KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — There is no timetable on grief.
Unfortunately for the Kansas City Royals, there is one in baseball.
Following the tragic death of 25-year-old pitcher Yordano Ventura last weekend, the difficult and unavoidable reality is this: The team must soon get back to business.
Killed in a car crash early Sunday in the Dominican Republic, the man his teammates called Ace will be missed and the loss will be felt for years.
But pitchers and catchers report to spring training in mid-February — though many players will be there long before that — and the Royals need to fill Ventura’s spot in the rotation. The hard-throwing right-hander averaged nearly 180 innings in his three full major league seasons.
The two known quantities on the starting staff are Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy. Jason Vargas, who looked sharp in brief appearances late last year after recovering from Tommy John surgery, is expected to be ready for a full season.
It appeared three pitchers were set to compete for the role of No. 5 starter. Chris Young, an integral part of the Royals’ 2015 World Series championship, struggled last season. Matt Strahm, a young lefty who was used strictly out of the bullpen last year, spent almost his entire minor league career as a starter. Nathan Karns, acquired from the Seattle Mariners for Jarrod Dyson in the offseason, has made 46 big league starts.
Now it appears that trio will be bidding for two starting spots, and the most likely of the three to get one is Karns. In 54 major league games, he is 14-9 with a 4.41 ERA. What excites the Royals most are his 270 career strikeouts in 265 1/3 innings.
“I like him,” manager Ned Yost said Friday at FanFest. “I keep flashing back to a game he threw against us in Tampa Bay when we couldn’t do anything against him. He was fantastic.
“I told him when I saw him today that I’m glad he is on our team, because he stuck it to us a couple of times. He said, ‘Well, you stuck it to me, too. Don’t you remember the time I was down 3-0 after five pitches? I didn’t forget that.’ I said, ‘I’m glad you reminded me. I’m glad I didn’t think about that before we traded for you.’”
Vargas pitched 12 innings in September and gave up three runs on eight hits. But he was a big part of Kansas City’s 2014 American League championship. He made 30 starts that year, including three in the postseason when he crafted a 3.52 ERA.
“(Vargas) is ready to go,” Yost said matter-of-factly.
Yost said he hadn’t thought about baseball since Ventura’s death. All he would say about filling the gap in the rotation was, “I don’t worry about that. We’ll find a way to replace him. (General manager) Dayton (Moore) and I and our coaches will figure it out. This is Dayton’s busiest time of the year. He’s going 24/7, looking for ways to improve this team.
“The beautiful thing about spring training every year is there is always a big surprise, and sometimes there’s two,” Yost added.
The players in town for FanFest all wanted to talk about Ventura the man more than Ventura the pitcher. They called him things like “little brother” to describe their relationship, and mentioned they would miss him in the clubhouse more than on the field.
“It’s hard,” Duffy said. “But if anybody is going to get through this — not get past it, but get through it — it’s this group. I wouldn’t doubt us.”
Duffy was one of the few who acknowledged the baseball aspect of Ventura’s death.
“It’s a question that needs to be asked,” he said. “We all think (about) it. I just don’t know how, but I know we’re going to. Playing for him will provide plenty of incentive to empty the tank every single time.”
Regardless of who was talking, the conversation always returned to Ventura.
“Anytime you’re alone, it hits you,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “Now that baseball is coming around, it will definitely help people get through the tough times. That’s what Yordano would want, for us to strap it on and get ready to go. It’s up to us to live out his legacy.”
It will be tough to do that without their Ace.