AFL Feature: Luke Hochevar

SURPRISE, Ariz.–A bad start certainly would disappoint Luke Hochevar in his Arizona Fall League debut Monday, but it will not flatten him.

The way he sees it, he has come out the other side of much worse.

Hochevar, 23, believes he already has endured the lowest point of his career during his year in limbo between the 2005 and 2006 drafts.

The waiting netted him an extra $3.32 million in signing bonus money and landed him in Kansas City, a place perhaps more in tune to a small-town guy’s sensibilities, but the life lesson learned is what he said he will remember most.

“The money and going to place that I wanted to go, I’m grateful for all that,” said Hochevar, a native of Fowler, Colo.

“But what I’m more grateful for is going through that–having your faith questioned. Having your character questioned and staying locked in. It helped me in the long run to be mentally tough. It’s not so much that I want bad things to happen to me now. I don’t. I’m not glad it happened, but I learned my greatest lesson from adversity. I grew from that.”

Hochevar’s odyssey began about the time he received the Roger Clemens Award as the college pitcher of the year from The Rocket himself, after leading Tennessee to the College World Series and being selected in the supplemental first round by the Dodgers in the 2005 draft.

Hochevar slid to No. 40 because of signability concerns. Those concerns played out, as the Dodgers and representative Scott Boras could not reach agreement, the Dodgers’ final offer reaching $2.98 million. In the middle of the process was a messy week in which Hochevar agreed to different representation and appeared to strike a deal with Los Angeles before returning to Boras.

With negotiations at an impasse, Hochevar undertook a strength and conditioning program under Boras’ auspices and later signed with the independent Fort Worth Cats, a path similar to that taken by previous Boras clients Jered Weaver and the Drew brothers, J.D. and Stephen, during long negotiation processes.

Back in game shape, Hochevar impressed major league scouts dispatched to Fort Worth by hitting 97 mph on the radar gun and was the first player taken in the 2006 draft, with Kansas City’s new front office agreeing to a $5.3 million package that included a major league contract.

If it sounds as if is were a minor career speed bump, it didn’t feel that way.

“Your character gets questioned. Your ability gets questioned. Your makeup gets questioned. That’s tough,” he said. “I’m not a guy who thinks the game owes him anything. I’m not a guy who thinks the game revolves around me, but it was tough to face.

“It was like my life stopped. The thing I loved to do was taken away from me. You get ridiculed by a lot of people. You have to put that behind you. The big key was staying locked in. I just tried to stay locked in on the things I needed to do as a pitcher. That other stuff was out of my control.”

Hochevar made four starts at low Class A Burlington in August, going 0-1, 1.17, before joining other Royals’ top prospects Alex Gordon and Billy Butler at Double-A Wichita for the Texas League playoffs. (Gordon and Butler played in the Fall League last year.)

In Arizona, Kansas City wants Hochevar to concentrate on repeating his delivery and executing pitches in his first extended work since college. He’s also there to catch up with some innings–he threw just 22 2/3 since signing, including two starts in the TL playoffs.

In a league usually filled with pitchers at the end of long seasons or working on specific pitches in an almost instructional league atmosphere, Hochevar will be trying to get to midseason form. If he does, he should emerge as the league’s dominant pitcher.

“I just want to compete against the best players in the game and really find out what I need to do to get better and take it to the next level,” said Hochevar. “I’m going to get a good test here. I’m super-fired up to get this opportunity.”

FALL GUYS

• Seven of the members of Team USA that helped the U.S. qualify for the 2008 Olympics will participate in the league’s 15th anniversary season–Peoria Saguaros righthander J. Brent Cox (Yankees), Scottsdale infielder Mark Reynolds (Diamondbacks), Phoenix lefthander Jeff Ridgway (Devil Rays), Peoria Javelinas catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Braves), Peoria Saguaros righthander Zach Segovia (Phillies), Mesa righthander Kevin Slowey (Twins) and Scottsdale lefthander Greg Smith (Diamondbacks).

• Thirteen 2005 AFL players made the majors in 2006, including top rookies Stephen Drew (Diamondbacks), Andre Ethier (Dodgers), Prince Fielder (Brewers), Nick Markakis (Orioles), Dan Uggla (Marlins), Jered Weaver (Angels) and Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals).

• The Dodgers pulled lefthander Scott Elbert from the AFL, mostly due to his workload during the regular season. Elbert went a combined 11-9, 2.90 in 146 innings between high Class A Vero Beach and Double-A Jacksonville this past season.

• Dodgers first-round pick (and the 26th overall choice) Bryan Morris will likely miss all of next season after having Tommy John surgery. Morris, who was ranked the No. 1 prospect in the Rookie-level Pioneer League, went 4-5, 5.13 at Ogden in his debut. Morris’ delivery had long drawn concern from scouts, because his “cross-fire” delivery puts stress on his elbow, but Morris repeated that delivery and had above-average stuff using the delivery,

• Pirates righthander Brad Lincoln, the club’s first-round pick in June, was shut down in instructional league with a nagging strained oblique injury. The same injury caused the fourth overall pick’s debut to end prematurely at low Class A Hickory on Aug. 6. Lincoln went a combined 1-2, 4.56 in 24 innings between Hickory and the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League after signing for $2.75 million. Pirates farm director Brian Graham told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the club expects Lincoln to be ready for spring training. “Brad’s going to be fine,” Graham told the paper. “There was no tear found, nothing of that kind, and it’s just a matter of getting some rest.”

Contributing: Chris Kline, John Manuel.

Minors | #2006 #Arizona Fall League #Winter Baseball

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