SURPRISE, Ariz. — The decision earlier this week to turn right-hander Luke Hochevar into a reliever allows the Royals to recalibrate their approach to constructing their bullpen.
Most obviously, it heightens the possibility that a left-hander will win what projects as the unit’s only opening. Tim Collins is the only lefty among the six locked-down slots in what likely will be a seven-man relief corps.
“I like to use Timmy in situations where there are lefties and switch-hitters,” manager Ned Yost said, “but if there are righties mixed in there, I don’t worry about it. Because Timmy can get righties out, too.”
What the projected bullpen currently lacks is a situational lefty — a guy summoned to face a single tough left-handed batter (such as Prince Fielder or Joe Mauer) in a key late-game situation.
“It’s important,” Yost said, “but it’s a little less important for us because we’ve got (Kelvin) Herrera and (Aaron) Crow, who can get lefties out. It’s a luxury, but it’s a really nice luxury to have.”
Francisley Bueno and Donnie Joseph are the obvious candidates to fill the loogy (lefty one-out guy) role, although Everett Teaford and Atahualpa Severino could conceivably do so.
But Severino is currently away from camp while playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic; and Teaford is more of a swingman type — and the Royals don’t need a swingman.
Yost already has Hochevar and (probably) Luis Mendoza available for multiple-inning duty. Mendoza remains a candidate for the final spot in the rotation, but Yost continues to characterize him as “the perfect long guy.”
That seems to cast veteran lefty Bruce Chen as the leading candidate to join James Shields, Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie and Wade Davis in the rotation. (Yes, Will Smith and Yordano Ventura are still in the mix.)
Any preference for another bullpen lefty puts the squeeze on several right-handed bullpen candidates, including J.C. Gutierrez, Louis Coleman and Dan Wheeler.
The Royals risk losing Gutierrez if he fails to make the club because he is out of options and can choose free agency even if he clears waivers.
That could all change … if the Royals trade Hochevar.
Scouts from rival clubs remain convinced the Royals will look to trade a starter — Hochevar, if possible — before the season starts. Royals officials, privately, don’t deny a willingness to consider a deal.
The stumbling block on any Hochevar trade is the Royals’ apparent reluctance to eat much, if any, of his $4.56 million salary along with their desire for a legitimate player/prospect in return.
“I would never comment on particular situations of that nature,” general manager Dayton Moore said, “but any deal that we make is predicated on trying to improve our team.”
Joseph, 25, is drawing attention with a dominant spring — one run and two hits permitted over six one-inning appearances while striking out 11 and walking none. Most of his strikeouts came in left-on-left situations.
That strikeout potential is particularly appealing; Joseph has 298 of them in 225 1/3 career minor-league innings over four pro seasons — but also 99 career walks.
“The word on Donnie,” Yost said, “was he could, at times, pitch himself into trouble (because of walks) but always had a chance to pitch himself out. He hasn’t shown that (lack of command) here.”
Bueno is a 32-year-old former Cuban defector who compiled a 1.56 ERA last season in 18 big-league games while pitching primarily as a situational lefty.
That success last year should overshadow a so-so spring, although he retired six straight batters Thursday against Cleveland. Overall, Bueno has allowed three runs and eight hits in 81/3 innings over six appearances.
“He’s a little bit more than a situational (guy),” Yost said. “Bueno did a nice job last year of coming in and getting righties and lefties out. He wasn’t just a situational left-hander.”