Could a Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera “Royals” return be looming?

Last off-season, Dayton Moore struck gold by acquiring Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland to boost the bullpen in 2020. Even though both Rosenthal and Holland were coming off rough seasons in 2019, Moore was able to sign the former Cardinals and Royals closers to Minor League deals. Much to the benefits of the Royals organization, not only did they make the Royals roster out of Spring Training, but they proved to be key Royals relievers during the 2020 season.

Rosenthal, a former Cardinal who pitched for manager Mike Matheny in St. Louis, posted a 3.29 ERA and accumulated seven saves to go along with 21 strikeouts in 13.2 IP before being traded by the July Deadline to San Diego for Edward Olivares (and eventually pitcher Dylan Coleman). As for Holland, who was known as Kansas City’s “shut-down man” in 2013, 2014, and 2015 (before going down to injury down the stretch that year), he assumed the closer’s role after Rosenthal was traded to the Padres, and adjusted to the role admirably, as he posted a 1.91 ERA and 4.43 K/BB ratio to go along with six saves in 28 appearances and 28.1 IP.

Both Rosenthal and Holland are free agents this off-season, but they most likely will come at a much higher cost than they did last off-season. And thus, while it is possible that the Royals will bring back one of those two to the Royals bullpen in 2021 (with Holland being the favorite considering he finished the season with the club), Moore may also look to strike gold again this Winter and try to find a veteran reliever or two on Minor League deals who could surpass their value by season’s end.

If Moore decides to go that route again, two likely candidates he could pursue are former Royals closers Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera, who are not only available free agents, but looking to bounce back in the Majors after rough 2020 campaigns that saw them both get released by their respective teams during the shortened season.

Hence, it is possible that “HDH” has a chance of coming back to Kansas City for the 2021 season.

Photo Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Granted, the Royals would not be getting the same pitchers from the glory days of 2013-2016 if they acquired Herrera and Davis through free agency. Herrera will be 31-years-old by the start of Spring Training, and Davis is currently 35-years-old. Furthermore, both relievers were “hot disasters” in short stints in 2020, as they only saw limited time on the mound before they were eventually disregarded by their clubs.

In 2020, Herrera started out with the White Sox, but struggled in only two appearances, as he posted a 15.43 ERA by allowing four runs on three hits, which included two home runs allowed. Predictably, the White Sox released him when they called up second-base phenom Nick Madrigal, and Herrera was swooped up by the North Side Cubbies on waivers. Unfortunately, Herrera didn’t do much at the Cubs’ alternate site to merit a call up, and he was eventually released by them at the end of August.

Herrera unfortunately has struggled since leaving Kansas City for Washington through a trade in 2018 that involved Kelvin Gutierrez, Blake Perkins, and Yohanse Morel. After posting a 1.05 ERA and 11 K/BB ratio and accumulating 14 saves in 27 appearances with the Royals in 2018, Herrera posted a 4.34 ERA in 18.2 IP with Washington in the second half of 2018. His regression continued after he signed a two-year deal with the White Sox going into 2019, as he posted a 6.14 ERA and 2.30 K/BB ratio last season, which included a 4.03 BB/9, a career-high. Thus, when the former Royal showed signs of struggle in 2020, it’s not surprising that GM Rick Hahn cut ties with him quickly, especially considering that the White Sox were now built to be in the thick of the AL Central race, and couldn’t afford to hold onto any loose ends.

Even amidst his struggles, there were times (though infrequently) when Herrera looked like his Royals self the past two seasons on the South Side. As evidenced by the highlight clips below from his 2019 White Sox season, Herrera showed that he could on occasion pump his heater into the upper 90’s. Furthermore, when his fastball-changeup combo is working, he looked like his former All-Star self (remember, he has two All-Star appearances on his resume):

However, there seem to be ample warning signs going into 2021. As a reliever who primarily relies on his fastball, the decline in velocity of his fastball since 2017 is not promising. According to Fangraphs data, his fastball velocity went from 97.5 in 2017 to 96.5 in 2018 to 96.0 in 2019 to 94.3 MPH in 2020. A 3.2 MPH drop in almost three years time is huge, and could be a big reason why he not only failed to stay on with the White Sox in 2020, but also why he didn’t get a call up from the Cubs either, a team whose bullpen was a big reason why they fell short in the postseason. The dip in velocity also contributed to hitters being able to barrel him with ease in 2020, as hitters posted a 14.3 percent barrel rate off of him as well as an exit velocity of 91.6, which were both career highs.

Granted, while his 2020 was a small sample, he was showing signs of regression in 2019 as well. His swinging strike rate was only 11.4 percent in 2019, which was his lowest rate since 2017, and only the third time in his career in which it was below 12 percent (2012 being the other year). Hitters’ barrel rate against him in 2019 was also 8.2 percent, which was also a career high at that time. Hence, while one may think that Herrera would have gotten better over the course of the 2020 season had he stayed with the White Sox, 2019 also hinted that Herrera may be nearing the end of his career on the mound. And thus, while the Royals may be able to get him with a Minor League deal, Herrera will need to show some serious signs of improvement if he wants to make this Royals team, especially considering how deep the Royals bullpen was in 2020.

Photo Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

While Herrera has really struggled since leaving Kansas City, Davis has at least seen some success outside of the City of Fountains since he was traded to Chicago for Jorge Soler in 2017. In his lone season with the Cubs, Davis posted a 2.30 ERA and accumulated 32 saves in 59 appearances, which earned him his third-straight All-Star appearance. Even though he couldn’t help the Cubs win back-to-back World Series titles, his stellar season did merit him a contract from the Colorado Rockies, and he continued to be one of the game’s better closers, as he made 69 appearances and saved 43 games, which not only led the National League in 2018, but also set a Rockies franchise-record, as evidenced in the video highlight reel below:

Unfortunately, while the save totals were impressive from 2018, his other metrics that year were questionable. His ERA rose from 2.30 to 4.13 from 2017 to 2018, respectively, and his exit velocity allowed also rose from 85 to 87.8 during that timespan as well. And even though he did slightly improve his K/BB ratio in 2018 (2.82 to 3.00), his K/9 rate did decrease (from 12.12 to 10.74), as did his swinging strike rate (15.4 to 12.2 percent) and Win Probability Added (3.54 to 0.80), according to Fangraphs data. Thus, even though Davis set a personal and Rockies-franchise record for saves in 2018, his first year in Colorado was less impressive when looked at as a whole, and further hinted at some signs of decline on the horizon.

In 2019, that regression came more into fruition. In 50 appearances, his ERA ballooned to 8.65 and hitters’ EV against him rose to 89.4. His control and command metrics plummeted, as his K/9 rate dropped to 8.86 and his BB/9 rose to 6.12, which resulted in a ratio of 1.45, his worst mark since 2013 (1.97), his first season as a Royal where he primarily pitched as a starter. Even though he started the year as the Rockies closer and still saved 15 games, he didn’t finish the year with the role, and finished the season with a -0.2 WAR.

Much like Herrera, Davis continued to regress in 2020 over a limited sample, as he only made five appearances and posted an insane ERA of 20.77, which included him allowing three home runs, 9 hits, and 10 runs in 4.1 IP. As expected, the Rockies designated him for assignment in September, which closed the book on the former Royals hero’s tenure in Denver.

Similarly to Herrera, Davis also saw a dip in velocity, as his fastball went from averaging 93.2 MPH in 2019 to 91.7 MPH in 2020. Davis isn’t as fastball-reliant as Herrera (he threw it 40.3 percent o the time), and he is becoming more of a fastball-cutter-curve guy (unlike the fastball-change heavy Herrera). But, much like his former teammate, the 35-year-old will need to show some gains in velocity in Spring Training to make the Royals team even if Moore does offer him a contract.

And unfortunately, at Davis’ age, that doesn’t seem likely.

Photo Credit: NY Daily News

So…can Herrera and Davis be 2021’s version of Holland and Rosenthal?

Perhaps. At this point, it seems unlikely that either Herrera or Davis will have many suitors, and Moore has been known to have a soft spot for former Royals. A Minor League contract and invite for Spring Training wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either for both parties. Davis and Herrera will get one last shot to prove that they can pitch at the MLB level, which they will take at this point in their careers. If they can’t perform in Cactus League play, the Royals can easily cut bait with both guys with no damage to their payroll. If the pair does bounce back and surprise? Well, not only will they help the bullpen, but they will also bring some much-needed fanfare to a Royals base that still looks on those “competitive years” fondly.

As of now though, the chips will be stacked against Herrera and Davis getting a contract, let alone making the Royals team in 2021. In 2019, the bullpen was still a question mark beyond Ian Kennedy, Scott Barlow and Tim Hill (sort of). And thus, Rosenthal and Holland had much better shots to not only make the team, but make an immediate impact as well in 2020. That’s not the case in 2021, as the bullpen is actually a “strength” of this Royals team. Josh Staumont and Jesse Hahn have closer potential, and Scott Barlow and Kyle Zimmer established themselves as effective set-up men. If the Royals do re-sign Holland, that will make it all the situation much tougher for Herrera and Davis to not only merit an active roster spot, but a Spring Training invite as well, especially with so much pitching depth available in the Royals farm system.

That being said, one can never know, as relievers can be volatile commodities. After all, Kennedy went from a sure-fire closer to out of the late innings in less than a month in 2020, and Hill was traded for Franchy Cordero and Ronald Bolanos before the 2020 regular season began. So, while Staumount, Hahn, and Zimmer might have a lot of momentum going into 2021, it is possible that could change, especially if the injury bug bites (especially for Zimmer, who’s recovering from injury) or if they struggle this Spring in Surprise. If either of those things happen, that could open up the door for Herrera and/or Davis to sneak in and acquire a roster spot in the bullpen or two for next year.

At this time, I think it’s 50-50 that Moore signs Herrera and Davis to Minor League deals. If Moore makes such moves, it will likely happen close to Spring Training, when it’s absolutely clear that they will be signed for a minimum amount. That is no knock to either reliever right now, but it’s a buyer’s market, and with start of Spring Training hazy due to rising COVID rates across the country, Moore has the luxury of waiting. Honestly, nobody is calling Herrera or Davis’ agents at this time, and it’s likely that it will remain that way until January or early February as well.

But if Moore does ink them to deals, there won’t be any guarantees either for both Herrera and Davis in Kansas City. They, like Rosenthal and Holland, will have to prove their worth in Cactus League play.

And if they do…

Well…the Royals bullpen could get a whole lot more interesting in 2021, especially if Holland is in the mix.

Because honestly…”HDH” 2.0 would be something to behold at Kauffman Stadium in 2021 for Royals fans.

Even if it blows up in the Royals face eventually over a 162 games…

4 thoughts on “Could a Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera “Royals” return be looming?

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