Has the man who I call The Ninja, Mike Rizzo, struck again? The Nats on Monday night acquired reliever Kelvin Herrera from Kansas City for three minor leaguers: infielder Kelvin Gutierrez (the Nats’ no. 10 prospect per MLB Pipeline), outfielder Blake Perkins (the Nats’ no. 11 prospect per MLB Pipeline) and pitcher Yahanse Morel, a 17-year-old who was signed out of the Dominican Republic and had been pitching in the lowest levels of the Nats’ minor-league system.
This is yet another go-for-it move by the win-now Nats. It has become almost comical the extent to which they have traded for relievers: Jonathan Papelbon in 2015, Mark Melancon in 2016, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler in 2017 and now Herrera in 2018. On the one hand, I respect the heck out of the Nats going for it every year. On the other hand, it would be nice to not have to deplete your farm system every year for bullpen fortification that you could have been taken care of in the offseason. If there is a knock on The Ninja, this would be it (although some of this is on the Lerners). And some of the guys who have been given up by the Nats in these trades are producing. Nick Pivetta, who the Nats dealt to the Phillies for Papelbon, allowed two earned runs in 7 1/3 innings with 13 strikeouts versus one walk in a 6-5 10-inning Phillies win over St. Louis on the day of the Nats’ trade for Herrera. Is Pivetta a dominant starter? No. But the guy has a 10.66 K/9 over 15 starts this season. Felipe Vazquez (the former Felipe Rivero), who the Nats dealt to the Pirates in the Melancon deal, was outstanding for the Pirates last season, though he has struggled this season.
Speaking of Pivetta, as MLB insider Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic noted on Twitter on Tuesday, one of the reasons that the Nats gave him up for Papelbon in 2015 was that they were only paying $400,000 of the $4.9 million of his remaining salary. In other words, the Nats not assuming significant additional payroll led to the giving up of a better prospect. The Nats reportedly are taking on all of Herrera’s remaining $4.4 million salary, as the Lerners now have agreed to add to the team’s payroll via trade in each of the last three years.
Something else that you have to wonder about is if this trade for Herrera is at all an indictment of how the Nats are feeling about Ryan Madson and/or Brandon Kintzler. Madson (4.38 ERA over 24 2/3 innings) and Kintzler (4.45 ERA over 28 1/3 innings) have had very iffy seasons, and Kintzler now is on the 10-day disabled list with a right forearm flexor strain.
As for Herrera, he has been terrific this season in posting a 1.05 ERA over 25 2/3 innings and going 14-for-16 on saves. This is off a bad 2017 in which he had a 4.25 ERA over 59 1/3 innings and went 26-for-31 on saves. What has been especially impressive about Herrera is that he throws strikes and not just with his fastball. He is no. 1 among qualified relievers this season in strike rate via non-fastballs. This is a guy who throws strikes with his breaking ball and his changeup, and there are not many relievers who consistently do that.
Now to some concerns.
A big problem with analyzing relievers is that you’re dealing with such tiny sample sizes; 50-70 innings for most guys in a given season. Herrera has only thrown 25 2/3 innings this season. That said, his batted-ball numbers this season are disturbing. Herrera’s ground-ball percentage this season is just 37.1, which would easily be a career worst. Even last season, when he had a 4.25 ERA, his ground-ball percentage was 47.5. Herrera’s fly-ball percentage this season has skyrocketed to 42.9. And Herrera’s soft-contact percentage has dropped to 11.3 off having consistently been in the teens and even 20s. What you want from relievers are ground balls and soft contact. Herrera, at least so far this season, is trending in the wrong direction.
Additionally, Herrera is not a great strikeout pitcher (7.71 K/9 this season) and he does walk guys, having averaged more than three walks per nine innings in four of his previous five seasons. His BB/9 this season, though, is a terrific 0.70.
In The Ninja we trust, and so Rizzo gets a benefit of the doubt with his trades that most other general managers do not. He has made it clear to Sean Doolittle that he will remain the Nats’ closer. The rest of the bullpen roles, though, now are to be determined, and that’s just fine. The Nats will have four guys with closing experience once Kintzler comes off the DL, and Herrera, keep in mind, threw high-pressure innings for the Royals in their American League pennant-winning seasons of 2014 and 2015. There’s a whole lot of mixing and matching that Dave Martinez is going to be able to do. But just be aware that Herrera does come to the Nats with some reasons to be cautious.