KANSAS CITY, Mo. If the Royals don't in fact trade Luke Hochevar before the regular season starts, they just might find that switching him to the bullpen was a move long overdue.
Hochevar just might excel in his new role.
To be fair, general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost didn't really have the option of switching Hochevar to the bullpen the past few years. Their starting rotation was so thin and weak, they virtually had to take a chance that Hochevar, a former No. 1 overall pick in 2006, would eventually live up to his potential.
Now with a rotation bolstered by James Shields, Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie and Wade Davis, the Royals have the luxury of placing Hochevar in a position where he actually might succeed.
I've always thought that Hochevar was best suited for short relief, based on his history of overpowering opponents over short stints, then inexplicably losing it altogether during his characteristic blow-up innings.
Consider that in his 128 major-league starts, Hochevar has had 33 innings in which he has given up four or more runs.
Royals fans are all too familiar with this sequence: Hochevar looks like a Hall of Famer for three or four innings, overmatches his opponents, then unravels completely in devastating fashion.
His last start of 2012 was a perfect example. He was cruising through four innings against Cleveland, allowing just one run. In the fifth inning, the Indians posted a "10" spot.
That is, or was, Luke Hochevar.
Now, however, Hochevar hopefully can condense his repertoire and simply focus on a few hitters each outing.
Most observers have agreed that when Hochevar has gotten in trouble, it's when he tries to experiment with too many pitches. Pitching coach Dave Eiland told me that often in 2012, noting that by his count, Hochevar had up to seven different pitches he sometimes used.
"I don't know many guys in this league who can have all of those pitches working on the same night," Eiland said. "Sure, once in a while you'll just have one of those dream nights, and they're all working, and you dominate.
"But mostly, you'll be inconsistent. The best pitchers rely on their two or three best pitches, and then they bring out a fourth or fifth pitch only when they need it."
This likely now will be Hochevar's approach out of the bullpen. If not traded, he'll likely join forces with Tim Colllins, Kelvin Herrera, and Aaron Crow to set up closer Greg Holland. Hochevar's presence in the back of the bullpen could strengthen an already deep and impressive unit.
Hochevar can benefit by using the less-is-more philosophy. Eiland would love to see Hochevar stick with his fastball, curveball and sliderchange, and be in complete command of those pitches.
Another potential bonus to Hochevar's new role is what often happens when starting pitchers transition into late-inning bullpen guys -- they pick up a few mph of velocity.
This happened most noticeably with Herrera, who came up through the Royals' system as a starter. The Royals switched him full-time to the bullpen in 2011, and Herrera became a different pitcher.
Herrera posted a 1.60 ERA in the minors that season with 14 saves. His velocity climbed to nearly 100 mph.
"It was incredible," said assistant general manager J.J. Picollo. "He was a guy who threw in the low 90s as a starter. He got to the bullpen and he really let it rip. Suddenly he was hitting 100 on the gun."
Hochevar has the arm and athleticism to do the same. His fastball now tops out in the 94-95 mph range.
If he focuses on being a one-inning guy and therefore forgets about having to conserve his energy for six or seven innings, Hochevar could increase his velocity to perhaps the upper 90s.
That could make a huge difference, and perhaps make Hochevar a dominating strikeout pitcher.
The move to the bullpen, especially in a significant setup role, also could rejuvenate Hochevar's demeanor.
Let's face it: Hochevar has taken a beating from the media and the fans over the last few years, and deservedly so considering he was a No. 1 overall pick.
But too often we dismiss a player's mental makeup, and we simply assume players are always smiling all the way to the bank. Hochevar, by all accounts, is a good teammate who wants to help his team win, and he no doubt was bothered by the criticism.
Now, Hochevar has a chance to join in the Royals' party for 2013, and do the one thing he has always wanted to do in Kansas City contribute.