Royals decline option on reliever Luke Hochevar, let longtime pitcher become free agent

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Luke Hochevar throws in the seventh inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox in May at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Luke Hochevar throws in the seventh inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox in May at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

Luke Hochevar, one of the Royals’ longest-tenured players, may have thrown his last pitch for the organization.

The Royals on Saturday declined their side of a $7 million mutual contract option, allowing the 33-year-old Hochevar to become a free agent. The move was expected, and the club could look to retain the services of Hochevar on a more team-friendly deal. But that prospect could be complicated by Hochevar’s health — he has had Tommy John surgery and is coming off a procedure to address thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder — and his advanced age.

The decision to walk away from Hochevar comes one day after pitcher Edinson Volquez and designated hitter Kendrys Morales declined their sides of mutual options. The Royals also declined an option on pitcher Kris Medlen. In total, the Royals will owe $6 million in contract buyouts — $3 million for Volquez, $1.5 million for Morales, $1 million for Medlen and $500,000 for Hochevar.

The Royals previously exercised options on closer Wade Davis ($10 million) and shortstop Alcides Escobar ($6.5 million). The club has until Monday to hand out $17.2 million qualifying offers to pending free agents.

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Royals general manager Dayton Moore has expressed a fondness for Hochevar, the No. 1 overall pick in 2006 who has spent the last decade in the organization. After struggling to establish himself as a starting pitcher, Hochevar transitioned to the bullpen in 2013 and posted a 1.92 ERA in 70 1/3 innings. He underwent Tommy John surgery during spring training in 2014 and missed the entire season. He returned in 2015, posting a 3.73 ERA and earning the win in the decisive Game 5 of the World Series at Citi Field in New York.

In all, Hochevar has posted a 4.98 ERA in 279 appearances across nine seasons. As a reliever, he has a 2.95 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 171 career innings.

Hochevar also became a free agent following the 2014 season. But he re-signed with Kansas City in the offseason, inking a two-year, $10 million deal before the 2015 season.

In 2016, he recorded a 3.86 ERA and notched 40 strikeouts in 37 1/3 innings. He started the season superbly in April and May before scuffling in July. After his final appearance of the season on July 24, he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a neurogenic issue caused by the compression of nerves near the neck and shoulder. The injury also afflicted Royals pitchers Kyle Zimmer and Dillon Gee in 2016.

Hochevar underwent surgery in early August. The operation included a scalenectomy, a procedure that divides or removes a portion of the scalene muscle in the front of the neck, and features the removal of a rib near the right shoulder. He is expected to be healthy for spring training in 2017.

The question, of course, is whether he’s in spring training with the Royals or another franchise.

Because Hochevar was previously on the 60-day disabled list, the Royals’ 40-man roster remains at 39 players. The deadline for players to accept qualifying offers is Nov. 14. All pending free agents are free to begin signing with other teams on Tuesday, including those who have been given a qualifying offer.