As Luke Hochevar returns from surgery, Royals could experiment with eight-man bullpen

Luke Hochevar was a dominant force in the bullpen in 2013.
Luke Hochevar was a dominant force in the bullpen in 2013. The Kansas City Star

The key to the composition of the Royals bullpen is both a familiar face and an unknown commodity. They retained Luke Hochevar because they trusted his potential for dominance as a reliever, but his readiness on Opening Day as he returns from Tommy John surgery is still a mystery.

To hear manager Ned Yost tell it, the Royals could open the season with an eight-man bullpen, one more than the usual number of relievers. The extra pitcher would provide insurance if Hochevar needs extra time to ready himself for extended duty.

“It depends on where Hoch is at,” Yost said. “If we need to protect Hoch, then, probably. If we don’t need to protect Hoch, then probably not.”

Hochevar underwent surgery less than a year ago. He returned on a two-year, $10 million deal this winter. The team hopes he can expand their overwhelming relief trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera into a quartet. Hochevar has yet to experience a setback in his rehabilitation.

Even so, he is considered behind his teammates in the preseason progression. The rest of the pitchers are throwing bullpen sessions every other day. The coaching staff assigned Hochevar two days off in between mound appearances.

When live batting practices begins on Sunday, Hochevar will only spectate. He could join in those activities a week to 10 days later, pitching coach Dave Eiland estimated. Still, Eiland expressed optimism about Hochevar’s recovery, and declared himself “very encouraged” by Hochevar’s throwing session on Wednesday.

Eiland reported marked improvement in Hochevar’s performance from Sunday. As a player returns from reconstructive elbow surgery, Eiland keys on the consistency of the pitcher’s release point when he throws.

“We’re really concentrating on making sure his delivery’s where it needs to be,” Eiland said. “That he’s repeating his arm slot. That’s the main thing. If he’s having a varying arm slot, that’s not good for his health or for executing pitches. So we’re trying to get that back.”

Hochevar concentrates on incremental improvement each day. He has refused to place any deadlines on himself. He said he “hopefully” would be ready by Opening Day. He carries the same approach into his bullpen sessions.

“You look at the big picture, and me throwing in the first game of spring is really not that important,” Hochevar said. “As opposed to being healthy when the season starts, and down the road, too.”

An eight-man bullpen reduces the bench to three-man unit. The trio appears to be infielder Christian Colon, outfielder Jarrod Dyson and backup catcher Erik Kratz. Francisco Pena could also become the reserve backstop. Colon has experience at second base, third base and shortstop. Kendrys Morales, the team’s new designated hitter, could replace Eric Hosmer at first base in an emergency. So could catcher Salvador Perez.

Yet that type of roster construction is not considered ideal. It limits Yost’s ability to use pinch hitters in the latter innings of games. But the team is willing to consider the possibility.

During the winter, the Royals brought back both Hochevar and Jason Frasor, boosting their collection of power right-handers to five. Yost appears to favor southpaw Tim Collins and righty Louis Coleman. On the edge of the discussion is rookie Brandon Finnegan, though a sizable contingent of the baseball operations department would prefer Finnegan begins the season as a starter in the minors.

The candidates for that extra spot in the bullpen include non-roster invitees like Casey Coleman, Chris Dwyer, Joe Blanton, Ryan Madson and Joe Paterson.

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.