But the Royals threw a curve by selecting not Andrew Miller, Tim Lincecum or Brad Lincoln, and instead grabbing right-hander Luke Hochevar, most recently of the independent Fort Worth Cats of the American Association, with the top pick of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft.
The University of Tennessee product fits the bill for what the Royals were seeking with the precious first overall pick: A high-ceiling pitcher with the skills and makeup to get to the Major Leagues quickly.
"It's definitely a humbling honor to go [first] to a great organization," Hochevar said. "To go first overall is definitely humbling. I'm ecstatic and ready to put my head down and work hard for the Kansas City Royals."
Most scouts agree Hochevar (pronounced HO-chay-vur) has the tools to be a No. 1 starter in the Major Leagues some day. He is a smart pitcher, with a diligent work ethic to go with a fastball that has been clocked as high as 97 mph. It is a fastball that has a decided sinking action, earning the 6-foot-5 Hochevar early comparisons to Kevin Brown.
Hochevar's repertoire also includes an above average slider and curveball as well as an average changeup that is made more effective by Hochevar's quick arm action.
There's no denying Hochevar's prodigious talent. The only mark against him, if indeed there is one, is signability after his inability to come to agreement on a contract last year.
Hochevar was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers as a supplemental pick (40th overall) between the first and second rounds in the 2005 draft. The two sides could not agree on terms and Hochevar, who won the 2005 Roger Clemens Award which goes annually to the top pitcher in college baseball, hooked up with Fort Worth rather than return to Knoxville, Tenn., for his senior year.
"I learned a great deal of lessons through all of that," Hochevar said. "I really learned the people I can trust, which is definitely [agent] Scott Boras."
Hochevar is optimistic a contract agreement can be reached with the Royals.
"I'm going to bust my tail to make them extremely happy," Hochevar said. "That [his contract] is in Scott Boras' hands and obviously mine as well. We want to be treated fairly and the Royals are a great organization and they're willing to get it done so we're excited to proceed and move forward with this. It sounds like the Royals are ready to get it done and get me out playing."
The Dodgers at one point thought they had an agreement with Hochevar on a contract that would have paid him a $2.98 million signing bonus, but the player backed away from those negotiations in a dispute over representation.
The perception existed in some corners that the unusual turn of events surrounding his situation last time would scare some teams away from the Boras client in this draft and thus push Hochevar farther down in the first round.
The Royals, up until Monday, were thought to be ready to select Miller, the lefty from North Carolina, or if not Miller then University of Houston right-hander Lincoln or Washington's Lincecum. Hochevar, who had been rated the eighth-best prospect overall and seventh-best pitching prospect in the draft by Baseball America, was on the Kansas City radar, yet certainly not the main target as recently as Sunday.
Kansas City director of scouting Deric Ladnier had said all along that talent would be the key, that the Royals would take the best player regardless of signability.
Ladnier appears to have done that with Hochevar, the first pitcher the Royals have drafted with their first pick since Zack Greinke in 2002.
"We feel like with this young man we have a guy who's going to be able to get here quickly," Ladnier said. "We said from the start we were going to take the best pitcher that was available in the draft. We did not feel like there was a position player that would even remotely be in that category. When it was all said and done, we took the best pitcher."
Ladnier hopes Hochevar will reach the Major Leagues within two years.
"He's excited, he's amped up to get out there and start doing what he's obviously put off being able to do over the last year," Ladnier said. "Obviously he hasn't been overpitched. In a perfect world, we could see him going to Burlington, having three or four starts, maybe going to Double-A. Then realistically going to the Arizona Fall League and coming into camp -- I'm not saying competing for a job next year, by no means -- but I think he'll put himself into a position, quickly, which is what we need, to be fighting for a position in the rotation."
As for signability, Ladnier has already had discussions with Boras.
"He and I both agree that he needs to go out and pitch," Ladnier said. "We'll be having a conversation probably tomorrow night to start the negotiation process."
Hochevar, the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year in 2005, struck out a school record 154 batters while posting a 15-3 record and 2.26 ERA for the season. He opened his season with the loss in a 10-1 defeat to Texas A&M at the Minute Maid Classic in Houston on February 11 before rebounding to win 15 of his next 16 decisions to tie Lance Broadway of Texas Christian University for the national lead in wins.
In three years with the Volunteers, Hochevar was 25-10 with a 3.05 ERA. He struck out 287 batters in 280.1 innings, while walking 101. Six of his 33 career starts as a collegian were complete games.
Since then Hochevar's performance on the mound has been even stronger. At a recent outing in Fort Worth, some two dozen scouts as well as Ladnier watched Hochevar pitch. He drew high marks and it was clear the time spent in Fort Worth had not diminished Hochevar's skills.
"I think he'll settle into the comfort zone, 92-95 [mph]," Ladnier said. "He's got above average curveball, above average slider. And I think he's got a chance to have an above average changeup. Over the progression of all of his starts, we've been able to watch him shake the dust off and really turn into what we were seeing out of him the year before: turning into a pitcher. He's got good command, exceptional makeup, super-competitive. He's excited, I can tell you that."
Ladnier has seen each of Hochevar's recent starts and was satisfied that the pitcher is the real deal.
"This is a well-documented pitcher," Ladnier said. "We had reports on him out of high school, we had reports on him out of college. Obviously we had reports on him this year."
The Royals also like Hochevar's athleticism.
Hochevar comes from an athletic family. His father, Brian, played professional basketball with the Denver Nuggets in 1979. His mother, Carmen, played college volleyball and basketball at Southern Colorado. His sister, Brittany, was a two-time All-America volley ball player at Long Beach State and is currently playing professional beach volleyball in Puerto Rico. Younger brother Dylan is a talented high school quarterback and basketball player.
The Dodgers had previously drafted Hochevar in the 39th round of the 2002 draft following an impressive senior season during which the Colorado 2A Player of the Year fanned 97 in 47 innings while going 7-0 with a 1.19 ERA. He also batted .622 with 13 home runs and 38 RBIs.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less