Free Agent Profile: Luke Hochevar, a Buy-Low Option for Blue Jays?


Luke Hochevar enters 2014’s MLB Free Agency as a wildcard.  A failed starter through much of his career, Hochevar, now 31, broke out as a dominant relief pitcher in 2013 with the Kansas City Royals.  An injury in March of this year would force Luke Hochevar to undergo Tommy John surgery, however, keeping him sidelined for the entire season.  With the risk involved and Hochevar’s desire to re-establish his value, could he be the bargain arm that helps to solidify the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen?

Hochevar took a very interesting path to the Major Leagues, as he was drafted three different times.  First, he was a late-round selection by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002, but chose to play at the University of Tennessee.  The Dodgers would again select him in the 1st Round (40th Overall) in 2006, but after firing Scott Boras only to hire him again shortly after, Hochevar dragged negotiations through the season and eventually refused to sign with the Dodgers.  His bold move paid off, as he was the 1st Overall pick the next year by the Kansas City Royals, where his contract dispute would last just over two months before finally signing a contract.

Through several disappointing seasons as a starter, Hochevar was beginning to look like a bust.  His career lows in ERA (4.68) and WHIP (1.283) both came in 2011, and he never appeared to be anything more than a fringe back-end starter.  Entering 2013, Hochevar was left out of the starting rotation, and pushed into a middle relief role that may have saved his career.

2013 was a revelation for Hochevar, as he pitched 70.1 innings over 58 appearances.  His 1.92 ERA and 0.825 WHIP were miles below his career averages.  The most notable change was his strikeout ability, sitting down 10.5 batters per nine innings, close to double the rate he had accumulated prior to 2013.

Such a drastic change in numbers at age 29 should always be met with suspicion, though.  Was this a statistical outlier, or a great pitcher truly finding himself?  The answer, as always, lies somewhere in between.  If Hochevar is able to recover from his surgery, however, which is a big question mark, he could very well continue to produce at a pace close to his 2013 season.

As a result of moving from the rotation to the bullpen, Hochevar has an abnormally large arsenal of pitches for a reliever.  His fastball touched 95MPH in 2013, and he also throws a very hard sinker that runs in the 91-92MPH range.  He the features a quality cutter, curveball and slider which have high swing-and-miss potential.

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The Toronto Blue Jays have openings near the back end of their bullpen, with the set up and closer’s roles seeming open to competition.  Thrusting a one-year-wonder coming off Tommy John into the closer spot isn’t ideal, but Hochevar did show set up ability late in 2013, and would be a strong candidate to add to the competition.

Listing someone as a “buy-low” option does not always mean they will be cheap.  There is a league full of intelligent GM’s looking for the same pieces that Alex Anthopoulos is, so situations like this often come down to the level of risk a team is willing to take.  Toronto has little room to make mistakes with their limited budget, but the Blue Jays need to be bold if they hope to be a different ball club in 2015.

Hochevar should only be seeking a one year deal, and although it’s difficult to corner a price for a situation like his, I expect to see the contract fall in the $2.0M – $3.5M range.  Any higher, and Anthopoulos may be smart to look elsewhere.  The Blue Jays may not make the bullpen their priority with such pressing needs at 2B and the OF, but if money remains, Hochevar should be on their list.  The Jays ‘pen is still an arm or two away, one of which I hope is Dustin McGowan, but an arm with the ceiling of Hochevar’s could be worth the risk.