When the Royals selected Luke Hochevar with the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, some regarded it as bad news that the industry was rewarding a draft holdout. But it was great news for independent leagues.
Hochevar, who was taken by the Dodgers in the supplemental first round last year, agreed to and then turned down a $2.98 million deal with the club last summer, opting to return to the draft. To prove that his stuff was just as good as it was last year, Hochevar signed with the American Association’s Fort Worth Cats this spring. Four starts gave scouts plenty of chances to see him in action, eventually leading the Royals to opt for him over Andrew Miller and Brad Lincoln with the top pick.
Hochevar is expected to sign a deal worth well more than the $2.98 million he turned down with the Dodgers, while the Cats became the first independent team to have a player selected No. 1 overall.
“It seemed to play out perfectly for everybody. For Luke hopefully and for the Cats,” Cats general manager Monty Clegg said.
Hochevar was not the first player to go the indy ball route when contract negotiations broke down. J.D. Drew (Northern League) and his brother Stephen (Atlantic) both used strong indy ball efforts to land large contracts, while the threat of playing helped Jason Varitek (Northern) and Jered Weaver (Atlantic) land deals.
Matt Harrington has also pitched in the independent leagues while trying to develop leverage, though in his case it has not worked out. While he continues to pitch for the Cats in his fourth season of work in indy ball, he will never land anywhere close to the money he was offered as a first-round pick in 1999.
But Hochevar’s rise up the draft charts while pitching in the independent leagues may pave the way for further draft double-dippers. After all, Hochevar entered the season in a similar situation to Wade Townsend last year. Townsend, the No. 8 pick in the 2004 draft out of Rice, did not pitch competitively again after negotiations between him and the Orioles broke down that fall, although he did throw on the side. He eventually was drafted by the Devil Rays with the eighth pick in the 2005 draft, but signed for below slot money.
“I think it will open up for players that aren’t satisfied with their draft stats to look at indy ball. It’s got to be a college player who can come to indy ball and learn from it,” American Association commissioner Miles Wolff said.
For his part, Hochevar seemed to enjoy his experience in indy ball, which helped him acclimate to the pro game.
“Going to Fort Worth was a great experience,” he said. “Those hitters, they’re older, they’re experienced and they’re a lot smarter. I learned a great deal playing there due to the discipline of the hitters–they control the strike zone a lot better. The speed of the game overall, I believe has helped me a significant amount.”
He quickly fit in with his Fort Worth teammates, even though some of them had concerns before he arrived that he would be a prima donna.
He proved otherwise and quickly made himself just another teammate. He took all the bus trips (including a 20-hour return leg from St. Paul to Fort Worth). When the team didn’t have a batboy on the road, an otherwise idle Hochevar played the part, wearing a batting helmet, putting on eye black and taping up his wrists before retrieving the bats for nine innings.
“Even in a month and a half he was here, I think three or four guys on the team are lifelong friends with him,” Cats reliever Zane Carlson said. “He was just another weird dude that hangs out. But I’ve never played with a guy so focused. He’s writing notes after he throws. Working out every day. It was a good example to see what it takes.”
And Hochevar was popular for another reason. Usually, an indy league is lucky if a scout stops by every couple of weeks. Every time Hochevar pitched, almost every team in baseball had a scout behind the plate. While they were all there to see Hochevar, it still gave other Cats a chance to show what they can do.
“You hear about hitters fighting to grab a bat. It was kind of like the fight to get an inning that night. We were begging the pitching coach, ‘Get me in tonight,’ ” Carlson said.
• Rickey Henderson’s career may finally be over. Henderson opted not to return to the Golden League for another season, although the league holds out hope that he may serve in a managerial role when the league adds teams in the Bay Area, as soon as next season. Henderson played in the independent leagues for three years, capping off a 30-year pro career.
• The Edinburg Coyotes have quickly established themselves as the class of the new United League. The Coyotes won their first 17 games, and 19 of their first 20 to seemingly run away with the pennant before the season had finished its first month.
• Tim Cain, who had been the only player to play in the independent leagues from the first season of their return (1993) will extend his run with the Long Island Ducks (Atlantic). Cain pitched for Rochester, Minn., of the Northern League in 1993 as part of a 16-year pro baseball career. After struggling with Bridgeport last season, it appeared that his career might be over, but the Ducks signed him in early June. Cain is also one of three players to have played in all nine Atlantic League seasons.