“What If” is a series where I explore alternate universes of Royals baseball to find out what could have happened differently. You can read the previous entry here.
The Royals were pretty bad in the late 90s and early 2000s, but it wasn’t until 2005 that they were the very worst that baseball had to offer. The 2005 Royals saw manager Tony Pena resign in a mysterious scandal, didn’t have anyone hit more than 21 home runs in an era in which everyone in baseball was muscled up and hitting ridiculous home run totals, and allowed Jose Lima to make 32 starts despite an ERA of 6.99. They were an absolute train wreck of a team that lost 106 games, more than any other Royals team in baseball history.
But the weird quirk of North American sports is that the worst of the worst are handsomely rewarded when it is time to add amateur talent. For the 2006 draft, the Royals would, for the first time ever, get the first overall pick.
The 2006 draft was considered a weak draft at the time, although later it was shown to be one of the strongest first rounds in decades. The closest thing to a consensus top pick was North Carolina left-hander Andrew Miller, who Baseball America said was the “preferred choice” of the Royals scouting department. But Miller had high bonus demands and his thin frame raised some concerns he could be an injury risk, providing enough doubt that the Royals looked to other options.
Having had their brains beat in on the mound for over a decade, the club zeroed in on pitching, focusing on Miller, University of Houston right-hander Brad Lincoln, University of Washington right-hander Tim Lincecum, University of California-Berkeley right-hander Brandon Morrow, and a right-handed pitcher the Dodgers had failed to sign in the first round of the previous draft out of the University of Tennessee named Luke Hochevar.
Compounding everything was the fact the Royals did not have a general manager for the 2006 draft. They had fired Allard Baird less than a week before, and hired Dayton Moore the next day, but he would not take over until after the draft, so as to not betray his work with the Braves.
Andrew Miller was later said to have been the favorite of Baird, had he not been fired. Dayton Moore was said to have actually preferred Texas outfielder Drew Stubbs had the choice been his. Instead the choice was left to assistant general manager Muzzy Jackson and scouting director Deric Ladnier. They chose Hochevar.-*
* - I remember a radio interview on Soren Petro’s show on 810 WHB in which Moore admitted that the Royals asked him who he preferred among their top two choices - Miller and Hochevar - and that Dayton chose Hochevar over concerns Miller was an injury risk. But I can’t find any other corroboration of this, so who knows.
Luke Hochevar had a rough start to his career, but he ended up being a very solid reliever and part of their 2015 championship club, pitching five scoreless innings in the World Series that fall. But what if the Royals had taken Andrew Miller? Let’s take a look at an alternate history.
Andrew Miller joins the best bullpen in history
Miller’s career actually mirrored Hochevar’s for quite awhile, with both beginning as disappointing starting pitchers. Through 2011, Miller had a 5.79 ERA with 66 starts under his belt, Hochevar had a 5.29 ERA with 96 starts.
By 2012, Miller was with Boston, his third team, and they made him a reliever. The results were pretty good at first, as his strikeout rate spiked and his ERA fell, although he still had some control issues. But in 2014 he became absolutely filthy, striking out 103 hitters in just 62 1⁄3 innings. By then, Hochevar had also emerged as a decent reliever, although he would miss the entire 2014 season after Tommy John surgery. But just imagine this bullpen in 2014:
Alternate 2014 Royals bullpen
That is just unfair.
The Royals possibly win the 2014 World Series
With Miller giving the Royals absurd depth in their pen, the Royals perhaps have a better shot at beating the Giants in the 2014 World Series. That fall, the Royals took a 2-1 series lead into Game 4 in San Francisco and went up 4-2 by the fifth inning. Starter Jason Vargas gave up a double, and manager Ned Yost had a quick hook. He brought in Jason Frasor, then Danny Duffy, but the Giants still managed to tie it up 4-4.
But it was the sixth inning where things fell apart. Yost brought in rookie Brandon Finnegan, who had looked sharp that season despite beginning the year in college, but he had all of seven innings of big league experience in the regular season. The lefty would struggle, giving up three runs, then the floodgates would open in the seventh when Tim Collins gave up four more in an 11-4 Giants win.
But in a world of MHDH (Miller/Herrera/Davis/Holland), perhaps it is Miller that comes in the game in the sixth - or possibly even the fifth. If he is able to slam the door shut, the Royals might have been able to preserve their lead, or at least make things a bit more interesting late in the game. And a win that night means the Royals have three more shots to win it all, with Yordano Ventura eventually throwing a gem in Game 6 in a 10-0 win that perhaps is the series-clincher with Madison Bumgarner on the bench.
The Tigers end up with an amazing rotation.....maybe
If the Royals end up taking Andrew Miller, then who does Detroit end up taking instead at #6? Leading up to the draft, the Tigers were zeroed in on one player - a young left-handed high school pitcher named Clayton Kershaw. It was only when the Royals passed on Miller and he fell into their laps with the sixth pick that they felt they couldn’t pass up on taking up such a polished talent. And the Dodgers? They would have taken outfielder Tyler Colvin instead.
So just think about that for a second. The Tigers get Clayton Kershaw, and by 2014 he is part of a rotation that includes Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and David Price, all Cy Young winners at one point in their careers. If the Royals draft Andrew Miller, perhaps their bullpen is good enough to win the World Series, but perhaps the Tigers are so unbelievable, they beat up on the Royals a few more times that season, causing KC to miss the playoffs and Salvy never gets a chance to hit one down the line to win the most amazing Wild Card game ever.
That is, if the Tigers even end up keeping Kershaw. They ended up trading Miller to the Marlins after the 2007 season as the centerpiece in the Miguel Cabrera deal. Perhaps Kershaw becomes that centerpiece and ends up in Miami. And maybe they end up shipping him off to LA after a few years anyway.
Luke Hochevar ends up in Seattle? Colorado? Baltimore?
So if the Royals pass on Hochevar, where does he end up? His hometown Rockies had the second pick, and although their scouting department loved Evan Longoria, ownership told them to get a pitcher. They grabbed Stanford right-hander Greg Reynolds, who made 21 big league starts. The Mariners reportedly had interest in Hochevar before the draft, although later they would say they were zeroed in on Cal pitcher Brandon Morrow the entire time.
There is no chance the Dodgers re-draft Hochevar at #7 after the sore feelings from the botched negotiations when they took him in 2005. If he is still on the board at #8, perhaps the Reds take him over Stubbs. Or the Orioles take him at #9 instead of third baseman Bill Rowell, who never played in the big leagues. Maybe the Giants at #10 or Diamondbacks at #11 take him instead of future Cy Young winners Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer. If he had continued to hold out for a bonus of around $3 million, he might have dropped quite a bit. Scherzer, the #11 pick, received $3 million, but the only player selected after him to even get $2 million was #21 pick Ian Kennedy with the Yankees.
Of course, this scenario only limits our imagination to the Hochvear/Miller choice - imagine if they had chosen Clayton Kershaw or Evan Longoria! But in the end, things worked out pretty well for the Royals and Luke Hochevar.