeper pitch in the arsenal is the changeup, and several sources think it could eventually develop into a plus-plus monster, a defining pitch that could propel him to the top of a major-league rotation. Because of the action and the arm speed, his changeup has all the characteristics necessary to find success. It’s a feel pitch, refined through repetition and confidence in the offering, and Ventura has taken big steps forward in the development of the cambio in recent years.

Ventura has a complete arsenal and a singular elite pitch, and if he stood a prototypical 6’3’’ 190 lbs., we wouldn’t be debating his long-term role. But scouts are mixed on his projection, with some drooling over his late-innings potential: an elite closer with an elite fastball that can blow up radar guns and blow away hitters. Others see a Pedro-like starter, a diminutive Dominican right-hander with a big fastball, a very good curveball, and a changeup you name your children after. The overall product isn’t there yet, and comps to arguably the greatest pitcher of my generation can be unfair and inaccurate. But Ventura has magic in his right arm, and with a little more seasoning and a little luck he might be able to reach his projection in a major-league rotation. The durability questions will remain questions until he answers them on the field, but of all the undersized flamethrowers from the Dominican Republic—the kind that receive lazy Pedro comps only to become afterthoughts, injury casualties, or bullpen arms—Ventura has the best chance to defy the scouting stereotype and emerge as a frontline starter. —Jason Parks

Fantasy Impact: While Ventura might not have been a staple on The Stash List, he has been a staple in my heart for the better part of the last two seasons. While the diminutive hurler brings flashy stuff and an absurd hat tilt to the table in real life, the value he’ll bring to the fantasy table in 2013 is as slight as he is. Given the amount of time left in the season and the likelihood that any and all work Ventura will receive will be out of the bullpen, it’s hard to recommend him as a pickup for anyone outside of AL-Only leagues, and even that might be pushing it. Add in that he is already about 30 innings beyond his innings total from last year (135 IP so far), and the chances that we’ll see Ventura make a meaningful start decrease further.

That doesn’t mean that Ventura isn’t of interest, though. Given the likely departure of Ervin Santana from the Royals rotation and possibly that of Bruce Chen as well, there is a chance that Ventura will break camp with the Royals in 2014 and start a meaningful number of games. In that role, his profile as a high strikeout pitcher (32 percent at Double-A, 24 percent at Triple-A) who can keep the ball on the ground (42 percent GB rate) and in the park (.47 HR/9 IP) would be an immediate boon to fantasy owners in leagues of all depths. Even if he does emerge as a starting pitcher next year, though, it’s important to factor in a likely innings cap, as 2013 represents a career high—and that’s before we get to his height and frame, which lead some to believe that he won’t hold up under a full workload of innings.

Ventura has the type of arsenal to profile as an impact reliever/closer if he does get shifted to the bullpen. The issue is that Kansas City has a fully stocked bullpen that has been the best in the league in 2013, including a dominant closer in Greg Holland. Still, Ventura would be the type of middle reliever who would be worth rostering, as he’s likely to generate strikeouts and quality innings.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Ventura will be worth keeping from 2013 to 2014 unless he’s already owned. He’s likely rostered in most dynasty leagues, and if you’re in a league where MiLB players aren’t eligible until they’re called up, you’re probably not keeping enough players to waste a spot on him heading into 2014. If your league keeps around 300 players, then perhaps he’s worth a flier on the off chance that he bags a rotation spot out of spring training, but much like we can’t give him credit for 200 innings until he reaches that threshold, we can’t give him credit as a fantasy starting pitcher until he wins the job. He’d be much safer as a late draft or even a waiver wire pickup during the 2014 season.

*Update* The Royals have announced that Ventura will be starting on Tuesday in place of Danny Duffy, who's dealing with inflammation in the flexor muscle of his elbow. This obviously makes him an option in all formats given that most leagues are in the stretch run and/or playoffs. Ventura will be facing a potent Cleveland lineup and could very well suffer from some first-start nerves. He could produce big strikeout numbers, but also a potentially short outing, as the Royals are unlikely to let him rack up a deep pitch count. Ventura is a viable streaming option if he’s available in the player pool (early reports have him unavailable in Yahoo!), but there are likely better matchups out there.Craig Goldstein

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here
Craig Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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