Olney: Hot commodities in the relief pitching market

For contenders looking for bullpen help, Kelvin Herrera has it all: success, readiness for multiple roles and postseason experience. Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire

CHICAGO -- Manny Machado will be the most discussed trade target of the summer in the media, because of his superstar pedigree and because of his impending free agency. But the Kansas City Royals’ Kelvin Herrera could turn out to be the most-talked about among teams, with the highest volume of suitors.

While Machado’s market will be more specialized, with just a handful of teams looking for help on the left side of the infield and even fewer willing to seriously consider the Baltimore Orioles’ high asking price. Machado is the Lamborghini of the summer swap talk; Herrera is the more reliable and more useful pickup truck.

Why? Because Herrera checks every box for interested contenders.

1. He’s a reliever, and even clubs with great bullpens will be looking to augment theirs. The New York Yankees, for example, are loaded with high-end relievers, but if general manager Brian Cashman doesn't find the type of starting pitcher he wants before July 31, he could opt to saturate his bullpen and target Herrera.

2. He has lots of experience as a closer, as well as a setup man. He’s got 53 saves, including 10 this year.

3. He’s throwing well. Herrera’s velocity is down a tick this year, but his average of 96.5 mph is still among the best in the big leagues. His swing-and-miss rate of 14.6 percent is the second-highest in his career, and Herrera ranks first in the AL in generating swings on pitches outside of the strike zone, at 43.7 percent.

4. He’s apparently healthy, with a relatively light early workload. Whether it’s because the Royals aren’t winning a lot of games or because they’re working to preserve a valued trade asset, there have been only four instances so far this season in which Herrera has worked on back-to-back days, and only one time when he pitched in three straight games.

5. He’s got loads of postseason experience, from the Royals’ championship runs of 2014-15, and in those high-pressure games, Herrera has 38 strikeouts in 28 ⅔ innings, with an ERA of 1.26.

6. He throws strikes. Lots and lots of strikes. Herrera had 20 appearances through Friday’s games, and he had issued a total of exactly zero walks.

7. He’s going to be pricey, given the number of teams that might ask about him, but he won’t be outrageously expensive, because he’s a free agent in the fall. Whoever buys him will pay for three-plus months of control (including October).

The Royals are rebuilding, and so they should trade him this summer, to recoup maximum value. Kansas City would also have the leverage to inform suitors, with all earnestness, that the Royals could keep Herrera and tender him a qualifying offer this fall, to set themselves up for draft-pick compensation.

But it’s much more likely that sometime in the next 65 days, some rival general manager will decide that Herrera can be a difference-making piece and will be willing to pay the Royals what they want -- just as the Royals paid the extra cost to land Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist during the 2015 season on their way to a World Series title.

Some other relievers who could be highly sought in the trade market:

Blake Treinen, Oakland Athletics: The 29-year-old right-hander has nasty stuff and is having the best season of his career, and Oakland has a long history of selling pitchers at the height of their value.

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles: He’s making progress in his rehabilitation from Achilles surgery in the winter, and if all goes well, he’ll be back to audition for interested teams well before the trade deadline.

Richard Bleier, Orioles: The 31-year-old lefty has performed well, limiting the damage of both lefties and righties.

Brad Hand, San Diego Padres: San Diego never really relented in its asking price for the lefty last year, and while Hand is not throwing quite as well in 2018 as he did in 2017, he could interest suitors. Hand has allowed 13 walks in 26 innings, but with 39 strikeouts. And remember how much he has dominated lefties this year: Left-handed hitters are 1-for-30 against Hand, with 16 strikeouts.

Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds: He’s got a 2.08 ERA and eight saves this year, with 42 saves in his career.

Seung Hwan Oh, Toronto Blue Jays: The right-hander has bounced back from some problems of last year, allowing only six walks and striking out 24 in 23 innings, with a 2.08 ERA.

News from around the major leagues

The baseball gods have not been kind to the Giants early this season. Madison Bumgarner suffered a broken pinky in the last week of spring training, and Johnny Cueto went down with an elbow issue. Newcomers Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria have not performed up to expectations yet. The schedule has been unusually rough -- by June 14, the Giants will have already had three three-city road trips to the Eastern and Central time zones.

And yet the Giants are right in the middle of the closely packed NL West. Now Bumgarner is on the verge of rejoining the San Francisco rotation, Cueto is set to start a throwing program Monday, and second baseman Joe Panik could be back in a week. From June 15 to Aug. 16, the Giants will play all of their games in either the Pacific or Mountain time zones, something players noted here at Wrigley Field on Saturday.

• The Manny Machado trade sweepstakes will likely kick off after the June amateur draft, with the Orioles beginning new talks with some teams and picking up the threads of past conversation. Last December, the Orioles believed they were making serious progress on a deal with the Cardinals -- for pitching prospects, plus third baseman Jedd Gyorko -- and then St. Louis backed off. The Cardinals have the deepest well of young pitchers of any team, which would probably give them an advantage over other clubs if they decide they want Machado this summer.

Yu Darvish was supposed to start for the Cubs on Sunday Night Baseball, before he was placed on the disabled list Saturday evening, but he is a man of many talents. When he met face-to-face with teams as a free agent, he insisted on going through that process without an interpreter -- to demonstrate his fluency in English. Darvish is right-handed, but he is also ambidextrous and can throw left-handed so well that one evaluator said he could compete in Double-A right now with his lefty stuff. A couple of years ago, he posted video on his Instagram account of a bullpen session in Boston in which he threw breaking balls lefty.

• The most anticipated showdown Sunday might be in Cleveland between the Cleveland Indians’ Trevor Bauer and the Houston Astros’ Gerrit Cole. They were teammates at UCLA, and it was well-known at the time both were drafted that they held each other in contempt. After Cole got off to a great start this year, Bauer took to Twitter to seemingly insinuate that Cole’s performance was aided by the use of a foreign substance -- pine tar. Bauer released a statement saying he wasn’t referring to anyone on the Astros ... but Cole’s teammates on the Astros do not believe him.

Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants really struggled against a tidal wave of inside fastballs in recent years, often fouling off pitches to the left side or popping out. This year, he has eliminated a small loop in his swing path, worked on taking the ball to left field in batting practice and is now crushing those inside pitches -- and has improved his slugging percentage by more than 100 points. Belt’s career high in homers is 18, but one evaluator said Belt might hit 35 to 40 this year.

Kyle Schwarber paused behind the batting cage for a minute when he saw a reporter and said, “You know what would be a good story?”

What do you got, Kyle?

“How about we do a story on baseball’s best pinch-hitter?” he said. “It’s unbelievable what he does.”

He was referring to Tommy La Stella, and yes, La Stella is thriving in that role this year: nine hits in 21 at-bats, plus five walks and two strikeouts, for a .538 on-base percentage. As Schwarber noted, La Stella will watch the first four innings or so when he is not in the starting lineup, and then he’ll retreat to the indoor cage to prepare for his moment.

And that’s all it is -- a moment. One pitch, maybe two or three. This is what La Stella really loves about pinch-hitting -- the challenge of getting himself ready and into fully effective concentration when that moment and opportunity arrives. La Stella said he will manage in his head along with Joe Maddon and anticipate when he might be used and which pitcher he might face. There are a lot of video numbers available to him, and he said he wants to be aware of some of it but not too much. “I try to simplify it,” he said, explaining that he wants to focus on what he does well rather than fret about what the pitcher typically tries to do.

• The topic was about pitchers making adjustments, and Cubs coach Mike Borzello recalled a switch by Yankees right-hander Mike Mussina. In the midst of a start in Baltimore, catcher John Flaherty went to the mound, and Mussina said, “Horns are split.”

Translated: If Flaherty put down the horns sign when he called for a pitch -- with his pinky and index finger -- then Mussina would throw a splitter.

Which Flaherty had never seen him throw.

“Do you have a split?” Flaherty asked.

“I do now,” Mussina replied.

A similar thing happened when Mussina pitched in the 2001 World Series. In Game 1, the Diamondbacks jumped on Mussina for six hits and five runs, including a couple of homers by left-handed hitters. At that stage in his career, Mussina would throw a fastball in the 90-92 mph range and a curveball typically in the 80-81 mph range. When Mussina opened in Game 5, he was throwing the fastball and a curve -- and then another pitch at about 84-85 mph. The Diamondbacks’ hitters flailed, and Mussina threw well, although his performance was lost in yet another late-inning comeback in that World Series and an extra-innings decision.

I had covered Mussina for a couple of years in Baltimore and then in that first season with the Yankees, and after thinking about the sequence of pitches, I approach Mussina on the field before Game 6 and asked, “Did you break out a splitter in the middle of the World Series?”

He smiled slightly, drew a finger in front of his mouth and said, “Sssshhhhh.”

• The Rays’ decision to start reliever Sergio Romo to gain a platoon advantage early in games is smart and steeped in logic and makes complete sense for them under the current rules. But it’s also more erosion of the starting pitcher-as-headliner, something that has worked well for baseball for decades because a lot of fans will check projected pitching matchups before buying tickets.

To put it another way: If you worked in a team’s marketing department, which would be a better sell -- a matchup of Chris Archer vs. Chris Sale, or two relay teams of relievers?

Baseball Tonight Podcast

Friday: Jessica Mendoza players Contender or Pretender with the National League field; Karl Ravech on the Rays’ decision to start relief pitchers; and Dr. Alan Nathan, chairman of the committee that studied the question of whether the baseballs were juiced.

Thursday: Keith Law and the latest draft machinations; Stephania Bell on the injury situations for Dustin Pedroia, Adam Eaton and Clayton Kershaw and the question of player privacy with injuries; and Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game. (Here also is the podcast Stephania referred to in our conversation, with the doctor who discusses cartilage restoration.)

Wednesday: Boog Sciambi on a couple of very interesting ejections; Jesse Rogers with some insight on the Cubs and their rotation and the question of whether they would pursue Manny Machado; and Paul Hembekides with some Cal Ripken joy.

Tuesday: A great conversation with Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who explains his out-of-the-box method for affecting change with one of Boston’s young players; Jerry Crasnick on the NL East’s youth and the future of Manny Machado; and Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.

Monday: Conversations with the Astros’ Alex Bregman and Indians manager Terry Francona; Tim Kurkjian on J.D. Martinez and Shohei Ohtani; and Todd Radom’s uniform-and-logo quiz.

And today will be better than yesterday.