KC Royals: This isn’t the time to pursue Kelvin Herrera

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

A former excellent reliever for the KC Royals is looking for a job. The club shouldn’t try to sign him.

I’ve been asked, in the handful of days since Kelvin Herrera found himself without a major league pitching job, whether the KC Royals should bring him home to Kauffman Stadium.

As sweet as a successful Herrera-Royals reunion would be, and casting sentiment aside, my answer is “No.”

I realize full well that Herrera, released by the White Sox Sunday, presents just the kind of reclamation project general manager Dayton Moore may not be able to resist. Feared and respected as the seventh-inning piece of Kansas City’s vaunted “H-D-H” closeout relief trio, then as Wade Davis’ setup man when KC didn’t bring back Greg Holland after 2015, and finally as the club’s closer when Davis departed, Herrera hasn’t been the same since he left in a 2018 trade.

His need for reclamation arose almost as soon as KC traded him to Washington for three players, including Kelvin Gutierrez, in mid-June. He had 14 saves and a 1.05 ERA in 27 Royals games before the trade; he went 1-2 with a 4.34 ERA in 18 games for the Nationals after the deal, a performance easily traceable to two post-trade injuries–first a shoulder injury, then a season-ending torn foot ligament.

The foot injury didn’t deter the White Sox from signing Herrera to a two-year, $18 million contract after that season, but the malady nagged him throughout 2019 and he finished with an ugly 6.14 ERA in 57 appearances; his one save proved he was no longer closer material.

Herrera was reportedly free of the lingering ligament issues this season, but his pitching failed to improve. Although he struck out six in four innings before COVID-19 ended spring training, he gave up five hits and three runs; then, after pitching a scoreless inning in his regular-season debut, he gave up four runs on three hits (including two home runs) in a pair of innings two days later. That exhausted Chicago’s patience.

So it is that Herrera is now searching for a job just two years after finishing an excellent KC Royals career–in eight seasons, he saved 57 games (most came after Holland and Davis left), struck out almost nine batters per nine innings and averaged less than three walks every nine, and had a nifty 2.75 ERA (153 ERA+).

Always popular and successful in Kansas City, he is a classic sentimental choice for a Royal reunion, and some might suggest this season, one ripe for experimentation and taking chances, might be an ideal time to try Herrera out.

Sentiment aside, however, the time just isn’t right. Kansas City’s Player Pool is stocked with pitchers and, excluding Saturday’s shakiness and Sunday’s collapse against the White Sox, the bullpen has been a bright spot in a season so far beset by lows.

There really isn’t room for Herrera–he is a pitcher best suited for middle and late relief work, and the Royals don’t need help filling such roles. New manager Mike Matheny’s best matchup/mix and match bullpen approach, utilizing Ian Kennedy, Scott Barlow, Glenn Sparkman, Jake Newberry, Gabe Speier, Holland and Trevor Rosenthal from the sixth inning on, has (again with the particular exception of Sunday, when the pen gave up seven runs in the seventh) been largely successful.

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As for experimentation, Matheny’s approach, one foreign to the Royals notwithstanding its early success, is itself an experiment of sorts. It’s probably unwise to introduce a new component to the mix when the parts presently installed aren’t broken or in need of serious repair.

A case could be made, of course, for bringing Herrera in to ultimately replace Kennedy, a hurler sure to be moved before this month’s approaching trade deadline. Kennedy is in the last year of his KC contract, probably isn’t in the club’s future plans, and needs to be dealt while he can still yield some return. The Royals could assign Herrera to their alternate site, where he could work in no-leverage situations and hopefully solve the mystery of his decline.

Signing Herrera would be the first step of a new reclamation project for Moore but carries some risk. The White Sox owe him $2.89 million in prorated salary, a financial liability to be assumed at least in part by the Royals if they sign him, together with a $1 million buyout of a 2021 option if things don’t work out. That’s not a fortune, even to the frugal, small market Royals, but it’s something to seriously ponder.

The bottom line? Today’s Herrera isn’t the same Herrera the KC Royals traded away in 2018. This isn’t the time to bring him back.

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Kelvin Herrera is on the open market, but it’s a market the KC Royals shouldn’t explore.