The White Sox have made a series of minor moves this offseason to prepare themselves for contention at some point in the future; that might be as soon as next year, but it’s more likely in 2020 or later. The team added Ivan Nova from the Pirates to provide innings in the rotation. They added Alex Colome from the Mariners to help the pen. Chicago acquired Yonder Alonso from Cleveland to improve the offense and let Jose Abreu spend more time at designated hitter. If there was a $7 million to $10 million unwanted player, the White Sox have seemed willing to take on the salary in exchange for a fringe prospect. That strategy took on a different form today, as the team snapped up free agent reliever Kelvin Herrera on a two-year, $18 million deal with a vesting option, per Jeff Passan.
Herrera, not unlike many relievers, has had an inconsistent career. In 2012, 2014, and 2016, he put together very good seasons, with a sub-3.00 FIP and at least one win above replacement. In 2013 and 2015, he was closer to average. In 2017, when he took on closer duties in Kansas City, he just wasn’t very good. Last season, he put together a very good first half, which prompted Kansas City to trade him to Washington at just the right time. In DC, Herrera pitched poorly, and was sidelined with a rotator cuff injury and then a foot problem that ended his season. He’s missed time due to right arm injuries in 2014, 2017, and last year, also not uncommon for a reliever throwing in the high-90s. This is what his velocity looks like by season.
Velocity isn’t everything, and at 29 years old, Herrera is still young, but the drop is concerning. Here’s a similar graph showing his strikeout and walk rates.
Herrera’s walk rate has always been fine aided by a career 60% first strike rate, including 67% last year. It is interesting that his strikeout rate doesn’t necessarily correlate with his fastball velocity. He wasn’t striking out a lot of batters in 2014 and 2015, when he still had great velocity, and then when his velocity first dipped in 2016, he struck out batters at the highest rate of his career. In ranking the Top 50 free agents this offseason, Kiley McDaniel put Herrera 49th overall and 10th among relievers. McDaniel pegged Herrera for a one-year deal at nine million dollars, roughly half the guarantee he ended up receiving. Dan Szymborski wrote Herrera’s report in that post and came to a similar conclusion.
While Herrera’s 2.44 ERA represented a bounceback to his 2015-16 levels with the Royals, his strikeout rate continued to fade from his 2016 heights, dropping under eight per game in 2018. While that’s not a fatal flaw — Herrera once produced a 1.41 ERA/2.69 FIP campaign while striking out 7.6 per nine innings — he’s also become a pitcher far easier for hitters to take yard than in the past. The increased homer rate (he was at 1.22 and 1.37 in the last two seasons, compared to 0.78 for his careers) isn’t a volatility fluke, as his GB/FB ratio has declined from 2.07 in 2014 to 0.82 this year. The 16-degree launch angle against was also his highest since Statcast has been keeping track of it. Herrera missed the end of the season with ligament surgery in his left foot, and while he’s expected to be fine for the spring, it also adds an extra bit of uncertainty. I’d be surprised if he gets a multi-year deal.
The crowd seems to have factored in Herrera’s longer track record of success when they guessed he would get three years and around $25 million guaranteed. Herrera didn’t get Joe Kelly money, but he got more than Joakim Soria, and isn’t too far off from the deals of Kelly, Andrew Miller, and David Robertson. As to how a player with a lot of red flags could secure a two-year deal, the market appeared to work in his favor.
Of the nine players ranked ahead of Herrera on the Top 50 free agent list, six have already signed contracts, as has the player ranked right behind him, Jesse Chavez. Two of the players who haven’t signed, Craig Kimbrel and Adam Ottavino, are the two best relievers on the board, both of whom are likely to require more years and a higher rate of pay. That means that if teams are looking for a reliever (and most teams are), the only free agent options with some semblance of a decent track record are Kelvin Herrera and Cody Allen. The latter just finished up an even worse season than Herrera did, with an ugly 13% walk rate in the second half. After those two, Bud Norris and Ryan Madson might be the best available relief arms.
Herrera was able to parlay the relative scarcity of relief arms into getting an extra year beyond our expectations. For the White Sox, Herrera adds another late-inning presence to Colome and Nate Jones. The White Sox bullpen might still be terrible given the recent histories of the good options, but it does have the chance to be a decent part of the 2019 club and potentially provide some trade value should its members pitch well as the White Sox fall out of the race.
Big picture, the White Sox still have a massive deficit in the rotation, plus some issues in the everyday lineup, to address before the team might be considered a contender. Chicago could sign Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Dallas Keuchel, and still only project for around 85 wins. If they sign just one of those players, they aren’t likely to contend now absent a big step forward from young players like Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson, and immediate stardom from Eloy Jimenez. Their payroll only sits at around $80 million so the team does have considerable room to add as it prepares itself for an attempt at contention in 2020, which lines up with when their new television contract begins. The White Sox aren’t competitive yet, but they are coming closer to a potential transition season that could see them ready to contend in another year.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.