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What the Kelvin Herrera trade means for the Yankees

The Royals’ relief ace fetched a light return on an expiring contract. This could be good news if the Yankees go shopping.

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MLB: New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, the Royals and Nationals kicked off trade season, consummating a swap that sent ace reliever Kelvin Herrera to the nation’s capital in exchange for a trio of prospects. On its face, this trade is business as usual. The Royals are going nowhere, and no matter how important Herrera was to their pennant-winning squads, he was a free agent to be. The Nationals are in the thick of it, wanted another bullpen arm, and so on, so forth.

Look a little closer, though, and the trade is interesting for what it could signal about this year’s trade market. If Herrera to Washington is at all indicative of about what’s to come, then contending teams like the Yankees stand to benefit. The rich might be about to get richer.

The full trade was Herrera for third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, center fielder Blake Perkins, and right-handed pitcher Yohanse Morel. Some quick numbers on the three: Gutierrez is hitting .274/.321/.391 at age-23 in Double-A, Perkins is hitting .234/.344/.290 as a 21-year-old in High-A, and Morel is just 17, with one professional start to his name.

The statlines of those prospects are unimpressive, but scouting just the statline is unfair, so let’s ask the opinions of the actual scouts. Gutierrez and Perkins ranked just 10th and 11th in the Nationals’ system per MLB Pipeline. FanGraphs had them seventh and 10th, while Baseball Prospectus ranked Gutierrez 10th.

They all essentially project, at best, as role 40 players, which, on the 20-80 scouting scale, is below average. Basically, if things go right for these prospects, they might turn into fourth outfielders, bench bats, and middle relievers.

If that seems underwhelming to you for a quality piece like Herrera, you wouldn’t be alone. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan wrote that he would’ve expected the Royals to get something more for Herrera, especially this early in trade season. Ken Rosenthal opined at The Athletic ($) about why the Royals dealt Herrera so early and for a seemingly light return. Herrera is a rental, but a premier rental, and one that was had for prospects that the Nationals are unlikely to miss.

This could have real implications for the Yankees. They are a great team, but virtually any team can use some reinforcements midseason to patch holes. If the cost for veteran rentals at the trade deadline is merely a pile of lottery tickets and role 40 prospects, the Yankees could add in July while hardly noticing the hit to their farm system.

Washington's farm system doesn’t profile as one of the game’s best. BP ranked them 13th before the year, while Law had them 18th, and that was on the strength of a pair of elite prospects in Victor Robles and Juan Soto. This is to say, the Nationals’ farm system isn’t nearly as deep as the Yankees’, and they still didn’t have to part with anything close to their top prospects to get Herrera.

Now imagine what the Yankees might have to part with to add a rental. MLB Pipeline lists the top 30 prospects in the Yankees’ system, and they don’t even reach the role 40 prospects in the system. MLB rates every one of the Yankees’ top 30 as a 45 prospect or better. What this could mean is that, if the price for Herrera is indicative, the Yankees might not even have to touch their best few dozen prospects to make an impact addition.

The one potential snag is that a good chunk of the most-rumored names come the deadline might not be rentals. Elite pitchers like Jacob deGrom and Chris Archer come with team control and would fetch a bounty far beyond a rental. Some of the more interesting relief targets, such as Brad Hand, Raisel Iglesias, or Nate Jones, for example, also have years before hitting free agency.

Still, there will be chances to add pending free agents. The division rival Blue Jays may be in a position to sell starter rentals in JA Happ and Marco Estrada. Tyson Ross makes for an interesting target in San Diego. Maybe even Cole Hamels, whom I’ve warned against paying top dollar for, could be had cheaply, if a big name like Herrera went for so little.

Regardless of what happens, the Yankees look like they could be in a prime position come trade deadline. They are so good, they could probably be fine even without making a trade. They likely will add, though, and if they go for rentals, the price is looking attractive. The price the Nationals just paid is one the Yankees can afford many times over. With a loaded roster with few holes and a deep farm system, the Yankees can enter trade season confident.