While learning in camp, Herz wants to be a "beast" to validate trade

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – By recent standards, the Nationals were unusually quiet at last year’s trade deadline despite being in last place and receiving interest in a handful of their major league players.

But general manager Mike Rizzo made only one move, sending third baseman Jeimer Candelario and cash to the Cubs for prospects DJ Herz and Kevin Made.

Both entered the Nats system as mid-level prospects, but by season’s end, one clearly stood out as the one with the highest ceiling.

Herz, who turned 23 in January, quickly inserted himself as one of the best pitching prospects, and maybe the best left-hander, on the Nats farm in just eight starts with Double-A Harrisburg. He finished the season 2-2 with a 2.55 ERA, one home run allowed, 20 walks, 53 strikeouts and 1.132 WHIP and 13.5 strikeout-per-nine-innings rate in 35 ⅓ innings with the Senators.

Now on the Nats’ 40-man roster to be protected from last December’s Rule 5 Draft, Herz is settling into his first major league spring training with his new team.

“It's been good. It's definitely been refreshing,” Herz said. “It's a whole different type of work. So just kind of learning their values and everything here. It's been really refreshing. Just excited to go out there and play with some of these guys. It's been an encouraging spring training. Everybody's busting their butts, so it's really cool to see right now.”

Being traded midseason is one of those experiences in sports that can only be understood by those who go through it themselves. Herz never thought it would happen to him, until it did, and he had to pack his bags and move to another organization quickly.

“It was crazy,” he said. “I didn't even kind of think it was gonna happen to me because you see it happen with a bunch of other guys all the time. Then just one day you're with your buddies, and then the next day, you got to pack up and leave everything and go to a completely new team. So it's a weird feeling, but it's also a good feeling because it's full of new opportunities.”

Players often struggle when they have to change teams in the middle of the season. But not Herz. He built upon the numbers he had put up to that point in the Cubs system: 1-1 record with a 3.97 ERA, 37 walks, 80 strikeouts and 1.424 WHIP in 14 starts at Double-A Tennessee.

“I think a lot of it just had to do with, like, I kind of used it as motivation,” Herz said. “I was like, I'm going to show them up, or I'm going to come out and I'm just going to put everything on the line and be a beast and do everything I can to make the Cubs know that they messed up a little bit. Other than that, I just use it as motivation and kind of fire to fuel the fire. I'm good at pitching under pressure. And so, I really like that kind of spot that I was in. I thrived in it.”

Motivation. A word often used by traded players when they arrive at their new team. Who isn’t motivated to prove doubters – or in this case the organization that was willing to give you up – wrong?

How is Herz channeling that motivation?

“Just knowing that the opportunity is huge here,” he said. “There's a lot of young guys. Knowing that I'm close and that I can really make a push at it. Going into the Fall League knowing I can show my skills. Show how good of a pitcher I am in the Fall League. I went down there, and I thought I did really well. And then using that going into the offseason just training my butt off hard, staying on top of shoulder work, doing everything that needs to be done to become a big leaguer.”

Herz capped off his strong 2023 with an impressive run at the Arizona Fall League, where some of the top prospects in the sport compete at the conclusion of the minor league season.

While being named a Fall Star, he went 1-0 with a 3.71 ERA, nine walks, 25 strikeouts and 1.294 WHIP in 17 innings over five starts in the AFL, while also finishing tied for third in the league in strikeouts.

“Man, that was an awesome league,” he said. “There were a bunch of good hitters. I made relationships with a bunch of new guys and organizations that I never thought I would be able to make. They're awesome people. The competition over there was insane. The hitters were really good hitters, all top prospects, guys that are just coming into their selves. We'll probably see a lot of big leaguers come from that group. So it was awesome to compete in that type of situation, that type of environment. I think it helped a lot.”

That experience catapulted him into major league spring training. Although he’s not expected to break camp with the team, he is soaking in every moment he has in camp. And impressing coaches and team officials along the way, validating the acquisition from eight months ago.

“I'm just trying to do me,” Herz said. “I'm just trying to do what I do. Just stick to what I know. Pitch to how I know, pitch how I do. I'm not trying to do anything more or trying to do anything less. I'm just coming out here every day. Every day is a new day. Just trying to take it one day at a time.”

The southpaw has appeared in two Grapefruit League games so far. Over three innings, he’s given up just two hits and one run while striking out four. He has, however, walked five batters, continuing his biggest issue from last year when he posted a 13.9 percent walk rate at Double-A.

But he’s still working to improve his control and command of his four-pitch arsenal of fastball, Vulcan changeup (which is a variation of the circle changeup, resembles a forkball and split-finger fastball, and yes, is named after the Vulcan salute from “Star Trek”), curveball and slider.

“I think the confidence I have on the mound is huge,” Herz said of his strengths as a pitcher. “I think my mental game is really big on the mound. I just like to attack. I like to be aggressive with the fastball. I know myself and know how to use my pitchers on the mound. I think that's the strength of my game is just knowing myself and knowing what I do really well.”

If Herz can harness his aggressiveness and hone in on the strike zone, he could be a future left-handed starter in the Nats rotation. If not the rotation, he could at least be a high-leverage lefty reliever out of the bullpen, a weapon the Nats haven’t had since Sean Doolittle’s heyday.

For now, Herz is absorbing as much information in big league camp as he can, some of which comes from Doolittle himself as the team’s new pitching strategist.

“It's just obtaining and learning everything I can,” Herz said. “Just having big ears and learning from the veteran guys, some of the guys that have been in the big leagues. So it's just been cool to like, hear, learn and just kind of do what I do. I work hard, I play with a lot of heart. Just being myself.”

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