I remember when I first became obsessed with baseball prospects. As a Royals fan, there was not much hope for a very long time. But when Baseball America ranked nine Royals in their top 100 prospects in 2011, I started to envision what the future could hold. Most of those players have made their impact, either directly or indirectly as trade assets, in two American League pennants and a World Championship.
Baseball is the sport with the best competitive balance. While there are a few teams every year that are in full rebuild mode, the majority of teams enter spring training saying “why not us?” But for small market teams, these windows do not stay open very long as players develop and become expensive through arbitration, out-pricing themselves as they hit the open market.
The Royals are one of these teams and their abundance of key free agents after 2017 has been well documented. The 2014 and 2015 seasons were incredible, but I knew this group was not going to be together very long. Because of this, I always wanted to know ahead of time who would be next in line to keep winning baseball in KC after these guys went their separate ways.
I began to look into players who could become a part of “the next wave” and I particularly remember two Dominican born pitching prospects playing in rookie ball in the Arizona League in 2010.
One pitcher went 8-2 with a 2.71 ERA and struck out 64 batters over 66.1 innings. He was 6-foot-3 and 19 years old at the time, so I figured that he would grow into his body and potentially become a solid starting pitcher. Fans always dream about the “best case scenario” when it comes to prospects, so that is how I envisioned him.
Robinson Yambati found himself a permanent member of the bullpen two seasons later and struggled from that point on. He has been out of baseball since 2015.
The other pitcher, also 19 at the time, ended that year with a 4-3 record, a 3.08 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 64.1 innings. There was a lot of buzz about this guy ending up as a reliever in the long run as he was maybe 5-foot-10 at the time and scouts were concerned if he could build up the durability to handle a starter’s workload. For the most part, I like to trust what the scouts say, so that’s how I envisioned him.
This was the first time I heard of Yordano Ventura.
Ventura signed with the organization in October 2008 as a 17-year old for $28,000. Back then, international prospects signing with Major League organizations did not draw nearly as much attention as it does today. But Ventura was all of 5-foot-6 and somewhere around 130 pounds at the time and threw in the mid-80s. Needless to say, he was not one of those top guys who warranted a team to invest millions in him as a teenager.
The more financial resources an organization invests in a player, the more chances they will get to prove themselves. Ventura was fearless, and he had to be. He had to fight for everything he earned because he was not one of those guys. While he never grew past 6-feet, his fastball velocity kept increasing and eventually, he was sitting in the upper-90s and had the best fastball in the minors. He was a two-time participant in the All-Star Futures Game, including in 2012 when the game was in Kansas City. The fans loved Yo when they got their first glimpse of him in that game, and they couldn’t wait for him to be a part of the team.
They didn’t have to wait long as Ventura debuted in Kansas City at the end of the 2013 campaign. He was one of the favorites for American League Rookie of the Year heading into 2014 as one of the Royals’ top prospects (I personally ranked him second). I remember being in Houston on Jackie Robinson Day that year as he got his first major league win. He nixed any notion of him being a reliever by going 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in his rookie season, and had some huge moments in the Postseason.
His performance in Game 6 of the World Series with his team facing elimination, pitching with the emotions from losing his good friend Oscar Taveras in a car accident just two days prior, was incredible.
Royals General Manager Dayton Moore rewarded Ventura after just one season with a five-year, $23 million contract with two club options that would have kept him under club control through the 2021 season. The deal was agreed upon just two days before Ventura, at 24 years of age, took the ball for the Royals on Opening Day as the defending American League Champions.
While most guys will be suiting up for different teams in 2018 and beyond, Yo was going to be a part of “the next wave.” He was slated to pitch in the middle of the Royals’ rotation in 2017 behind Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy and in front of Jason Vargas and Nate Karns. But there was so much more ceiling to his game.
As an “undersized” Dominican right-hander with power stuff, he drew comparisons to his idol, Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. While that career trajectory was likely not going to happen, we saw glimpses of brilliance from Yo. The 100+ mile an hour fastballs with devastating curveballs and changeups. There were not many pitchers in the game that could match his stuff. When Yo had everything going, he looked like an ace that was going to front this rotation for years to come. In his last conversation he had with Moore before Christmas, he told him that he was going to win 18 games this season and throw 10 complete games.
There were times where Ventura let his emotions get the best of him on the field, as he was involved in multiple incidents that led to benches-clearing brawls. But he was still a kid who had a lot thrown on him at a young age, and I fully believe that those were a thing of the past. He was one of the most experienced postseason pitchers the Royals have ever had in just three seasons in the league.
Even though it still hasn’t fully hit me yet, and probably won’t until he’s not pitching every five days, the reality is that he is gone and we need to move forward without him. We can only think about what could have been had this tragedy not taken place. But Yo accomplished so much in a short amount of time, and I am forever grateful for that.
The Royals lost Game 7 of the World Series in 2014, and Yo was playing softball with kids the very next day. That is just something that does not happen. Yo had a big heart and a tremendous smile that lit up a room the second he walked in.
That is how I will remember Yo.