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Royals trade candidate: Carlos Hernández

The young pitcher has turned a corner, which could draw plenty of interest.

Kansas City Royals v Chicago White Sox Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Pitching is the currency of baseball and in summer trading season, relievers are the commodity every contender needs. Rental relievers like Aroldis Chapman can provide a nice late-season boost, but teams particularly covet pitchers they can have for the next few seasons. With the Royals far back in the standings, the team has reportedly received interest in 26-year-old right-hander Carlos Hernández.

Hernandez has always been a flamethrower for the Royals, but his fastball was usually quite hittable. He pitched well in 2021, splitting time between the rotation and the pen, posting a 3.68 ERA in 85 23 innings. But he had a curiously low strikeout rate for someone that averaged 97 mph on his fastball. In 2022, hitters jumped all over his heater, batting .366 with a .581 slugging percentage against it, and his strikeout numbers fell even further.

But this year the Royals moved him to the pen full-time, and he has thrived under the tutelage of new pitching coach Brian Sweeney. Like most pitchers that move to the pen, he he has gotten a velocity bump up to 99 mph with more horizontal and vertical movement. He is throwing a splitter more to lefties, and it has been one of the better splitters in baseball, generating a 35.8 percent whiff rate. He is also throwing his slider more at the expense of an ineffective curve.

The overall result has been a 3.63 ERA and a career-best 10.6 strikeouts-per-nine innings. He has been particularly effective lately, with a 1.37 ERA and .121 opponents batting average over his last 18 outings since mid-June. According to Fangraphs WAR, he has been the second-most valuable Royals pitcher left on the roster, behind only Brady Singer.

So why trade him? Hernández won’t even be eligible for arbitration until after next season, and won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2027 season. He is just 26 years old - he’s the third-youngest pitcher currently on the roster. The Royals already have the third-worst bullpen ERA in baseball, and it will be harder to improve without Hernández.

But the traits that make him valuable to the Royals - effective pitching with several controllable years - make him very valuable to contenders as well, in fact more valuable since they are actually playing for a title this year while the Royals try to avoid having the worst record in baseball in half a century. They might be willing to part with some very valuable prospects to get a pitcher that can help them now and in the future.

The Royals’ awful bullpen may take a hit in the near future, but does it matter? The team seems far away from being in a position where ninth inning leads will be important - the roster has much bigger holes right now that a trade of Hernández could solve long-term. And if the Royals believe in their pitching development as much as they tout publicly, the next Carlos Hernández should be waiting in their farm system, ready for an opportunity.

What kind of trade could the Royals expect for Hernández? Last summer the Cubs got an impressive 47 relief appearances out of rookie reliever Scott Effross before trading him to the Yankees for pitcher Hayden Wesneski, who at the time was the #7 ranked prospect in the Yankees farm system by MLB Pipeline. Wesneski has put up a promising 3.86 ERA in 95 23 innings for the Cubs earlier in his career. Effross meanwhile, has missed the entire 2023 season after Tommy John surgery, another reminder that the shelf life for relievers can be short.

Two years ago, the Royals had another young flamethrowing reliever who was having success and generating trade buzz. Royals fans scoffed then at the notion of trading Josh Staumont, reasoning that surely he would be part of the next competitive Royals team. But injuries befell the svelte right-hander, and his trade value has disappeared while the Royals are no closer to contention.

The Royals may not want to miss out on that kind of opportunity again. Trading players that clearly have no future with the Royals like Aroldis Chapman and Nicky Lopez are obvious moves. If the Royals really want to be “transactional”, it may mean making a trade that hurts and sets the team back in their current lost season, to take a step forward long-term.