He’s pitched in the prestigious Futures Game, drawn comparisons to legendary countryman Pedro Martinez and is expected to be a long-term answer in the Kansas City Royals’ starting rotation.
But right now, 22-year-old right-hander Yordano Ventura, who possesses a fastball that has been clocked at up to 102 mph as well as an excellent curveball and an acceptable changeup, is worried more about his Class AAA debut.
That comes Thursday night for the Omaha Storm Chasers in a 7:05 p.m. game at Werner Park against Oklahoma City.
“I’m just trying to stay focused here,” Ventura said, with assistance from interpreting teammate Christian Colon. “I’m here now, and I live in the present. I try to maintain that. I have a lot of people watching me, but I’m here and I’m going to do the best I can here — and when the time comes I’ll be in the big leagues.”
How big of a deal is the 5-foot-11, 180-pounder? Get this from Omaha manager Mike Jirschele, who over his long career has seemed allergic to even a hint of hyperbole.
“He’s probably the most exciting guy to come through since Zack Greinke came through,” Jirschele said. “And he has a better fastball than Zack had. We’re excited to get him out here.”
Greinke pitched briefly for Omaha, as a 20-year-old, in 2004. He won the American League Cy Young Award in 2009 and is now one of baseball’s highest-paid players while pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
There have been a few highly regarded pitching prospects to pass through Omaha since then, of course. But Kansas City’s nearly three-decade long struggle to return to the playoffs speaks to how rarely it has been able to develop its own top-line pitchers.
Ventura’s stuff is similar to Kelvin Herrera’s. The 23-year-old right-hander also brought a triple-digit fastball and sharp breaking ball to Omaha as a reliever in 2011, and he sped through to the big leagues. Herrera was back for a brief refresher course before returning to Kansas City on Tuesday.
Ventura, though, is being developed as a starter, while Herrera had trouble staying healthy when used as a starter.
Ventura was rated in the offseason as the 60th-best minor league prospect by MLB.com, while Baseball America rated him at No. 85. Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi came to Omaha with higher prospect ratings the past two seasons — Montgomery was significantly higher — but neither had the fastball Ventura can offer.
“He throws exceptionally hard,” said first-year Omaha pitching coach Larry Carter, who oversaw Ventura late last year when he jumped to Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
They are reunited in Omaha after Ventura went 3-2 with a 2.34 ERA in 11 starts in Class AA this season, with 74 strikeouts in 5723 innings, while holding opponents to a .189 average. He’s tied for first in the Texas League in strikeouts and ranks first in strikeouts per nine innings (11.6), second in opponent average, third in base runners per nine innings (9.8) and fourth in ERA.
“I’m happy to be here and happy to have done well in Double A,” Ventura said. “I just want to keep progressing.
“I’ve been working hard, I have a good routine and my pitches are working right now. I’m confident going out there. I want to make sure I stay on top of my game.”
Expectations are high, but that’s nothing unusual.
“He’s going to have his bumps in the road, too — he’s going to get hit some nights — and that’s part of development,” Jirschele said. “Hopefully he’s here for a while, but he might not be here long.”
The Royals signed Ventura as a 17-year-old out of the Dominican Republic with a mid-80s fastball. Although still small for a pitcher, he has matured physically, adding velocity along the way. In 33813 career minor league innings, he’s struck out 374 — 9.9 per nine innings.
“In the offseason I do a lot of work to get my arm strong,” Ventura said. “It’s part of my offseason program to work on throwing hard. Over time I kept doing it and I kept getting stronger. When I signed, I was young.”
He’s earned the nickname “Lil’ Pedro” because of his combination of size and stuff, but the similarities don’t track completely.
“You think little guys … but he’s got a different arm slot, more over the top as opposed to Pedro,” said Carter, the Chasers’ pitching coach. “But he is a little guy who throws hard.”
Carter cited Ventura’s work in spring training this season as particularly impressive. He worked 1123 innings in big-league exhibition games, compiling a 3.86 ERA while striking out seven.
“If he pitches like he did in spring training, that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Carter said. “That’s why they take you up there — for the experience and to see what you’re going to do.
“Forty-five days in major league camp — that’s a lot of experience. It’s to feed the appetite. You don’t want just that experience, you want the full deal.”
That should come at some point for Ventura, but in the developmental business, one never knows for sure.
“You’re going to see a pitcher who I would say — as long as he stays healthy — there’s no doubt he’s going to pitch in the big leagues and probably for a long time and be a real good big-league pitcher,” Jirschele said.
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