In my almost two decades of paying close attention to the Kansas City Royals, there is one trait above all others that has driven me crazy about the team: The Royals have long had an almost magical ability to make bad decisions much, much worse.
It wasn't the signing of Jeff Francoeur that was the crusher. it was the large two-year deal they gave him after he had a pretty good year.
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It wasn't the hope invested in Kyle Davies that was the crusher. It was the refusal to let go when that hope was so clearly gone.
It wasn't the trade for Yuniesky Betancourt that was the crusher. It was re-aquiring him long after it was clear that he really wasn't going to help the team win.
There are dozens of examples like this. Look: Teams make bad decisions all the time. The very smartest baseball people will make stupefying miscalculations because baseball is a hard game to predict. But the very smartest baseball people, it seems to me, will catch their mistakes earlier than others and minimize them. The Royals, too often through the years, not only failed to catch their mistakes, they indulged their mistakes, built ad campaigns around their mistakes, wrote lyric operas to their mistakes. It hasn't been much fun to watch.
And so, that's why I think the Royals made not only a good move but a fantastic one when they put Luke Hochevar in the bullpen last week.
It is worth giving a little Luke Hochevar history: In 2006, just before the amateur draft, the Kansas City Royals fired general manager Allard Baird. He's one of the best guys I know and a great baseball man, but the move was inevitable. The Royals had lost 100 games three of the previous four seasons, Royals ownership was making the job all but impossible, a new start was desperately needed on all sides.
While the move was inevitable, the timing of the firing was pretty lousy. The Royals had the first pick in the amateur draft. Any hope for building the Royals back to respectability would begin with that pick -- the way Seattle began with Griffey and A-Rod, the way Washington began with Strasburg and Harper. Making that pick without a GM in place -- yeah, that was kind of a Royals move.
And, as it turns out, it was a great draft. Some drafts don't have franchise players in the first round. This one had several -- Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum -- and several guys like Max Scherzer and Brandon Morrow and Ian Kennedy would turn out to be good players.
The Royals hired Dayton Moore to be GM days before the draft, but on the condition that he NOT be involved with the draft. Moore was still working the Braves then, he had gone through their whole draft process, and everyone felt like it would be the right thing for him to stay with the Braves through the draft. There has long been dispute over how much involvement Moore had with the Royals that draft. He says he had almost no involvement. Others say he must have had SOME say; after all it's the first pick in the draft.
Going into the final weekend, the Royals seemed close to drafting Andrew Miller, a 6-foot-7 power lefty who was pitching for North Carolina. A few other names were being thrown about, but Miller seemed to be the guy -- so much so that the Kansas City Star sent me to see him pitch in an NCAA Tournament game. It was there that a couple of people came up to me and said the baseball underground was buzzing: The Royals were on Luke Hochevar.
Hochevar had been drafted out of Tennessee by the Los Angeles Dodgers with the 40th pick in the 2005 draft -- he only went that low because everyone knew he would ask for a lot of money. Then there was a mess. Hochevar and his agent Scott Boras played hardball, he kept holding out for more money. At some point in the middle of it all, Hochevar switched agents and seemed ready to sign a deal with the Dodgers. Then he switched back to Boras and went back to hardball. Hochevar signed to pitch for an independent league team in Fort Worth. The Royals went to see him pitch there and were blown away by his stuff. Utterly blown away. And suddenly they were talking about making him the No. 1 pick in the draft.
As it turned out, they were more than talking -- they DID make him the No. 1 pick in the draft. Everything about the decision felt rushed and confused and short-sighted, but with the Royals you learn after a while to embrace these four words: "Hey, it could work." Hochevar went to Class AA where he was pretty dreadful -- he posted a 4.79 ERA and gave up 110 hits in 94 innings. The Royals promoted him to Class AAA, and he posted a 5.12 ERA in 10 starts, allowing 11 homers in 58 innings. The Royals decided he was ready.
That sounds harsher than I mean it. The Royals were in a terrible place in 2008. They were giving 35-year-old Brett Tomko starts. They had convinced themselves that Hochevar's minor league struggles were numerical illusions because he had spent most of his time working on different pitches -- truth is they NEEDED to convince themselves of that because they had no other options. They had invested so much in Hochevar, they HAD to find out what the guy could do in the big leagues. He made 22 starts in 2008 and posted a 5.51 ERA in 129 innings. It got worse the next year. In 2009, the league hit .290/.351/.501 against him, which means Hochevar basically turned every single hitter in the American League into Jeff Kent.
But, the Royals insisted, he was still young, he was still promising, he just needed some more seasoning. Maybe they believed it. Maybe they had to believe it. There still weren't many options. In 2010, he got hurt. And he was still young. And he was still promising. And there weren't many options. In 2011, he had his best year. He pitched 198 innings. His ERA was 4.68, which was still terrible, but it was the lowest of his career. Now, to keep him, the Royals would essentially have to double his salary. This would have been a good time to cut bait. The Royals, instead, paid him $3.5 million and basically treated him like their ace starter. As Cuba Gooding said in Jerry Maguire: "Well, this was another way to go."
Hochevar followed up with the worst year of his struggling career. He threw 185 innings with a 5.73 ERA. Nothing more needs to be said on the awfulness, but if you want to dive into the numbers -- most earned runs in American League, second-most losses, 2nd in hit batsman, the worst runners left-on-base percentage in baseball -- be my guest.
When the Royals tendered a contract to Hochevar in December, it was pretty widely mocked, and, if anything, was under-mocked. it was a move so breathlessly bad that you just had to wonder what could have been said at that meeting. The Royals were now stuck with Hochevar at the bargain basement price of $4.5 million a year. And all the reasons to hope had expired. He's no longer young -- he turns 30 in September. He's no longer promising. And the Royals actually had other options -- maybe not GREAT options, but options just the same. It's almost as if the Royals made the move out of sheer habit, like a one-time smoker who has long quit but suddenly and for no easy-to-explain reason reaches for a cigarette.
When I went to Royals camp two weeks ago, I asked around -- was there any chance that the Royals would put Hochevar in the bullpen? Most people said no. I was counting five starters who are pretty clearly better than Hochevar -- including the 594 year old Bruce Chen, who probably isn't good enough to be in a big league rotation but is still better than Hochevar and also left-handed, which the Royals lack -- but it seemed like Hochever was locked into the spot.
Then, the Royals made a rather stunning and bold proclamation: Hochevar was being moved to the bullpen, effective immediately. And I have to say: I LOVE this move. It might be my favorite Royals spring training move since, well, ever.
Do I think Hochevar will be effective in the bullpen? Doubtful. As mentioned, he was the worst in baseball last year and preventing runners from scoring. The league hit .312 and slugged .493 with runners on base last year. That's .304 and .480 over his career. Basically, yeah, he cannot pitch from the stretch. This really hurts his chances of being a bullpen hero.
But, hey, you never know. Hochever does have pretty good stuff which should strengthen with him pitching in short bursts. And he has always pitched better in the first and second innings than later in the game.
And anyway, that's not why I love the move. Hochever could be a bullpen disaster, and I'd still love it. I love the move because it's the clearest sign yet that the Royals are willing to eat their mistakes in order to move forward. This sense of denial around the organization has been stifling. Maybe that's just what you have to do just to get through lousy season after lousy season, but it's been so hard to watch from the outside. Too often over the last 20 or so years, the first question with the Royals was not, "How are they going to improve enough to be a contender someday?" The first question was, "Do they realize how much they have to improve to be a contender someday?"
I think, now, maybe, they do. Yes, they're spending a lot of money on Luke Hochevar -- way too much money on someone who will likely serve as some sort of bridge middle-inning reliever. But the money mistake was made in December. The Royals aren't doubling down on that mistake. And that, I think, is a good sign that things are really changing in Kansas City.