by John Viril—
The Royals sent pitchers Yordano Ventura and Will Smith to minor-league camp on Monday, leaving the no.5 rotation job as a contest between Bruce Chen and Luis Mendoza. While the competition is still officially continuing, I think the decision has already been made: Bruce Chen will be the no. 5 starter and Mendoza will become the long man.
There are $4.5 million reasons why Bruce Chen will open the season in the starting rotation (the size of his 2013 guaranteed contract) while Mendoza is still a league minimum player. Aside from the obvious self-validation for GM Dayton Moore’s roster construction, Chen would also add a left-handed option to an otherwise right-handed rotation. Chen also has had a nice 3-year run as a consistent low-end starting option. He’s made 82 starts, pitched 477.2 innings and fashioned a 4.43 ERA—a solid performance for a no. 5 guy. (of course, the problem has been that Chen as been the TOP of the Royals pathetic rotation during that time—but we won’t even go there).
The Cubs, however, bombed Chen in his last outing in Surprise (5 IP, 7 runs, 9 hits, and 5—count’em FIVE—home runs in 92 pitches). If any vestige of true competition exists, this performance would open the door, especially when contrasted with Mendoza’s spring line of 11.0 IP, 0.82 ERA and 8 K’s. However, I doubt that a real contest still exists. Royals Manager Ned Yost has said how much he likes Mendoza in the long relief role for over a year now. Given these public statements and Chen’s track record for the last three seasons, I believe it’s a foregone conclusion that Chen will open the season with the no. 5 slot.
Of course, the team has already shown they are playing to win now by relegating Dayton Moore favorite Luke Hochevar to the pen. If they remain consistent with a “what can you do for me today” approach, Mendoza might just yet open the season in the rotation.
With that decision now out of the way, the rest of the “pitching plan” for emergency starters becomes clear. Will Smith will become the first guy on the I-29 pipeline in case of injury, followed by journeymen AAAA players Everett Teaford and Nate Adcock. Yordano Ventura’s candidacy was more wishful thinking based on future potential rather than current reality. The much-cited fact that Ventura has no more than 6 minor league starts at AA and above on his resume shows that tossing him into major league competition at this time would be pushing him—and a small-market team so heavily dependent on maximizing the effective major-league window of their prospects would be crazy to burn up team control when Ventura still has lessons to learn in the minors.
I see Ventura starting out at AA. He may reach Kansas City at the end of this season if: 1) he’s absolutely dominant at both AA Northwest Arkansas and AAA Omaha and 2) the Royals need a starting pitcher to stay in a pennant race. If either of these conditions are not met, the Royals would be better served to delay his service clock until 2014 (at the earliest). There is, however, a third reason why we might see Ventura in Kansas City in 2013—if the Moore/Yost regime are feeling the heat because the team hasn’t won enough games and they try to hang on to their jobs by unveiling a hot young pitcher.
Ventura, by all accounts, has a plus/plus fastball that could make him a dominant starter if he develops even average secondary stuff and his small frame can hold up to a starting workload. As recently as 2011, he was listed at a mere 140lbs., though his fangraphs.com page claims 5-11, 178Ibs. He’s got the most electric arm in the minor league system, now that Kelvin Herrera is established in the pen. Just as significantly, Ventura is an international signee who did not receive a big amateur signing bonus. If Ventura establishes himself as a top of the rotation starter early in his career, he will be ripe for a Sal Perez-type contract, in which Perez traded two years of extra team control for immediate financial security. Pushing a guy like Ventura through the system would be crazy without a big potential payoff. In the new world since the 2012 collective bargaining agreement, players like Ventura are gold for small market franchises like the Royals, especially since MLB put an end to Kansas City’s strategy of paying above-slot prices to prospects that fell in the draft.
The Royals have been talking all spring about their five starters compiling 1,000 innings. While that total seems like a speculative fantasy, Chen’s track record of eating innings does give more credence to that goal than Mendoza.