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Four hours before the start of the major league draft on June 6, Luke Hochevar was driving back from a gym to his apartment in Knoxville, Tenn., when he received a cellphone call from his agent, Scott Boras. "How do you feel about going Number 1?" asked Boras, who had just heard from the Royals that they were going to use the top pick on the 22-year-old righthanded starter. A stunned Hochevar quietly broke down in tears. "I had heard there was an outside chance that I'd be the pick," says the former Tennessee ace, who was selected at No. 40 by the Dodgers in 2005 but rejected their contract offer, took last summer off and reentered the draft this spring. "Honestly, though, I was as surprised as everyone else."
Indeed, Kansas City's 11th-hour decision to take Hochevar was an unexpected draft-day twist. It was widely projected that the Royals would pick North Carolina lefty Andrew Miller, but privately the organization was torn between Hochevar, Miller (who went to the Tigers at No. 6) and Houston righty Brad Lincoln (to the Pirates at No. 4).
According to scouting director Deric Ladnier, after much deliberation K.C. settled on the lanky 6'5" Hochevar because he was the most advanced pitcher in the draft. As early as mid-summer 2007 Hochevar, who throws a mid-90s fastball and an above-average slider, could provide a much-needed boost to a rotation that through Sunday had the worst team ERA (6.24) in the majors. The Royals scoff at reports that they passed on Miller because of his price tag--he was reportedly seeking a signing bonus close to $6 million. Says Ladnier, "We never talked money with Miller's people."
If signability were a top concern for Kansas City, it most likely would have passed on Hochevar--expected to seek at least $3 million--as well. During contract negotiations with the Dodgers last year, Hochevar grew frustrated with the slow pace of the talks, left Boras and, through another agent, agreed to a $2.98 million bonus in September; but he had second thoughts and rehired Boras, and no deal was made.
Hochevar started throwing again in January, and in April he signed with the Fort Worth Cats of the independent American Association. He made four impressive starts in front of an army of major league scouts. "He quickly reestablished himself as a top pitcher, arguably the best in this draft," says one NL scout who saw him throw. "There were no longer any concerns about his layoff."
Preliminary negotiations between Kansas City and Boras began on Sunday. Desperate for positive press, the woeful Royals--who were 16--45 and on pace to tie the 1962 Mets' modern record for most losses in a season--realize they have to get the first No. 1 pick in franchise history signed as soon as possible. Last Thursday's press conference introducing new general manager Dayton Moore turned contentious when reporters grilled owner David Glass for dragging out the firing of Moore's predecessor, Allard Baird. The following day, the Royals revoked the credentials of two reporters who were particularly critical of Glass, a frugal owner who has become a symbol of his franchise's futility. Since the former Wal-Mart CEO took over in 2000, the Royals have played .404 baseball and, assuming another 100-loss outfit this year, will have fielded the four worst teams in franchise history. "These are bad times for the franchise, and they could only get worse if they don't lock up Hochevar," says an executive for another American League club.
Hochevar has faith that a deal will get done soon. "I want to get out there as soon as possible," he says, "[and] be a part of turning things around for this franchise."
The Cardinals, who until last week were cruising to their third consecutive 100-win season and NL Central title, quickly discovered what life is like without slugger Albert Pujols. After its All-Star first baseman was put on the DL on June 4 with a strained right oblique, St. Louis suffered a three-game sweep at the hands of the Reds before taking two of three from the Brewers. Pujols--who is out until at least early July--had accounted for a third of the Cards' run production (92 of 276 runs), the highest percentage in the majors. To make matters worse, cleanup hitter Jim Edmonds continues to struggle (7 for 29 at week's end) as he plays through an abdominal injury.