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Wade Davis is pivotal piece in Royals bullpen

Wade Davis would rather not be here, pitching the eighth inning of a spring training game against an eclectic bunch of Padres big leaguers and prospects. If it were up to him, he’d be back in the clubhouse by now, having started and stretched his arm up to 80 or 85 pitches in preparation of beginning the Royals season in the rotation.

Starters make more money, and starters make more impact. Davis sees himself as a starter, no matter what, but he’s not going to spend any time pouting about the pseudo demotion.

“Wouldn’t you enjoy pitching in the big leagues?” he says.

Maybe there will be another chance for Davis in the rotation. For that to happen this year, it would probably take two injuries, assuming Yordano Ventura wins the fifth rotation spot and Danny Duffy goes to Class AAA Omaha as the next man up.

For now, though, Davis’ transition to full-time reliever is the first major adjustment of a long Royals season that’s so critical to management, coaches and much of this homegrown roster. Bullpens are a big league team’s most volatile commodity, and few teams rely on their relievers more than the Royals. This has to go well, in other words.

Davis is filling the spot of Luke Hochevar, the star-crossed former No. 1 pick who failed as a starter but found his mojo in a dominating run out of the bullpen. Hochevar’s season is wiped away with Tommy John surgery, and it is so purely Royals that this happens now, once he’s productive, but the reality is that the Royals need the 2014 Davis to be the 2013 Hochevar.

There’s no profit to be made in Royals manager Ned Yost declaring Davis the primary eighth inning bridge to All-Star closer Greg Holland, but when asked directly about it on Sunday, Yost gets as close as you’re likely to hear him.

“I’ve got a whole bullpen full of eighth inning guys, the way I see it,” he says. “But is (Davis) probably the most prominent eighth inning guy? Yeah. Yeah.”

The similarities of Davis and the man he replaces are too obvious to not think about. Hochevar, statistically, was one of baseball’s worst starting pitchers of this century (5.10 ERA is tied for 8th-worst among pitchers with at least 100 starts) before transitioning into a dominant reliever (he struck out 82 and struck out 59 in 70 1/3 innings) in 2013.

Last year, the league hit .320 with a .386 on-base percentage and .465 slugging percentage in Davis’ 24 starts. Basically, Yadier Molina. But they hit .094/.194/.156 against him in seven games as a reliever. Basically, the game’s worst hitting pitcher.

That’s an extreme version of the split over his career (.778 OPS in 88 starts; .546 OPS in 61 relief appearances). Also, if the Royals need 2014 Davis to be 2013 Hochevar, another way of saying that is they need 2014 Davis to be 2012 Davis — 87 strikeouts, 79 baserunners and a 2.43 ERA over 70 1/3 innings for Tampa Bay.

“I’ve done it before,” he points out.

Opening day is still two weeks away, but Davis is looking the part. On Sunday, he basically got four outs against five batters. Throwing only fastballs, he struck out two, got a fielder’s choice grounder, and gave up what was ruled a triple but in reality was a fly ball that center fielder Jarrod Dyson lost in the desert sun. In his previous outing, he struck out the side on 10 pitches in what Yost called the best one-inning performance of the season.

Davis is set to make $4.8 million this season, and $7 million in 2015 so the Royals would like to get more out of him than 70 innings a year. But if he could fill what is now a significant need in a key spot, the Royals will wring out a bit more value in the trade that sent uber-prospect Wil Myers to Tampa in exchange for James Shields.

The Royals won their most games since 1989 last year, and they did it largely on the strength of the game’s best defense and bullpen. At least on paper, they improved their defense with Nori Aoki in right field. Davis (along with how closely Holland can repeat what is probably an unrepeatable season) will be the most important factor in maintaining their other primary strength.

This is more precarious than the Royals would like to say publicly. Base runners allowed per inning is perhaps the most telling metric for a bullpen, and the Royals were the best in baseball last year. But no team has done that twice in a row this century, which means that some regression is almost certainly coming.

Yost says he’s comfortable with at least five pitchers throwing the eighth inning of a close game — Davis, Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera and Louis Coleman — but each man brings specific uncertainties or inconsistencies. With Hochevar out for the season, the Jenga tower wobbles.

“We can’t afford another hit,” Yost says. “But we’ve got enough quality power arms to cover it.”

So much of that, and in turn the Royals’ hopes in this critical season, rests with Davis.

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