The Royals bowed to the reality of Tommy John surgery on Tuesday. Luke Hochevar bowled over hitters with fastballs and froze them with his curveballs this spring, but the organization still feels his surgically-reconstructed right elbow is “not ready for the rigors of a major-league bullpen right now,” manager Ned Yost said.
Hochevar will begin the season on the disabled list, which removes him from the competition for the final spot in the Kansas City bullpen, but still does not settle the team’s ongoing roster debate. Yost indicated the team would take discussions down “to the wire,” to baseball’s 2 p.m. deadline on Sunday, to determine whether right-hander Louis Coleman, left-hander Brian Flynn or veteran Ryan Madson will make the opening day roster.
Yost hopes Hochevar will be ready to contribute in the majors by May. The team retained him on a two-year, $10 million agreement during the winter. Considering Hochevar’s value for 2016, the Royals do not intend to exhaust him at the outset of the contract.
“This is not a scenario where you want to push him,” Yost said. “Because he’s that good. We know what we have. It’s a tremendous asset that we’re going to have in our bullpen. But you’ve got to make sure he’s ready to maneuver through a major-league season in the bullpen.”
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The decision appeared imminent weeks ago for Hochevar, who was not available to reporters in the clubhouse after Yost’s announcement. The club gave Hochevar three or four days off between appearances. He pitched in only four Cactus League games, striking out three and giving up one earned run.
Hochevar will travel with the Royals to Houston and pitch in an exhibition game there. He will spend opening day with the club and then report to Class AAA Omaha on a rehabilitation assignment. It is unclear if he’ll be joined by Coleman, Flynn or Madson on that roster.
Yost stressed there was a “high probability“ left-hander Franklin Morales will make the team. The performance of Flynn, a 6-7 lefty, creates a dilemma for a club seeking depth. He allowed two runs in an outing on Monday, but his 2.77 ERA still outpaces Coleman’s 3.55 mark and Madson’s 3.38.
If the Royals choose Flynn, they risk losing Coleman and Madson to other clubs. Unlike Flynn, Coleman is out of minor-league options. In his first healthy spring training since 2011, Madson feels ready for a big-league role, even if Kansas City may believe he requires more seasoning in the minor leagues.
Madson told The Star he struck a “gentleman’s opt-out” with the Royals, which a team official confirmed was accurate. If the Royals choose to send Madson to the minors, he can seek a major-league contract with the 29 other clubs. He cannot leave for a new minor-league deal.
Madson expressed gratitude to the Royals for their treatment of him this spring. He appears rejuvenated after sitting out three seasons due to complications from Tommy John surgery. When camp began, he merely wanted to integrate himself back into the environment. Now he seeks more.
“I understand their concern,” Madson said. “I’m not going to judge it with my opinion. That’s OK. But if I have a big-league opportunity, if somebody’s showing tremendous interest, I’ve got to go with that. I’m the last guy that wants to ruffle any feathers. Ask anybody. I have to just protect myself in this situation, and go with whoever wants me the most.”
That club still could be the Royals. Madson will join Coleman and Flynn on the two-day trip to Houston. From there, he could stick with the big-league club in Kansas City. he could travel with Hochevar in Omaha or he could venture to one of the 29 other clubs.
Yost sounded as if the Royals sought to send Madson to the minors, and hope no other club gambles on his readiness.
“I think that he’s looked great through spring training,” Yost said. “Again, he hasn’t pitched in three years. We’ve protected him like we did Hoch, early. It just remains to be seen if he can handle the rigors of an everyday bullpen. And it’s tougher when you have to protect guys in your pen.”