#2: Yordano Ventura
H-W: 5’11”, 180 lbs
DOB: 6/3/1991 (22 years old)
Signed: NDFA ($28,000 bonus), Dominican Republic, 2008
2013: 150 IP, 132 H, 59 BB, 166 K, 10 HR, 3.18 ERA in Double-A (58 IP), Triple-A (77 IP), and MLB (15 IP)
2012: 109 IP, 92 H, 42 BB, 130 K, 8 HR, 3.62 ERA in Complex (4 IP), High-A (76 IP), and Double-A (29 IP)
The Royals have a well-deserved reputation for failure when it comes to converting minor league pitching prospects into major league starting pitchers. When Danny Duffy’s your biggest success story in the eight years since you’ve been hired…you have a problem.
Duffy’s not just the biggest success story, he’s the only success story. Since the 2007 season, 41 pitchers have started a game for the Royals. Duffy was literally the only one of those pitchers who was signed as an amateur by the Royals after Dayton Moore was hired following the 2006 draft.
Ventura is the second, and if he develops into a quality major league starter, it will go a long way towards restoring the reputation of the organization. It’s not simply that they developed a starting pitcher, but how they did it. Ventura was not a highly-sought after teenager in the Dominican; he got a piddling bonus, and didn’t even sign until 2008 even though he was eligible to be signed in 2007. He threw in the mid-80s when he was signed.
Even after he added 10 mph to his fastball, his short stature and command issues had everyone thinking he was a reliever. Two years ago, when he first started getting taken seriously as a prospect, most people in baseball thought he was a future reliever. Even a year ago, there was about a 50/50 divide between observers who thought he would stick in a rotation and those who saw him as a closer.
But after working his way to the majors without any degradation in his performance – his walk rate ticked up in 2012 but held steady last year, and his strikeout rates of 28% the last two years are the best of his career – the industry has come around to the idea that despite his stature, Ventura might be the rare short right-hander to thrive in a major league rotation.
And don’t wave away how rare that is. Since 1980, just eight pitchers listed at 5’11” or shorter have struck out 100 batters (with at least 10 starts) in a season at age 23 – Ventura’s age this year – or younger:
Johnny Cueto (twice)
Tom Gordon (three times)
Mike Hampton (twice)
Pedro Martinez (twice)
Fernando Valenzuela (four times)
Sanchez never matched his rookie success and disappeared from the majors quickly, but then, in the fourth start of his career he threw 147 pitches, and was one of the reasons why I developed the PAP system for measuring pitcher abuse back in 1998. Teams are a little more sensible about this stuff now. Okay, a lot more sensible.
But the other guys on that list all turned out pretty well, I’d say. Gordon couldn’t hack it as a starter, but turned into a very good closer for many years. Hampton threw 1261 innings with a 3.44 ERA through his age 27 season before making the fatal mistake of signing a long-term contract with the Rockies. Lincecum won back-to-back Cy Youngs and went to four straight All-Star games before his stuff went south, and he’s still taking the ball every fifth day. Pedro was, well, Pedro. Fernando was Fernando, and might well have been a lot more than even that had the Dodgers not let him average 266 innings a year for six years, from ages 21 to 26.
Cueto missed much of last season with a strained lat muscle, but his arm was fine, and he finished fourth in the Cy Young vote in 2012. Even Mike Leake, who’s both short and a finesse guy, has developed into a good #3 starter and is coming off his best season.
So it appears that the hard part for short pitchers is getting to the majors and sticking for a full season in the first place. If Ventura can get through his rookie year intact and without losing the strike zone, there’s no evidence that his height makes him a risk going forward. Or at least any more of a risk than any other young pitcher.
#1: Raul Adalberto Mondesi
H-W: 6’1”, 165 lbs
DOB: 7/27/1995 (18 years old)
Signed: NDFA ($2 million signing bonus), Dominican Republic, 2011
2013: .261/.311/.361, 24-10 SB-CS in Low-A (125 G)
2012: .290/.346/.386, 11-2 SB-CS in Rookie (50 G)
I fully realize that I’m going against conventional wisdom here – every Top 100 Prospect list I’ve seen has Mondesi behind either Zimmer, Ventura, or in most cases both. And from the perspective of where the Royals are at right now, I can see the argument that Zimmer and Ventura are more valuable prospects to them – they need young pitching and they need it now, a lot more than they need a shortstop who might be a superstar but won’t be playing for them until 2016.
Maybe Mondesi isn’t the top prospect for the Royals. But if you were starting a baseball team from scratch and could have one of the Royals’ prospects, I think Mondesi is the easy choice.
He’s 18 years old. Again: he’s 18 years old. He’s already played a full season in full-season ball, and was essentially a league-average hitter while playing a stellar shortstop. He has tremendous baseball instincts. He has bloodlines. He switch-hits. He plays the most important defensive position. And – in stark contrast to Zimmer and Ventura – he’s not perpetually one pitch away from losing it all.
But mostly, he’s 18 years old. He was the youngest player (to my knowledge) in Royals history to play in low-A ball, and this year he’ll be the youngest player (to my knowledge) to play in high-A ball, with the exception of Andres Blanco, who played in five games for the Blue Rocks in 2002 at the age of 18, after the Royals jumped him all the way from rookie ball for some reason at the end of the year. Blanco was a defensive whiz and a legitimate prospect, but this was also the Allard Baird era, when prospects could get called up to the majors because they had two good weeks in Double-A; no one saw Blanco as that kind of a prospect. That same year, actually, Zack Greinke pitched in one game for the Blue Rocks at age 18. Greinke probably deserved to be there, but still: Allard Baird, everyone!
Mondesi could well earn a promotion to Double-A at some point during this season, and he’ll be barely 19 when the season ends. Greinke and Billy Butler both played in Double-A at 19, as did Clint Hurdle (who had a monster season – he hit .328/.449/.529 in 1977, and was on the cover of SI the following spring). Bret Saberhagen was promoted to Double-A at age 19 in 1983. But Mondesi would be younger than any of them if he reaches Double-A at any point this year.
Just one player in Royals history has played for them before turning 20: Saberhagen, who was a week shy of his birthday when he debuted in April 1984. The second-youngest was…Blanco, who was 20 years and 6 days old when he debuted in April 2004. Seriously, Allard, what the hell? The difference between Saberhagen and Blanco is the difference between 1984 and 2004. Anyway, Hurdle was third-youngest (20 years, 50 days), and George Brett was fourth-youngest (20 years, 79 days).
At this point, Mondesi has a better than a 50/50 chance at joining the top five; if he debuts with the Royals at any point in 2015, he’ll be on that list. If he debuts before the All-Star Break, he’ll be the youngest player in franchise history.
Blanco wasn’t there on merit. Hurdle had a potentially great career derailed by back injuries. Saberhagen is in the Royals’ Hall of Fame, and Brett is in Cooperstown. Age matters. Youth is a vital asset, and Mondesi has it in spades.
More than just his youth, the breadth of his skill set makes it more likely that he’ll succeed. He’s consider a potential plus defender at shortstop in the majors. He’s not a burner but has enough speed to steal 20-30 bases in the majors. He doesn’t have a ton of power but enough to hit 10-15 homers at his peak. He’s not an extreme contact hitter but isn’t a free swinger either, and could hit .300 at his peak. Even if he doesn’t develop all of his skills, so long as a couple of these skills reach their potential, he’ll be an above-average shortstop in the majors. If all of his skills reach their potential, he’s a perennial All-Star.
And while ordinarily, projecting the rosiest upside for a player is fools’ good, that’s the thing about his age: Mondesi has so much time to develop that it’s actually not to envision a scenario in which he does, in fact, reach his potential in all facets of his game. And possibly even exceed them in some ways. He doesn’t project to hit .320 right now, or hit 25 homers, but he’s so young that he might develop in ways that scouts can’t even foresee.
Put it another way: Mondesi is ten years from reaching the traditional peak age of 27 for a position player. He’s five years from being a 22-year-old. In 2019 he’ll be as old as Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar were as rookies. That’s kind of nuts.
The Royals have quite literally never developed a quality shortstop from their own farm system. The best shortstop in team history, Freddie Patek, was acquired from the Pirates when he was 26. Patek is the only shortstop in team history to amass even 10 bWAR in his career with the Royals. (The second-best shortstop in Royals history, according to bWAR, is…Rey Sanchez. No, really.) Escobar is already tied for fifth, and could easily move into second place this year if he has a good season. Jay Bell is eighth, and he played in Kansas City for exactly one year.
As sad as that is, none of those guys were developed by the Royals. Here’s a list of the four best shortstops developed by the Royals:
1. UL Washington
2. Shane Halter
3. Mike Aviles
4. David Howard
I wish I were kidding. Shane Halter is the second-best shortstop the Royals have ever produced. David Howard is the fourth-best.
And I’m being lenient in defining “shortstop” here as anyone who played shortstop in at least 40% of their career games. Both Aviles and Halter would be off the list if I upped the requirement to 50%.
(I should point out that while I’ve tried to track down all the players that the Royals traded away before they debuted in the majors, it’s possible I missed someone. If you know of a shortstop the Royals had in their farm system who went on to success elsewhere, please leave it in the comments.)
Suffice it to say, there’s not only a possibility but a probability that Mondesi will be the greatest shortstop ever developed by the Royals. I’ll get into why that is in my next column. But for now, his ability to display a broad skill set at an age when most baseball players are still in high school makes him the best prospect in the system. If he develops as expected, a year from now he might be one of the best prospects in any system.
He’ll still be just 19.