The Royals epic bullpen of 2014 is back for 2015, nearly intact.
There was thought after the World Series that the team’s embarrassment of bullpen riches could become to bargaining chips on the trade market. But not only did that not happen, a case can be made the Royals actually will be stronger on the back end.
How is this possible?
Luke Hochevar is mending on schedule and soon expects to be at full strength after Tommy John surgery. He’s currently throwing off the mound in 30-pitch stretches, fastballs and change-ups with breaking balls and longer stints on the schedule upon his arrival in Surprise, Ariz., next month.
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“I’m conditioning my arm,” Hochevar said. “Once spring training comes around they’re going to monitor me for a little while, but once they cut me loose I become a regular guy again.”
Or at least the guy he was in 2013. The Hochevar path is well-known. The Royals’ top pick in the 2006 Draft, he debuted as a starter the next year and remained in the rotation for most of the next five years with little success.
But he dominated after a shift to the bullpen, posting a 1.92 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 70 1/3 innings.
Another big season was expected last year, when Hochevar suffered a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament and had reconstructive surgery in March.
He watched the pen, led by Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera perform at the game’s highest level. The trio faced a combined 960 hitters last season and surrendered three — three — home runs. The Royals were 72-1 when leading after seven innings.
With many teams on the prowl for relief pitching, the Royals seemingly had pieces to spare, but general manager Dayton Moore said soon after the season that maintaining the bullpen would be a priority, and he kept his word.
Instead of dealing strength, the Royals kept their major players and resigned free agents Hochevar and Jason Frasor.
To Hochevar, who signed a $10 million, two-year deal with an option for 2017, remaining with the organization that drafted him and stuck with him through difficult times was a no-brainer.
“It’s all that I know, but it’s all that I need to know,” Hochevar said. “When you get to free agency, it’s a business, everything would seem that it’s greener on the other side. But I knew better. I knew what I had here in Kansas City.”
Hochevar’s 2014 season, inside the clubhouse but outside of competition, was frustrating. The team that had been through so much losing qualified for the playoffs then caught fire in the playoffs before losing game seven of the World Series.
All Hochevar could do was watch.
“It was one of the tougher things I’ve done because it’s what you dream about,” Hochevar said. “When you first get drafted, that’s your vision, that’s what you see yourself doing, pitching in the World Series.
“But I’d rather experience what we experienced last year like I did, then never experience it healthy. If my role was to put on my pom poms every night and lose my voice, so be it. It was the stinking World Series.”
Where does Hochevar fit in? Wherever needed, Hochevar said. But if he returns to his role as a setup reliever the Royals would reduce their workload on others.
“Having Hoch back is going to be great,” Royals manager Yost said. “We might have to move a little bit slow with him.”
Hochevar gets this. Eager as he is to return to competition, he understands the duty of the process.
“Hopefully, I’m ready in two weeks,” Hochevar said. “But you never know and I’m not going to put a timetable on it. I’m going to listen to my body. I need to look long term, not just career-wise but season-wise. Me on the shelf is no good. If it takes me an extra two weeks, a month, whatever it is, I need to be mindful of that.”