It appears the Johnny Cueto acquisition has paid off for the Kansas City Royals in more ways than one.
Cueto has been his traditional self: solid to outstanding on the hill with flair, giving the Royals a chance to win each of his starts. His home debut was a sight to behold, not just for Cueto’s brilliance — a four-hit shutout with eight strikeouts — but for the welcome he received from Royals fans. It was a welcome founded on hope, the hope Cueto would become this franchise’s Moses, leading the Royals to the promised land for the first time after 30 years in the baseball desert.
Stretching analogies a bit. Sorry. But it’s true. That hope was foisted upon James Shields the prior two years, and for all the talk of Shields being “Big Game” and for all Shields did to grind his way to victories, he just wasn’t quite the ace he was billed as when General Manager Dayton Moore traded for him. Close, but not quite, and the fact he wasn’t the team’s true ace hurt KC in the World Series.
(I’m not about to call Shields the Royals’ golden calf. He just didn’t quite live up to expectations).
So Royals fans now are both expectant and hopeful Cueto can be the guy to take the club all the way home.
Which brings us to Yordano Ventura.
Ventura was a revelation last year, when he won 14 games with an ERA of 3.2 and struck out almost 160 batters. The 2015 season has been revealing, but not for all the right (or feel-good) reasons. The lack of control, both with his pitches and his emotions, has been the big story. And the big question has been whether Ventura can channel his edge, hone his delivery and thus reach his massive potential. If you watched the ESPN broadcast Sunday night, it was one of the maybe five storylines they mentioned the entire game — at least until Salvador Perez got ejected, the Angels took the lead and the Royals rallied to win in extras.
Ventura has had pockets of brilliance, though, and the last two games would qualify. Six innings, two hits, eight strikeouts on Aug. 11 (yes, I’m trying desperately to ignore the six free passes). And seven innings, five hits, two runs, seven strikeouts Sunday.
Both games came after Cueto has gotten settled into the Royals clubhouse. In some ways, the Cueto influence has been obvious. Ventura has started quick-pitching like Cueto does occasionally. But Ventura has shown a steeliness the past two starts that has been lacking ever since Shields went to the West Coast. His past two starts have not been clean (six walks would scream that at you). But instead of hanging his head and losing control as he had earlier this year, Ventura locked in and got himself out of trouble.
Does that come from long talks with one of the best pitchers in baseball? Possibly. Does it come just from observation? Maybe.
Why hadn’t that come about with Edinson Volquez, an accomplished pitcher in his own right, having a fine season and establishing himself as the Kansas City ace before the Cueto trade? Who knows?
What I do know is there is very little chance the Royals keep Cueto after the season ends, World Series trophy or not. That makes the 2015 offseason pivotal for Ventura. Besides the questions about his delivery and his swagger, he must also show he can take the lessons provided by one of the game’s best pitchers and apply them the next year. Whatever influence Shields had on the young hurler was apparently temporary, so now Ventura has to demonstrate he can take lessons to heart, build upon them, add his own experience and come out a better pitcher in the end — perhaps supplanting Cueto as one of MLB’s premier pitchers in a few years.
This also becomes a critical offseason for the Royals for a slew of reasons. Ventura’s career path, along with Danny Duffy’s, could mark the trajectory of this franchise for the next several years. As mentioned, Cueto is likely gone. Jeremy Guthrie, a stalwart at the back of the rotation the past several years, may not be back with the club next year and Volquez may depart at the end of next year. Several position players are near the end of their contracts. If things go well for the Royals this offseason, their window for winning championships gets extended another three or four years. If not, 2015 could be the best chance we see a victory parade in KC for a long time.