I have a brief confession to make; in the middle of March, I was having a hard time getting excited for baseball season. Not in the "I hate the Royals organization and will never be a fan until David Glass sells the team" fashion, but more of a "what's the point of following this team" feeling. I could not stop thinking about how this club looked like they were destined to win 85 games, not make the playoffs again and see their best pitcher leave in free agency. I wasn't looking forward to another long season that ends in the only manner I have experienced in my lifetime: no postseason baseball.
Despite my increased apathy, I (along with plenty of other dedicated Royals fans) found myself watching a fairly random Spring Training game on St Patrick's Day that FSKC happened to pick up. Kansas City faced the Texas Rangers, wore strange-looking green uniforms and ended up winning 6-0. The win was certainly nice, but the performance of Yordano Ventura kept the audience tuned to their screens.
The young phenom dominated the Rangers, only allowing four hits over six scoreless innings. Ventura surrendered zero extra-base hits, whiffed six batters and simply looked overpowering. He consistently threw strikes, blowing his fastball past hitters then freezing them with a knee-buckling curveball. I quickly forgot it was Spring Training and marveled in watching Ventura shutdown what projects to be one of the best lineups in the AL this year.
Nothing about the Royals changed after the game was over, and it didn't count in the standings. Watching his performance, however, helped awaken a dormant feeling of hope inside of me that just maybe, possibly, this season and this pitcher will be different.
The current Royals organization, as you may have heard, has not been very good at developing starting pitching prospects. Downright awful is probably a better description. I'm still not convinced Dayton Moore hasn't been playing the long con these past seven years, simply gathering writing material for his post-GM career as the frontman for the post-hardcore band ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Our Dead Pitching Prospects.
I kept these past failures in mind when the Yordano Ventura Hype Machine kicked into full gear last season. Following the progress of Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, Danny Duffy and to a lesser extent Tim Melville and Robinson Yambati these past few seasons really helped hammer home why the acronym TINSTAAPP exists (although Baseball America does appear to be getting better at ranking pitching prospects).
It was easy to imagine a number of scenarios that would have derailed Ventura in 2013 or shifted him to the bullpen. He's a small dude who throws really hard, bringing into question whether he can handle a starters workload. His offspeed pitches have plus potential, but his command was "inconsistent" in the minors. The Royals organization could have decided that he is better served as a reliever than a starter and placed him on the Aaron Crow path to the majors.
Struggles with command or stamina could certainly derail Ventura now that he has arrived; Danny Duffy didn't have a problem with walks until reaching the big leagues in 2011. It's easier to dismiss or downplay these concerns now that Ventura has reached the majors and you can see his potential for yourself instead of relying on Youtube videos and scouting reports. This isn't a sound way to do analysis, but very little about being a fan relies on a mastery of logic. We want, almost need Ventura to be something special, so we overlook his potential flaws and anoint him "Lil' Pedro."
The Royals organization may need Ventura to live up to his hype and potential this season more than the fans do. The team must turn in a better campaign than last season to show that they are continuing to get better and that 2013 wasn't the peak. If they take a step back, the more mainstream media and casual fan may join the side of the nerds and start clamoring for a GMDM replacement instead of us admitting defeat and embracing The Process.
When looking at the roster sans Venutra, however, it's difficult for many to picture this team actually reaching the playoffs. James Shields will be himself, but the rest of the rotation is uninspiring with little breakout potential. The lineup is better than last season, but looks more league-average than world-beaters. The bullpen should still be a plus, but relievers are notoriously fickle and only have so much impact on the game.
The team described above doesn't sound like a bad team, but also doesn't sound like the club that will snap the Royals' years without a playoff appearance streak. Throw in a Yordano Ventura doing his best 2013 Jose Fernandez impersonation, and it could help push the Royals from fringe contenders to a serious playoff threat and make Jon Heyman not look like such a crazy person.
Jonah Keri of Grantlandspells it out plainly, writing "the Royals pretty much need (Ventura) to excel right away if they hope to contend in the loaded AL this season."
There's nothing fair about placing high expectations on a 22-year-old rookie who has thrown 15 1/3 innings in the majors and it certainly won't be Ventura's fault if this team misses the playoffs again. Ventura, however, has the talent to help erase many of the Royals' previous sins in pitcher development and roster construction by pitching like an ace from day one.
I still don't think the Royals will make the postseason; only two of the eight writers currently on our masthead predicted a Kansas City playoff appearance, with Tyler Drenon the only contributor envisioning an AL Central Crown. The fact that anyone can pick the Royals to win the AL Central without getting completely laughed out of the room is a sign of progress, albeit not as much progress as we would've hoped for when Moore was originally hired.
The promise Ventura brings, however, makes it a little easier to believe that things will finally go the Royals way this season. I expect there to be a good-sized walkup crowd at Kauffman Stadium tonight, especially for a Tuesday evening game during the school year. Ventura is talented, new, and unblemished, making him the prime candidate for fans to place their hopes upon. If things finally do turn out the way we hope they will this year, we might be able to look back towards St. Patrick's Day as the start of our good luck.