Three seasons ago, the Tigers were looking to bolster their bullpen with cheap relief talent. They ended up signing a reliever who was looking to make a comeback after years of injury and inconsistency. A reliever who was one of the best arms in the Tigers bullpen in 2014 until he faded late in the season due to overuse. As Joe Nathan struggled, and Bruce Rondon quickly went down with a UCL tear, the load fell heavily on Joba Chamberlain throughout the first half of the season. With better support around him from the beginning, perhaps things would’ve gone otherwise down the stretch.
This year the Tigers could look to snatch up another reliever looking to make a comeback, but with much more recent success and in a bullpen where he’ll have plenty of help to shoulder the load. The bullpen is in far better shape heading into 2017 than it was three years ago. Adding a high-risk, high reward candidate, rather than depending on one, could prove profitable. Could Luke Hochevar, a failed starter turned lights-out reliever for the Kansas City Royals, be pitching for the Tigers in 2017?
Who is he?
Luke Hochevar is a former number one overall pick in 2006 by the Royals. The big college right-hander made his debut in 2007 at age 23 but struggled mightily as a starter, posting a 5.39 ERA through 2012. The Royals finally scrapped the idea of him starting and shifted him to the bullpen in 2013 and he took to it like a duck to water.
Hochevar saw his fastball velocity jump as well as his strikeout rate, posting a sick 1.92 ERA in 70 innings in 2013 with a 4.8 K/BB ratio. Unfortunately, he lost his 2014 season to the dreaded Tommy John monster, but returned in 2015 with a solid 3.73 ERA over 50 innings. 2016 looked like it would be a return to full 2013 form before hints of further arm trouble eventually resulted in season ending thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) surgery in early August.
Why should we Care?
When Hochever was on his game, he was one of the Royals’ best arms, and that’s saying something considering he worked in a bullpen consisting of Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis. His 2013 seaon was dominant and a true breakout. In 70 innings that year, he allowed just 15 runs, all earned, and the majority of them came on the 8 home runs he served up. The rest of the time, he flat-out owned hitters. A strikeout rate of 10.49 to a walk rate of 2.18 and just 41 hits given up all year.
In 2015, after waiting until May to return to the majors from TJ surgery, he struggled early on but put up a fantastic July and August that looked every bit like 2013, before fading in September. In 2016, after a full off-season to strengthen and condition, he came out of the gate looking dominant again, with his first half numbers looking like a return to form before he succumbed to dead arm and the TOS struggles. He’s shown that he’s been able to overcome his TJ surgery, so he might be able to overcome his TOS as well.
From a cost standpoint, due to coming off season ending surgery, he’ll probably not command much of a salary without there being significant incentives built in. This could play right into the Tiger’s desire to keep costs down.
Why should we stay away?
Despite all his potential, he really only put it together in 2013 and the last two years have been marred by injury. His 2015 struggles were understandable as it usually takes a year or more to fully come back from Tommy John surgery. But to follow that up with thoracic outlet surgery is troubling. The Tigers had a pitcher of their own undergo the TOS procedure in Jeremy Bonderman. The results afterwards were not good, eventually leading to him being released. On the other hand, former Tiger, Kenny Rogers, returned from TOS surgery at age 36 and had several more good seasons, culminating in leading the Tigers to the World Series in 2006.
Two major surgeries in three years leads to questions about how well Hochever can hold up going forward. As much as the injury concern will likely keep his price down, there is significant reason for that. Additionally, he’s always been a flyball pitcher and even in his good years his biggest weakness remains the home run ball. If he struggles to return to form, this could be a recipe for disaster.
Royals’ GM, Dayton Moore, is still keeping his eye on Hochevar, but expresses the skepticism one has to have after a serious surgical procedure.
“Hoch’s rehab, in all indications, is going fine,” Moore said. “But it is kind of a tricky procedure. Outcomes are a little unpredictable. So we’ll just have to see.”
Will he be a Tiger?
The first question should be, will he be a Royal in 2016? If healthy, there may be a mutual desire to reunite between Hochevar and the Royals, the only team he has known in his career. Should he not return to Kansas City, the Tigers could then be in play. Given the injury concerns, he will likely command a low guaranteed contract with many incentives worked in as most free agent players returning from injury tend to have.
Obviously the real question is whether there’s a spot available or not. While there’s talk of teams showing some interest in several current Tigers’ relievers, something would have to materialize on that front for the Tigers to turn to options like Hochevar. Otherwise, he would probably have to come in on a minor league deal of some sort and then either beat out someone in spring training or wait for an injury to open up a spot. Perhaps the third time could be the charm after fliers on Bobby Parnell and Joel Hanrahan failed to pan out. Everything then depends on Hochevar’s prognosis and options. If healthy, the upside with him is tremendous. This seems like the kind of player the Tigers need to consider if they’re going to try to pull a prospect for a current reliever in what looks like a strong seller’s market.