Vargas Goes Down Again – Royals Rotation Once Again a Question Mark

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Conrad McGorkin

 

Yordano “Ace” Ventura has struggled in 2015. Fortunately for the Royals, his struggles haven’t really hurt the Royals in the standings. The AL Central’s leader won again tonight, 3-1, after six pitchers combined to out-duel MLB’s wins-leader Gerrit Cole and the Pirates 3-1 behind a 3-run eighth inning after NOT having two runners on at the same time in an inning in the first seven innings.

The best record in the American League (56-36) Royals have watched their Opening Day starter go through a number of things this season from ineffectiveness to immaturity. Why? No one really seems to know. He has had numbness in his fingers. Does that explain it? Is he experiencing the dreaded “sophomore slump”? Is there a mechanical flaw in his delivery? Is the talented young pitcher a “head case” as some suggest? Was James Shields’ presence in the rotation and clubhouse a key in Ventura’s success in 2014? I’d answer yes to all of the above.

We’ll work backward. It may or may not be the “best” trade in franchise history, but I believe the Shields (and Wade Davis) trade to be the most important in Royals history. They’ve made some great trades, from Joe Foy for Amos Otis in 1969, Roger Nelson and Richie Scheinblum for Hal McRae in 1972 to Zack Greinke (and Yuni!)for Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain in 2010 (and Jake Odorizzi who was then flipped for Shields/Davis).

All of those trades were enormous. Like the McRae trade in 1972, bringing in Shields not only put an extremely talented player on the roster, but brought a new attitude to the team. Hal hated to lose and he wanted everyone else to hate it with him. He wanted everyone else to play with passion. Unlike McRae, Shields was a proven star player that the rest of the team looked up to. I believe Shields’ presence relaxed Ventura. Ventura knew he wasn’t expected to be the team’s ace, nor should he be as a rookie.

That is where I think the “head case” and mechanical flaws are coming into play. Ventura appears to be trying too hard. He is letting things on the field disrupt his rhythm. Other players are getting into his head and he is, well early in the year was, losing his cool. Base hits are taking Ventura out of his game and things go bad, quickly. Ventura’s average fastball velocity has been down quite a bit in 2015 (from 96 in 2014 to 94.3 now), which is an indicator of either injury or over throwing, which can lead to injury.

The Royals claim that Ventura is healthy so we can assume that he is trying to throw harder, which is almost always counterproductive. Although, Ventura himself said after his first start back from the DL on July 9 (when the Royals brought him back maybe before he was ready), that he wasn’t 100%, but that he was good to go out there and pitch. Whatever that means.

The Royals rotation, with the return of Jason Vargas today, was all of a sudden crowded. At first, we thought Chris Young was likely the odd man out of the rotation. Then, two days later – after Danny Duffy dominated the White Sox – Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star noted that the three candidates most likely to find themselves odd man out in the starting rotation once Vargas returns were Ventura, Danny Duffy and Jeremy Guthrie. No mention of Chris Young. Luke wrote yesterday about keeping Jeremy Guthrie in the rotation, and if there was to be an odd man out, it should most likely be Yordano Ventura. The question after Monday’s game – where Ventura allowed six runs in four innings, falling to 4-7 and raising his ERA to 5.19 – the question then became, what do you do with him?

The Royals answered that question for us today, optioning Ventura to AAA Omaha.

 

After last night, it seemed like the right thing to do. The Royals aren’t suffering in the standings. A little time in Omaha to clear his head and gain confidence could be just what Yordano needs. Things may have changed, though, 26 pitches into Vargas’ second return from the disabled list in his first start in six weeks, as the ticking time bomb known as his left elbow – which has put him on the DL twice already this season with the same injury (left flexor strain) – led to him leaving Tuesday’s game with what was later ruled as “left medial elbow pain,” with an MRI scheduled for Wednesday. This doesn’t sound promising. It’s been inevitable, to us, that Vargas will eventually go under the knife. This might be the final blow that puts him on the shelf until 2017.

Much like the flexor strains are customarily pre-cursors to Tommy John surgery, so is medial elbow pain” is commonly associated with Tommy John. Three strikes, and you’re out, Vargy. See you in 2017.

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So, just like it was five weeks and three days ago – when Danny Duffy and Vargas were on the DL and Yentura was headed there with Joe Blanton, scarily, entering the rotation (even Yohan Pino made a start before Duffy’s rehab stint was cut short to bring him back) – the Royals rotation is AGAIN, at a crossroads.

So, much like Duffy getting his rehab cut short (it has worked out OK, as the Royals are 4-1 in his five post-DL starts, where he’s recorded three quality starts, pitched into the seventh inning three times, going to 2-1 while posting a 2.27 ERA, 1.33 WHIP in 31.2 innings; lowering ERA from 5.87 to 4.24, WHIP from 1.70 to 1.47), is it possible that the Royals bring Ventura back, before he’s ready – before he even throws a pitch in Omaha? Should they go to John Lamb, who was “rewarded” for dominating the Pacific Coast League with a 9-1 record and 2.68 ERA in 15 starts (he leads the league in wins and is third in strikeouts (84) and fourth in ERA) with a ticket to watch a Major League doubleheader from the Royals bullpen as a 26th man? Should the Royals go with Blanton, who entered the game after Vargas left and pitched very well going 3.2 IP allowing two hits no walks and striking out five two days after recording his first MLB save (accidently, we think) on Sunday? Despite his excellent relief appearance after Vargas’ injury, most Royals fans probably don’t want to see Blanton re-inserted into the rotation.

He was serviceable in his four starts, BUT he SHOULD be one of the Royals last options. My expectation is that of these three, Ventura is most likely who the Royals will go with, even though there’s a lot to be said for him spending time in the minors and not only get his game straight, but his head straight. I’d expect Lamb to be the least likely to get an opportunity, though I think he has earned it. Lamb hasn’t been exactly efficient in his work in AAA, however, neither has Ventura at the Major League level. And, yes, we know Kris Medlen is back and they said he was ready to throw 100 pitches.

But, unless it’s an emergency situation (which this is not), or maybe a double header, there is ABSOLUTELY no way, coming off his second Tommy John, that he should start games this year…unless the Royals like watching their arms shred before their eyes. Medlen needs to be eased in. Ned also said back in June when Medlen began his rehab, that they’ll be “ultra conservative” with him when he returns. Does that sound like a description of someone who will start games anytime soon? Then again, Ned says a lot of things.

With the trade deadline approaching, there could be an acquisition from outside the organization. Who do you think the Royals should go with? That’s a story for another day (soon…).

But first, who will start on Sunday? Will we see Jason Vargas again before 2017 – the final year of his contract?

Stay tuned AND #ForeverRoyal

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