Royals Extension Candidate: Kelvin Herrera


Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Royals’ offseason shopping is mostly complete – or appears to be, at least – they will likely turn their eyes to their current roster. January and February tend to be the time when players receive contract extensions, so I thought it might be fun to look at the players most likely to be extended, as well as what an extension might look like.

Over the next week or two, I’ll provide a breakdown of each candidate, along with a comparable player and contract, to see what the Royals could and should offer. It’ll be fun! There’s also not much other news happening, so if it’s not fun, oh well I guess. Onward.

First up in this series is the first H of the HDH trio, Kelvin Herrera. According to Jon Heyman, the Royals are considering an extension for Herrera, so here we are. Herrera obviously was incredible in 2014, posting an ERA of just 1.41 in 70 innings, while not surrendering a single home run. He faced 285 batters last season, and literally 0 of them went yard. That’s bonkers.

While his run prevention numbers were shiny, his peripherals were not quite as good, with 7.6 strikeouts and 3.3 walks per 9 innings, so once you regress the home run rate, Herrera’s xFIP was 3.50. That’s still above average, just not elite.

However, with the exception of a one month stretch in 2013, Herrera has always done a good job of limiting dingers, so regressing his HR/FB rate all the way to league average doesn’t make a ton of sense. It’s possible he falls to that level, I just wouldn’t bet on it.

Some people have expressed concern over Herrera’s declining strikeout rate, and it was lower than you’d like from an elite reliever, but I think it was a bit misleading. His swinging strike rate was 12.3%, which was a higher rate than he had in 2012, when he struck out more than 8.2 batters per 9. If he maintains a similar whiff rate in 2015, I’d expect his strikeouts to climb back up to their previous levels.

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Herrera just turned 25, and his fastball velocity has been consistent every year, so aging isn’t a concern. And speaking of velocity, he actually added about 3 MPH to his already-excellent changeup in 2014, making it even more of a weapon. Opposing batters had a wRC+ of -25 against the change last season. Negative twenty-five. Hitting a 90 MPH changeup is hard to do.

I wouldn’t expect Herrera to go another season without allowing a home run, and his strand rate may regress some, but still, he should be a very good pitcher for the next few years, as long as he stays healthy. That’s always a big “if” with pitchers, though the Royals do a great job of keeping guys on the field, and if the organization is comfortable handing out an extension, I’m going to assume they believe he’ll be a relatively safe investment.

Now, what would an extension look like? When I saw that the team was considering an extension for Herrera, one name immediately popped in my head for a comp: Sean Doolittle.

Doolittle just signed a five-year, $10.5 million extension with the A’s at the beginning of the 2014 season. This was prior to him moving into a closer role, although that probably was the plan when the agreement was reached. In the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Doolittle pitched 116.1 innings with a 3.09 ERA, 9.3 K/9, and 1.9 BB/9. The ERA is worse than Herrera’s, but the strikeouts and walks are a bit better. Herrera also is 3 years younger than Doolittle, so it isn’t a perfect comparison, but there is a connection. Doolittle collected just 3 saves prior to his extension, and Herrera has 5 saves in his career. Closers get paid big money. Non-closers, generally, do not.

This isn’t to say Herrera couldn’t be a closer, either. Quite the contrary. At least half of the league would probably take Herrera as their closer, but because he isn’t a “Proven Closer,” he can’t really command all that much money in arbitration, or in free agency when he gets that far. He could close games for the Royals, but they already have two guys ahead of him on that depth chart, so he’s not going to get many opportunities.

If the Royals trade Greg Holland, Wade Davis, or both, though, Herrera could easily slide into that closer role. My guess is the team would only consider extending the 25-year old Dominican if they plan on using him as the closer at some point, since his cost should be low if he’s only pitching the 7th or 8th inning every night.

If he becomes the closer in the next few years, he’ll likely command a pretty hefty paycheck through his last year or two of arbitration, especially since he’s a Super Two player already. So if the Royals intend on keeping him around, it would be wise to get him locked up at a reasonable rate while they still can.

Using Doolittle’s deal as a guide, let’s build an extension offer for Herrera. Here’s the year-by-year breakdown for Doolittle:

2014: $630,000
2015: $780,000
2016: $1,580,000
2017: $2,630,000
2018: $4,380,000

The A’s also have a pair of team options for a total of $12.5 million, with a $500,000 buyout on each option. The 2020 option becomes mutual if Doolittle finishes 100 games between 2018 and 2019.

The Royals have 4 years of team control left with Herrera, so I’d say a five-year pact is about right. Herrera will probably make roughly $1.5 million in 2015 in his first year of arbitration eligibility, so he’s already at a higher salary when the contract would kick in. He also has a better track record than Doolittle, so we can increase salaries a bit more, as well. Like I said, it’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s a starting point. Perhaps the Royals could offer something like this:

2015: $1,500,000
2016: $2,200,000
2017: $3,000,000
2018: $4,100,000
2019: $6,000,000

So that’s a five-year, $16.8 million deal. They would probably want to tack on a couple of options as well, maybe $7.5 million in 2020 and $9 million in 2021, with a $700k buyout on each year, bringing the guarantee up to $17.5 million. An average annual value of $3.5 million is not prohibitive at all, and if Herrera does become the closer in a couple of years, the Royals will have him at a significant discount. Even if he doesn’t become the closer, his cost is reasonable – and more importantly, fixed.

This deal makes sense for the Royals because they would have a great reliever with cost certainty for the next 5 years, and it makes sense for Herrera because he’d be financially secure if he were to get injured. There’s risk involved for both sides, of course. If Herrera gets hurt or becomes ineffective, they’ll still have to pay him millions of dollars. If Herrera stays productive and/or starts collecting saves, he may be leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table.

But as I mentioned, the financial cost is a drop in the bucket in today’s game, and there’s more money being made every day. And even if Herrera’s options are picked up, he’ll still be in his early 30s when he becomes a free agent, meaning he could still be in line for another nice paycheck.

If necessary, the Royals could give him mutual options, so Herrera could become a free agent sooner, to sweeten the deal. That wouldn’t really move the needle on the Royals’ end, so it’s an easy compromise.

Relievers tend to be somewhat volatile – see Herrera’s 2013 as evidence – so giving them multi-year extensions isn’t always wise. However, it seems unlikely that he’ll be so homer-prone in the future based on the rest of his career results, and the stuff is clearly electric. Considering the escalating costs for elite relievers in free agency, it may not be a bad idea to extend Herrera now, especially if they see him as the closer of the future.