|By Jeff Morris. Follow him on Twitter @AtlBravesJeff|
There’s speed and then there’s Randy Ventura speed. The hyper-quick 19-year-old has some attractive skills – some of which made Jose Peraza and Mallex Smith intriguing to Braves’ fans over the last few seasons. Will Ventura follow their path to the majors? Hard to bet against him at this point.
Born July 11, 1997, Ventura has the rare honor of being born on the same day as a Tom Glavine stinker. Glavine surrendered eight runs on that day to the Mets, getting beat up by the likes of Manny Alexander, Rey Ordonez, and Bernard Gilkey. That wasn’t Ventura’s fault, of course. A Dominican Republic native, Ventura was born in Pimentel, a city that hasn’t been quite as active in producing major league talent as others like San Cristobal and Santo Domingo.
Ventura was not a highly regarded youngster as the 2014-15 international signing market opened up. Rather than signing in July like many prospects, the switch-hitter waited and waited until February 13, when the Braves finally signed him. Atlanta was under new management and had recently grabbed international guru Gordon Blakely from the Yankees. Perhaps Ventura was one of his guys. Either way, the soon-to-be 18-year-old quickly endeared himself to the organization. Typically, prospects spend a year at the international complex sharpening their skills, but Ventura was assigned to the Dominican Summer League just four months after signing. He was given the starting center fielder assignment and opened the season in the leadoff spot. Hell of a few months for him.
The scrawny kid predictably showed little in terms of power, but he didn’t need to hit doubles. His legs turned singles into doubles via the stolen base. In 58 games, Ventura hit .329 and swiped 55 bases in just 64 attempts. It took fellow speedster Mallex Smith 67 more games – and a steal in the season’s final game – to overtake Ventura for the organizational lead. To be fair, stolen base totals are inflated in the DSL by raw pitchers who don’t hold runners well and equally raw catchers. Nevertheless, that many steals in that short amount of time is still an accomplishment. Over the last ten years, only two other players have reached the 50-steal plateau in the DSL and just one has surpassed Ventura’s 55 steals.
Ventura also showed tremendous plate discipline with 35 walks to 27 strikeouts. Again, we should preface this by saying DSL pitchers aren’t exactly renowned for control. Nevertheless, when a player on-bases .421, it’s enough to open up some eyes. It definitely opened mine as I ranked Ventura #25th
in my preseason Top 50 prospects. But I had nearly added Elias Arias to my Top 30 rankings the previous year after a good year in the DSL. Arias has since been cut.
Clearly, that didn’t happen with Ventura, but he started 2016 with a few extra eyes on him and not all of that was related to his production in the DSL. The previous year, for all of its great accomplishments, ended with a car crash right before the season ended. He suffered a left shoulder blade injury in the crash. Months later, he was assigned to join the Gulf Coast club to open 2016. He would no longer be the everyday center fielder – Cristian Pache was more highly regarded handled the position until he was promoted. Venture also…just wasn’t as effective. He continued to walk at a nice rate (11%) but the ball stopped finding as many holes. His wOBA fell from .404 to .340.
On the plus side, Ventura was young for the level and 166 of his 227 PA came against pitchers older than him. He also finished with a .380 OBP over his final 80 PA. However, the weapon that had garnered him so much attention in the first place – his speed – wasn’t showing up. He swiped just 15 bases – 40 fewer than the previous year – and was caught six times. Even accepting that GCL catchers are better at cutting down runners than DSL ones, it was still a considerable disappointment. His speed did appear on August 6 when, with two outs and the bases loaded, Ventura finished a five-run rally that began with a Griffin Benson homer with a homer of his own – a Grand Slam. Not only that but an inside-the-park Grand Slam homerun. Ventura finished the game with five ribbies.
Expected to receive a promotion to Danville, Ventura was a mild surprise in that he skipped past the Virginia stop to begin 2017 in Rome. So far this season, we have seen the very good and the suspect from Ventura. On the suspect side, his walk rate has been cut in half from the roughly 12% he carried over his first two seasons. In addition, his strikeout rate is up about 6%. His ISO has also declined nearly by half. These are not promising trends. On the bright side, he’s hitting a cool .333, good for third in the league, and has swiped 18 bases, one off the pace for the league lead. He hasn’t homered and has just five extra-base hits, including one triple. One last negative is that his .410 BABIP is unlikely to continue.
With three seasons of data, we can make a few observations on Ventura. Sticking to the theme, he’s fast. Freaky fast. He possesses good bat control and even though the strikeouts are climbing, I think he’ll be a high contact guy. The plate discipline decline this season is worrisome but could disappear by the season’s end. He has good instincts in the outfield and only the presence of Pache is limiting him to right field rather than center, where he has the skills to play but Pache is simply better. Ventura’s arm isn’t bad, but I haven’t seen much to suggest it’s much of a weapon.
The big question for Ventura moving forward is if he’ll ever develop an ounce of pop in his bat. A career .057 ISO typically will ruin any hope a player has of progressing no matter how fast he is. You have to flash some pop here-and-there at least. Bill Ballew of Baseball America (subscription required) thinks there is undiscovered pop in his bat. If he can smack the occasional homer and increase his extra-base ability, he’ll have enough intriguing skills to climb the prospect ladder.
Ventura is a fun prospect to watch because he already possesses a top-grade tool and a couple of other B-grade tools. What he needs now is to increase his lowest grade tools to a more respectable level. As he attempts to do just that, enjoy watching the player that he is now because every time the bat is in his hands or he’s on base, something eye-popping could occur.