Last year, left-hander Bruce Chen was Kansas City's starting pitcher on Opening Day. Right-hander Luke Hochevar started the second game. Over the course of the season, Chen made 34 starts, pitched 191 2/3 innings and had an 11-14 record to lead the team in victories. Hochevar had 32 starts, 185 1/3 innings and an 8-16 record.
They were the Nos. 1-2 guys in the Royals' rotation. But the rotation was deemed not strong enough and general manager Dayton Moore bolted into the marketplace and traded for James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana and re-signed free agent Jeremy Guthrie.
Now Chen and Hochevar are relegated to fighting for the fifth and final spot in the rotation. And they're not alone. Manager Ned Yost paints Luis Mendoza, Will Smith, Nate Adcock, Everett Teaford and Guillermo Moscoso into that picture as well.
Chen and Hochevar look at it as a good thing for the Royals.
"I think it's a great situation," Hochevar said. "I think it's great that I'm in a position where I'm being pushed because it heightens everything. It heightens your focus, it heightens your everything, so it can only be good. Not just for me but for the whole club -- it's great. That's what it's all about, the club winning games."
Hochevar and Chen were preparing to hit the practice fields for the third day of pitcher-catcher workouts on Thursday. The sun was shining, optimism was flowing.
"I'm very excited with the type of rotation that's shaping up," Chen said, "and I'm going to do everything I can to help this team win. … I want to be in the starting rotation because that's where I feel I can help out the most. But if I'm not in the starting rotation, that means there's five guys better than me."
Chen, 35, has been through many battles in his long career. His time with KC began in 2009, as he emerged after time off for Tommy John surgery and pitching for Panama in the World Baseball Classic.
Now, after ending his quest to play for China in this year's Classic, Chen can concentrate strictly on pitching for the Royals.
"If there are five guys better than me, I'm making a lot of money to be in the bullpen, so I better do something good," Chen said. "I'm not going to go over there and make things worse. I'm not going to be complaining and saying I can't do this. I'm going to be doing everything I can to help this team."
Yost has already said that Chen and Hochevar -- Mendoza, too -- will be on the 25-man roster although their duties remain uncertain. Two of them could be long relievers in the bullpen.
Chen has worked in relief often in his 14-year Major League career, but it would be a different kind of task for Hochevar.
"I've still got to pitch the way I'm capable of pitching. If I do that, things will work out the way they need to work out," Hochevar said.
Hochevar, 29, is busily fixing a flaw he discovered in his delivery while analyzing videos during his winter in Tennessee. Simply put, his front side would "fly open" as he threw.
"I kind of get underneath the ball, my stuff gets flat, it runs back over the plate and it's just a recipe for disaster," Hochevar said.
This most often happened, he noticed, when the other team threatened with runners on base.
"In those kinds of situations, I'm trying to step on the gas and when I'd try to get that extra gear, the front side leaves me," Hochevar said. "Then I'm missing out over the plate, I missed my location, it gets flat and they see it early. It's just not a good combination of things."
It's a mechanical, not a mental, process, he said.
"In 2011, I felt like I really turned the corner in my mental approach where it's just super simple, all I'm worried about is just executing the pitch -- nothing else, nothing more -- so the games don't get away from me," he said.
Pitching, it seems, is not as easy as it looks.
"Naw," Hochevar said, grinning. "Then it wouldn't be any fun."
Chen is approaching the competition as a long-term project.
"I don't think it's like fighting for the fifth spot in Spring Training, I think it's a whole year battle for the fifth spot," Chen said. "Because you can win it, but you can lose it in a matter of two months."
After all, whichever starter opens the season in the bullpen could readily segue right back into the rotation.
The two primary combatants for the No. 5 job are taking a positive slant on the Royals' new-look rotation.
"History hasn't been written yet," Chen said. "We might look back and say this is one of the best things that's ever happened to this team, to this organization."
"It's not about me, that's not the reason I play the game," Hochevar said. "Yeah, I have pride in what I do and I want to be great, but what it's about is being part of what's bigger than yourself -- getting to the playoffs, being in a World Series. You can't do it alone."