You’d think the battle for the fifth rotation spot just got a little more clear, but no, not just yet. As we all know, Luke Hochevar, banished to the bullpen, is out of a three-horse race that should be down to just two, but instead, there are four? It was my understanding there would be no math…
We already knew about Bruce Chen and Luis Mendoza, but since I last broached the subject, Will Smith has continued pitching brilliantly in Surprise, and according to reports, top prospect Yordano Ventura may be in the mix.
Even with Hochevar involved, I thought this battle was a coin toss between Mendoza and Chen, with a possible nod to Chen (being a veteran and a lefty), but now…I’m wondering why not Smith? This spring, Smith has made three appearances for a total of 7 innings pitched. In that small sample size, he’s mowed down 8 batters and walked only 1. He’s only allowed 2 hits as well, which all adds up to a 0.429 WHIP and 1.29 ERA. Going back to the Baseball Reference “Quality of Opposition” tool once again, Smith’s number is at a 9.5 of a possible 10…meaning he’s gone up against some pretty damn good hitters.
I thought Chen’s throwing arm would be a big plus…being the sole lefty candidate in the battle, but Smith being a southpaw negates that advantage. With the Royals trying to win this year, they no longer need to go with a stopgap, a tag you could slap on either hurler (Smith as the young unproven pitcher, Chen in the role of “over the hill” veteran). Smith is 13 years younger than Chen and still on his way up (hopefully). He’s more of an unknown, sure, but with a world of untapped potential. Chen, on the other hand, is past his prime. We know what Chen is capable of.
For the record, Chen currently sits at 8.2 IP, 7 hits, 2 BB, 8 K, and 6 earned runs. His WHIP isn’t bad at 1.038, but his 6.23 ERA fails to impress. His quality of opposition also sits about a full point below Smith’s at just 8.6. That means Chen is getting lit up by a mix of AAA and lower end big league talent for the most part.
What of right-hander Luis Mendoza? I previously stated he should probably be the front-runner in this battle. He’s gone just 6 innings with the Royals this spring (thanks to the World Baseball Classic) but has looked sharp. He’s given up 6 hits and 1 walk, struck out 4, and given up just 1 earned run for a 1.167 WHIP and 1.50 ERA. With Mexico, Mendoza only logged a couple of innings, but got knocked around a bit, giving up 2 BB and 3 hits for a 2.50 WHIP, although he posted an ERA of zero.
Going by the stats this spring, it looks to be a race between Mendoza and Smith…but they say numbers don’t necessarily win these battles, so Chen is definitely still in the mix. And then, there’s the wild card. Yordano Ventura?
I personally don’t think there is a chance “Ace” Ventura vaults all the way from AA past this trio, but stranger things have happened. Reports say he’s in the mix, and will receive more innings as a starter now that Luke is in the pen. So let’s take a look at his spring stats.
The first thing that jumps out at me? Ventura’s quality of opposition is a 9.6 – a notch above Smith. But how is the young phenom, who only has 29.1 innings above A ball, performing against such stiff competition? Well…he’s doing a stellar job, actually. In his 8.2 innings, he has allowed 4 hits and 2 BB (0.692 WHIP), and has struck out 6 batters. Ventura has allowed 2 earned runs, giving him a 2.08 ERA.
What does all this add up to? Does he have a chance? Again…I doubt it, but I don’t think he could pitch any better than he has this spring. With hardly any time at AA last year, I think Ventura is headed north, to Omaha (at least for now). It certainly gives us all something to be hopeful about, though, and he could be called up sooner rather than later, depending on how things go with the other candidates. One thing is certain – his stuff is filthy, and that fastball will be hard to keep off the roster for too much longer.
So…when you add it all up, where do we stand? I’d like to see Mendoza get his shot. He had a great second half of 2012, pitched great winter ball, and is throwing great again in Arizona. I still think Yost could lean towards Chen or Smith based on wanting a lefty, and if that’s the case I am rooting for Smith. He’s young and hungry and pitching better than any other person we’ve discussed here. What’s the worst thing that could happen? He stinks it up for a few starts and gets replaced by one of the other guys?
The Royals have to go with their best five, no doubt. No more throwing the young guy out there for the hell of it or going with a veteran placeholder. The team wants to compete right now. And right now, Smith might be the best guy for the job. Will he be that guy that guy two weeks – or two months – from now? We’ll find out soon enough.