KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The math is simple. Four candidates, maybe more, and just one spot open at the bottom of the Royals’ rotation.
And the losers in the fight for the Royals’ fifth spot will go directly to the bullpen, perhaps the minors, or perhaps even to the waiver wire.
That’s the situation ever since Royals general manager Dayton Moore pulled the trigger on the team’s biggest trade in years last December when he added James Shields and Wade Davis to the rotation already occupied by Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana.
For right-hander Luke Hochevar, once the top overall pick in the draft, it’s his turn at the crossroads. He either turns his career around, or he gets pushed to the side – in his case, most likely the bullpen.
Interestingly, Hochevar, 29, is ready for whatever fate awaits him, even if it’s a bullpen gig.
“So be it, if it’s the bullpen,” Hochevar said. ” It doesn’t matter where I’m at. I’ll take the ball and do what I got to do.”
Hochevar is saying all the right things right now but inside he knows how important this spring training is to his future. For the first time in a long time, he’s in a fight for survival. Nothing is guaranteed, like a roster spot, and he’s up against Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza, Will Smith and perhaps others to do what he’s been accustomed to doing since he got to the big leagues – being in the starting rotation.
“I’ve had to do this before,” Hochevar said, shaking his head. ” It’s not the first time I’ve had to fight for a job. Regardless, I don’t play GM in my head. I go out and I know the things I need to do to prepare and help the team win. That’s what I’m focused on.
“I don’t think (fighting for the fifth spot) is going to change my approach. I’m focused on what I need to do for the club. Granted, do I personally want to be successful? Sure. But I want to be successful to help the club.”
In past years, though, Hochevar was given a starting spot because, quite frankly, Moore and the Royals didn’t have any better options. This year, after all the off-season moves, is different.
Hochevar and his 5.39 career ERA could be expendable.
“I don’t worry about outside stuff like that,” he said. “I focus on what I need to do. And it’s a great thing to have that competition. It’s a wonderful thing. What it does is it pushes you to maximize your ability.
“I don’t sit back and play GM and go ‘Well, there’s this and there’s that and I may not fit in here.’ I’m selling out to help this team.”
The trade for Shields and Davis didn’t intimidate Hochevar, he maintains.
“It is impressive, the amount of talent that we’ve acquired,” he said. “You combine that with the talent we have developed – this is the most talent I’ve seen on a team here since I’ve been around.
“It’s contagious. Success breeds success. You get a bunch of super-talented guys around you and it makes everyone better. It’s vice versa the other way, too. But with what we have in the rotation and what we have in the bullpen, and everyone we’re putting on the field – it’s something you sense from the coaches to the players to the fans. Expectations are going to be high.
“Look, (the rotation) was a spot we needed to address, an area we needed help in. That’s what you want. You want good guys in the right spots. You get a guy like Shields – obviously he’s a good pitcher – but you also have a guy who is good in the clubhouse and a leader. That helps any team that has him. That’s the main thing, whether we’re stacking the rotation or whatever, it helps create a competitive environment inside the clubhouse and on the field. That’s always a good thing.”
And it will force Hochevar to be better than he has ever been at this level. He vows that he gets that, and says he has been working diligently this off-season to overcome his flaws.
“I think you take your past experiences and you adjust and you grow,” he said. ” My mindset is different. Obviously I had a tough season last year so you go into the off-season and break it all down – the things you did well and the things you didn’t do well. Going into spring you focus on what I have to do to help the team.
“It’s about making the right pitches. That’s what my mindset is.”
Pitching coach Dave Eiland said last season that he hoped Hochevar would simplify his approach and narrow his repertoire to three or four pitches (fastball, curve, changeup) instead of six or seven.
“When Luke is good, it’s because he relies on just three pitches and maybe sprinkles the cut fastball in once in awhile,” Eiland said. “When he struggles it’s because he’s trying to throw too many pitches, especially with the cutter. That cutter is a good pitch but if you use it too much it affects your arm angle on your other pitches. Your fastball gets flat and your curve gets kind of slurvy.”
Hochevar, though, bristled last summer at the suggestion that he was using too many pitches. And he still disputes the notion.
“I don’t know where anyone came up with six or seven pitches,” he said. “This is my view: It doesn’t matter what pitch you’re throwing as long as you execute it. We’ve come along and we’ve figured it out. That’s what I figured out when I was studying video this off-season. I looked at certain pitches I’d thrown and what worked and where I got hurt.
“It was mostly just poor execution. I did see some mechanical flaws I had. That was my focus to fix that. Then you go from there. I’ll be fine.”