KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Here’s the problem for Luke Hochevar: He’s probably been too good as a reliever for the Royals to consider him a starter again.
The grand experiment of converting Hochevar, the 2006 No. 1 overall pick, from a starter to the bullpen has, by all measures, been an astounding success. In 41 games, Hochevar has three wins, two saves and a 1.98 ERA.
As the season has worn on, manager Ned Yost has become comfortable using Hochevar in high-leverage situations.
“He has been phenomenal for us,” Yost says. “A great addition to our ‘pen.”
It’s a wonderful narrative for Hochevar, who had posted an unsightly 5.73 ERA as a starter last season and who had exhausted the patience of Royals fans after five rocky years in the rotation.
Hochevar, 30, is contributing to a winning team for the first time in his career, and the boo birds have finally flown away.
But what’s next for Hochevar?
Hochevar is hesitant to speak from his heart — say what you will, but he is a team player — yet we can read between the lines and guess that his heart still longs to be a starter.
“Well, I’ve been a starter my whole life,” he says. “I enjoy working my way through a lineup. I enjoy the chess match. I enjoy going out there and maneuvering my way through the batting order for seven or eight innings.
“Then again, I enjoy the adrenaline you get coming out of the bullpen. There’s nothing quite like that. You just go out there and rush for an inning.
“They both have their positives. Hey, I just enjoy having my feet on the hill. I don’t get a vote. Whatever they have me do, I’ll be happy to do.”
But these days, Hochevar isn’t sure what his identity as a baseball player is.
“I’ll let them figure it out and slap a label on me,” he says. “You know, this game is crazy. One day you can be a starter and the next day you might be a setup guy — it can all happen pretty fast. You just never know. It’s really not for me to decide.
“Whatever the team needs me to be. It’s not so much you slap a label on someone and that’s what it is. Next year I come in and they want me to start, I’ll start. If they want me back in the ‘pen, I’ll go back to the ‘pen.
“I don’t know. Am I a bona fide bullpen guy now? I don’t know. But whatever it is, I’ll give it my all.”
General manager Dayton Moore doesn’t really have time to ponder the future right now. He is obviously pleased that Hochevar adapted so quickly to his new role.
“Next spring is a long ways away,” Moore says. “A lot can happen between now and then.”
And it’s still at least slightly conceivable Hochevar could get another shot at the rotation. Bruce Chen’s contract is up after this season, as is Ervin Santana’s. And Wade Davis has been nothing short of shaky.
There are three potential openings, though the Royals also have Danny Duffy, Felipe Paulino and such prospects as Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer all ready to compete for spots. Luis Mendoza might even get another shot.
Hochevar’s future also could be affected by finances. He will make $4.56 million this season, and likely will be due for another significant bump in arbitration, which begs the question: Do the Royals really want to pay over $5 million for a setup guy?
“No telling what can happen,” Hochevar says. “But what I know for sure now is that you don’t sit around the table and make your demands. You get your role and you go out and be a pro about it. That’s what I’ve tried to do.
“At the end of the day, you get judged by getting hitters out in this game, and eventually how you perform will dictate where they place you, whether it’s in the bullpen or in the rotation or whatever.
“In a way, that makes it all less complicated. I just focus on getting outs.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email him at email@example.com.