Luke Hochevar's season-ending elbow injury hurts Royals, but not mortally
The Royals announced on Friday that right-handed reliever Luke Hochevar, who was diagnosed earlier in the week with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, will have Tommy John surgery and thus likely miss all of the 2014 season. This comes after Hochevar, the ill-advised No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, had finally found major league success after converting to relief for the 2013 season. It also comes in advance of Hochevar's scheduled free agency after the coming season.
For the Royals, the loss of Hochevar, who posted a 1.92 ERA in 70 1/3 relief innings and struck out 82 batters last year, combines with their offseason trade of lefty reliever Will Smith to sap the relief depth that had been a strength of the team heading into the offseason. The Royals still have a strong young relief corps led by closer Greg Holland, righties Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, and Luis Coleman, and pint-sized lefty Tim Collins, but Hochevar had emerged as the team's top set-up man in 2013, a season which saw Kansas City win 86 games, their highest total since 1989.
Fortunately, the Royals have a suitable in-house replacement: Wade Davis. Acquired as part of the trade that sent top prospect Will Myers to the Rays and brought ace James Shields to Kansas City last winter, Davis thrived as a set-up man for the Rays in 2012, but struggled mightily upon being returned to starting by the Royals in 2013. In 2012, Davis posted a 2.43 ERA and struck out 11.1 men per nine innings over 70 1/3 relief innings, but in 24 starts last year, he posted a 5.67 ERA and struck out a mere 7.7 men per nine innings. Having effectively pitched his way out of what was by then a contending rotation, Davis was moved to the bullpen in September and immediately recaptured his 2012 form, experiencing a three-mile-per-hour increase in his average fastball velocity over seven relief outings in which he threw ten innings and allowed just three hits.
With Shields, Jason Vargas, and Jeremy Guthrie at the front of the rotation and veteran swing man Bruce Chen back in the fold to compete with Danny Duffy and heralded rookie Yordano Ventura for the final two spots, the Royals would appear to have enough rotation depth to allow Davis to remain in the bullpen as Hochevar's replacement. As for Hochevar, this injury comes at an extremely poor time giving his impending free agency. After posting a 5.45 ERA (78 ERA+) in parts of five seasons in the Royals' rotation, he finally emerged as a valuable major league pitcher in relief last year and could have hit the market as a potential closer with a similar performance this season. Instead, he'll be a 31-year-old right-hander with a 5.10 career ERA coming off a major arm surgery and unlikely to recapture fully that 2013 form until 2016, if ever.