For years, Luke Hochevar has proven to be an absolute enigma for Kansas City Royals fans. Hochevar was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2006, and since then he’s been often terrible and occasionally excellent. Determining his value on the free agent market isn’t easy, and determining his value to this Royals team is even more complicated.
This year, Hochevar worked from the bullpen and put up some astounding numbers. Greg Holland is the only pitcher on the team to record a lower ERA through at least 30 innings pitched. Hochevar held opponents to a .169 average and recorded a 0.82 WHIP. No pitcher on the team with more than 30 innings pitched could beat that in 2013. So, it seems Hoche finally found the role that suits him best, but what would it cost the Royals to re-sign him?
Only six pitchers in the MLB held batters to a lower average in as many innings pitched as Hochevar. Four of the six pitchers are closers, and the pitchers on that list combine for 12 All-Star Game appearances. So, when we compare contract numbers, we have to compare Hochevar to the best in the league. However, most of the higher-paid relievers are closers, and the Royals already have a long-term solution at that position in Greg Holland. Since he can only fill the role of setup man, the Royals can’t be expected to offer Luke the same kind of cash that the other top-tier relievers around the league want.
By looking at other contracts around the league, one would hope to get a better idea of what Hochevar could earn in free agency. Unfortunately, relief pitcher’s contracts are vastly variable for many reasons. Koji Uehara, who was one of very few to put up better stats than Hochevar across the board, signed with the Boston Red Sox last year for $4.25 million. He signed on for his first year of MLB ball in his late 30s, which makes a big difference to the contract. The Sox didn’t want to pay him for multiple years, but since nobody could be sure how Uehara would react to MLB hitters, Boston found themselves the best closer of the year for a huge bargain.
Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Soriano are the highest-paid relievers in baseball, with respective annual salaries of $13 and $11 million. Including these two, a total of eight relievers are paid more than $7 million a year. That may make you think the Royals would have to offer Hochevar at least $7 million, but he simply doesn’t have the respect that many, if not all the other relievers on that list have earned.
For example, another pitcher getting $7 million is Joe Nathan, the Minnesota Twins all-time saves leader and member of the 300 save club. That’s a guy who earned his money. This year is the first time Hochevar has actually pitched consistently while recording an ERA below 4.7.
Luke is definitely a special case for free agency. Most of the pitchers with comparable statistics are either well-respected veterans that earned big contracts or talented up-and-comers that are not yet eligible for arbitration. Hochevar falls into neither category, so his estimated value is hard to pinpoint.
Judging by the comparable contracts and Hochevar’s shaky history, it should take between $5 and $6 million to sign him for 2014. A number of factors will dictate whether or not the Royals have the kind of cash to bring Hochevar back. The team recently expressed a genuine desire to sign another big bat, which would have a big influence on 2014’s payroll. The Royals also need to make a decision about re-signing Bruce Chen and/or Ervin Santana.
With all that in mind, the organization does not want to see Hochevar go elsewhere and succeed after spending all this time struggling to find himself in Kansas City. Bringing him back would help to ensure that the Royals enter 2014 with one of the league’s best bullpens. Only three teams played in more one-run games than Kansas City this season, so keeping that bullpen intact will be one of the team’s highest priorities. Hochevar is more valuable to KC than he is to the average team, and unless he gets greedy, the Royals would be glad to pay him what he deserves.