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Looking at a rumored Kelvin Herrera extension

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With reports that the Royals are considering extending Kelvin Herrera, what might that extension look like?

Herrera on the verge of unleashing Blue Steel
Herrera on the verge of unleashing Blue Steel
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The apparent rise of the lockdown bullpen spawned in part by the Royals' postseason run has meant that the new hot commodity for clubs with eyes on a playoff run is a bullpen four or five solid arms deep. Obviously, the Royals have nothing in the way of worries on this front as they are set to add Luke Hochevar back to the mix, will have Jason Frasor for a full season, and possess a lottery ticket with a non-terrible chance of paying off in the form of Ryan Madson on a minor-league deal.

While the Royals possess a wealth of live arms in the bullpen, that bullpen already comprises a payroll burden somewhere in the neighborhood of $20MM to $25MM and will only get more expensive as Wade Davis's contract escalates to $8MM and $10MM in 2016 and 2017, Hochevar sees a $1.5MM increase the next year, and Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera advance through their arbitration-eligible years.

With consternation arising from those worried specifically about the Royals' continued ability to employ two high-dollar closer-quality relievers in the form of Greg Holland and Wade Davis, it probably makes at least a little sense for the Royals to look at extending Kelvin Herrera to control the amount by which his salary will increase through his arbitration years, which is precisely what Jon Heyman reported the Royals were doing late Monday morning with this tweet:

After recovering from the jarring nature of Heyman's repugnant disregard for the capitalization of proper nouns and needless use of a comma separating just a pair of compound predicates, curiosity should lead one down the path to wondering what an extension for Kelvin Herrera would look like.

As a Super-Two, Herrera is heading into his first of four arbitration-eligible years. Unfortunately, the list of comparable extensions handed out to relievers is very short.

The only reliever who was extended by more than four years was Sean Doolittle this past April. It looks like Doolittle comes up an estimated 11 days shy of having been a Super Two at 122 service days, saving the A's $3.25MM. Based on this assumption, Doolittle's deal netted him $600K and a $150K signing bonus last season and jumps to $750K in 2015, $1.55MM in 2016, $2.6MM in 2017, and $4.35MM in 2018, including club options of $6MM and $6.5MM in 2019 and 2020 with $500K buyouts on each option year.  Given his promotion to the role of closer just a month after signing his extension, it looks like this deal worth a guaranteed $10.5MM will end up saving the A's a lot of money, as arbitration loves saves, and the total value of Doolittle's contract would probably be surpassed in just the money he would make in arbitration years one and two, if he held onto the closer's role.

Doolittle's extension only guarantees him money through the years that he'd have been under club control anyway, though it does guarantee him money those years. It also gives the club options for what would have been his first two years of free agency, or through his age-33 season. If he retains the closing gig throughout the term of his contract, he will make considerably less than he would have made if he had simply gone through arbitration, even after games finished escalators built into his deal.

As Doolittle had neither the track record of having been a proven closer at the time of his extension, a deal similar to this is the most comparable best-case scenario for a prospective Herrera extension.

The worst-case scenario--and the only other non-established closer who got a four-year extension--would be the deal that Manny Corpas got from the Rockies heading into the 2008 season. In his first full season following a midseason call-up in 2006, Corpas had 19 saves in 78 appearances in 2007, a season in which he recorded a 2.08 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 3.61 xFIP, 6.69 K/9, 19.0 K%, 2.31 BB/9, 6.5 BB%, 2.90 K/BB, and a shocking 57.4 GB% that ended up being 9.2 percentage points better than his current career average. Corpas never repeated his 1.2 fWAR, 2.9 rWAR campaign again, and by the second year of his deal he was sporting a negative rWAR.

The terms of Corpas's deal saw him get $775K in 2008, $750K in 2009, and $2.75MM in 2010. In September of 2010, he required Tommy John Surgery, but the Rockies still owed him the remaining money on the four-year, $8.025MM deal, so they released him following the 2010 season, meaning the $3.75MM--$250K of that in the form of a buyout on a club option for what would have been his final year of arbitration eligibility had there never been an extension in the first place. While the Rockies hardly had to break the bank to pay Corpas the money he was owed after his injury, his eventual ineffectiveness as a closer should probably have been foreseen given the fact that the 2007 campaign that netted him the deal in the first place was achieved with the aid of smoke, mirrors, an alarmingly low BABIP, and pedestrian K-rates for a relief pitcher.

The only other two relievers to receive extensions of four years were Craig Kimbrel this past offseason and Joe Nathan in 2008. Kimbrel's deal guarantees him $42MM through the 2017 season and includes a club option for 2018. Nathan's netted him $47MM from 2008 through the 2011 season. Of course, he missed 2010 with Tommy John surgery and struggled in 2011 as he worked his way back from the injury. The Twins also added two more years onto the first three-year extension that they'd handed Glen Perkins heading into this past season. Counting 2014, Perkins's latest extension was also for four seasons.

Of course those last three were all established closers at the time of the extensions, so the precedent that any of them set--other than the specter of Nathan's ulnar collateral ligament tear--isn't particularly instructive insofar as money is concerned.

Corpas's deal was signed seven years ago, so one could also assume moderate inflation to all of those figures. One looking to the Corpas signing as a cautionary tale given Herrera's own dip in K-rates this past season and that each pitcher outperformed their FIP by better than a run (-1.52 ERA-FIP for Corpas, -1.28 for Herrera) should take note that Herrera has 104.1 IP more than Corpas did at the time of the deal. Obviously, that's not much, but it is more than a season more in relief than Corpas had thrown at the time of his extension, and his track record is enough to give one cause for moderate confidence in his skillset and future worth.

If Corpas is the bad scenario in terms of comps, Doolittle's is the good one, as Doolittle only had three arbitration years settled in his extension, it is probably more instructive to look at the deal he would have had had the Super Two cut-off been 122 days as it had been in 2013. While Doolittle's 2014 salary would have remained unchanged, that deal was set to be worth $1.4MM in 2015, $2.45MM in 2016, $3.65MM in 2017, $5MM in 2018. The club options for $6.0MM and $6.5MM in 2019 and 2020 would remain the same, as would the $500K buyouts. Doolittle also had games finished escalators that could increase the total value of that contract to $30MM (an increase of $5MM), and the 2019 club option becomes a mutual option if Doolittle finishes 100 games over the course of the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Herrera obviously has the makings of a closer, and at the very least would slot in nicely to the set-up role when Holland reaches free agency (or sooner). However, it is hard to see how Herrera would end up as the Royals closer until the 2018 season, when Davis is eligible for free agency. If just considering the four years of arbitration being bought out, the A's would have paid $13.0MM to Doolittle counting the buyout of the first club option, which seems similar to what Herrera could expect to get.

So a four-year $13MM extension would make sense to offer to Herrera. Any games finished escalators would be much less likely to be hit for Herrera than Doolittle, but such a mutual option clause based on 100 games finished over the last two season would certainly make sense. Options could bring the total to an even $25MM over six years.

Even if Herrera isn't closing, a contract structured to mirror the Doolittle deal would be hard to argue against, as it would control his cost if and when Herrera ends up being the Royals closer, but otherwise is less than a premium set-up man would cost on the open market. Steamer has him projected for 55.0 IP and 0.7 fWAR, but Herrera's been good for 70 IP in each of the past four years (counting the minors), so historic usage would indicate a value of 0.9 fWAR to be realistic. A performance at that level would put him at surplus value for each of the four seasons in which he was under club control.

There is risk to any extension like this, but the relatively low cost of these signings make sense for every team, especially small market teams like the Royals. The chance for absurd surplus value on an extension for a middle reliever is low, obviously, but the cost to extend Herrera--at least based upon the structure of the Doolittle deal--would be relatively low, and without an extension his pricetag would go up if he ended up being called upon to close out games while under contract.