Nats GM: Had our eyes on Herrera 'for years'

Chris Lingebach
June 20, 2018 - 4:22 pm

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Newly acquired reliever Kelvin Herrera slid gently into his first game with the Nationals, calmly getting three outs on six pitches in the eighth inning of 9-7 win over Baltimore Tuesday night.

It would be stunning to think the Nats were able to acquire Herrera without sacrificing a top prospect, if not for General Manager Mike Rizzo's history of striking extraordinary deals.

Rizzo has been targeting the two-time All-Star and World Series champion for years.

"He was one of the guys that we kind of kicked the tires on (last summer)," Rizzo told The Sports Junkies, sponsored by Burke & Herbert Bank. "And obviously the price for Kelvin at that time with a year and a half of control was a lot different than it was with four and a half months of control.

"We had our eye on him for years. He's been a great reliever for years. He's one of the guys that we talked about when we talked about improving our bullpen."

Acquiring Herrera was a case of 'you can never have enough,' Rizzo says. In this case, Washington now has Sean Doolittle, Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Herrera fortifying the back end of the bullpen -- a fearsome foursome that could seriously shrink ballgames come postseason, if the Nationals make it to October.

"It shortens games," said Rizzo. "Recently it's been a proven way to improve your chances of winning in the playoffs and getting to the playoffs. We just thought that it was a good idea to strike early, as we've done the last couple of years, before the market really kind of develops for these relievers. We thought the closer to the deadline we get, the more competition we'll have for Kelvin. We were able to strike a deal with (Royals GM) Dayton Moore quickly and we couldn't be happier about it."

That's not to say the Royals got fleeced. In Blake Perkins, Kelvin Gutierrez and Yohanse Morel, Kansas City got three potential future Major Leaguers. It's just that their path to the big leagues could take a bit of time, a commodity the Nationals are in short supply of with pressure to win now.

Being traded came as a shock to Herrera, who's been in the Royals' system since 2007.

"It's kind of a mixed bag with those guys," said Rizzo. "When you're signed and raised through a great organization like the Royals. You're in rookie ball with most of your teammates, and all of a sudden you're winning a World Series ring with them. And then you get moved. I think there's some joy and some angst, just because you've been there a long time, you're familiar with everything."

"This guy is such a competitor," he said. "World Series-tested and playoff-tested. He's happy to be playing meaningful games. He talked about what it takes to win a World Series and our guys were all ears. I think that he's really thankful for getting the opportunity to get after it again and get another ring. At the same time, it's hard for those old relationships to die and to move on.

"But he was very excited about being with us. I spoke to him after we made the trade and he was a little shocked, but really fired up about it. And when he got to the clubhouse, he met some of his old teammates in Timmy Collins and Ryan Madson and was welcomed with opens by, not only the bullpen guys, but everybody on the team."

Rizzo provided an update on injured outfield prospect Victor Robles, who's been out of commission since April 9 with a hyper-extended left elbow, which got rolled up under his body in an attempted diving catch.

"He's coming along good," said Rizzo. "He's gonna start baseball activities in the near future. We'll test out that elbow in stress situations, like when he's playing games, and we'll see how it fares."

"If it fares well," he said, "it'll be great for us because then no surgery is needed and we'll get this guy back sometime this year."

Rizzo was asked what he's seeing in Bryce Harper's swing that could lend itself to his struggles at the plate. Harper's batting a career-low .213. With 53 walks drawn, he still owns a .352 on-base percentage, and he still ranks fifth in the majors with 19 home runs. Even in slumping, he's doing better than many.

"Actually, I've seen the last couple of games he's been a little bit more erect in his stance," Rizzo said. "He's got a little bit more balance, kind of thinking middle of the field more often. So I see subtle improvements and subtle changes in his approach at the plate, and the way he delivers his swing and that type of thing. I see good things coming. Hey, I'm a Harper believer. Anybody who's not a Harper believer hasn't seen him play. It's only a matter of time before he gets his act together. He finds a couple of holes, gets a couple of base-hits, then the home runs will come and then we'll be talking something different about Bryce Harper."

After missing 64 games in recovery from offseason knee surgery, Daniel Murphy made his much-anticipated return to the Nationals lineup last week. The downside, Murphy – who's slashing .120/.154/.160 in his first 25 at-bats – is essentially going through spring training in June.

"The microfracture surgery, it's a serious surgery. He's come back from it," Rizzo said. "His running gate doesn't look good, but he's moving around well. Played second base for the first time the other day and getting some reps at first. So he feels good about it and I feel good when he's at the plate. I think you'll only see his knee get better and better as the year goes on, as he gets more reps and more strengthening in it. I feel good that he's back in the lineup. We really need that presence and that left-handed bat."

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