Trevor Rosenthal’s time in Detroit hasn’t even extended long enough for us to have a picture of him in a Tigers uniform [Ed.: We got one on Tuesday!]. However, his acquisition may be on track to pay off already. An opportunity dropped in the Tigers’ laps when Rosenthal was released by the Washington Nationals back in June, and now Detroit may have themselves a bit of a trade chip to dangle with a week left until the July 31 trade deadline.
For anyone who watches much St. Louis Cardinals baseball, it’s still odd to see the 29-year-old flamethrower without a red bird on his chest. From 2012 to 2017, Rosenthal was one of the most consistently dominant relievers in baseball. He owns a 30 percent strikeout rate for his career against an 11 percent walk rate. He’s always had stretches where he devolves into a true wild thing, and Tigers fans have already seen a number of balls behind hitters or over the home plate umpire’s head, but his stuff remains elite when he’s on.
Rosenthal missed the entire 2018 season to UCL reconstruction surgery, but his medicals were convincing enough in the offseason that Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo committed to a one-year deal worth $7M with an option for 2020. Unfortunately, Rosenthal was a complete debacle for the Nats.
The medicals were accurate. Rosenthal certainly seems healthy. However his 30.9 percent walk rate this season is as poor a mark as you’ll ever see. 98-99 mph fastballs were largely confined within the vicinity of home plate, but he had no idea where the ball was going much of the time. The Nationals tried to give him a breather in May to work on things in the minor leagues, but ultimately had to bring him back up with no visible improvement. On June 23rd, the Nationals decided to cut bait and released him.
Less than a week later he was in Toledo pitching for the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate on a minor league deal. The wildness continued to show up, but Rosenthal started to get a handle of things, sprinkling stretches of improved control and overpowering stuff with appearances where he was all over the place. But the strikeouts started to pile up as well, and when the terms of his deal decreed that the Tigers had to call him up, he looked better than expected. In four scoreless innings of work, he’s walked three batters, but has only allowed one hit while punching out five.
Despite the ever growing success rate of Tommy John surgery, rehabilitation and success upon return to action vary widely from player to player. It’s not at all uncommon for a pitcher to require months or even years, long after he’s physically back to 100 percent, to fully recapture their pre-injury mechanics and command. Rosenthal had a lot of high velocity mileage on his arm, but he’s still in his 20’s, and a good bet to eventually get it back. In his time in Washington, he looked a lot like he was struggling to let the ball go without the instinct to protect his arm creeping into his motion.
Things have been much better recently despite the occasional rocket to the backstop. He’s located a lot of quality fastballs on the edges of the strikezone, and has seemed able to correct course during an outing when things do go temporarily sideways. The quality of his pitches also seems like a sign that there are brighter days ahead for him. His velocity is all the way back, and so far we’ve seen him comfortably sitting 98 mph, with a slider in pretty good order as well.
The Nationals felt they didn’t have time to be patient with Rosenthal, as he was costing them games in a tough NL East. The Tigers had all the roster space in the world for a pitcher who probably packs better stuff than any reliever in their system, and that ability to take a chance on Rosenthal may pay off. If he can keep it together for another two or three outings with the Tigers, a few eagle-eyed GM’s may low-key covet this player.
What could the Tigers get in return?
Before we get too excited, let’s remember than even a couple solid outings aren’t going to mitigate the risk involved for a contender. After three months with the Nationals where he looked to have the baseball equivalent of the yips, putting him in a contender’s bullpen is going to require a little faith. Time is short for Rosenthal to convince teams that he’s starting to put it together. Anyone interested is going to be betting on a coin flip.
However, imagine you are Andrew Friedman, or Jeff Luhnow, general managers of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, respectively. Or the general manager of any contender. They’d all love to steal a low-cost reliever who just happens to feature one of the more overpowering fastballs in the game. It would take a lot to trust him in the postseason, but it would cost relatively little for the chance to roster him for a month or two, rest a younger pitcher a bit with an eye to the postseason, and see how it goes. The opportunity to pay Rosenthal major league minimum for a couple of months, give the Tigers a modest prospect, and possibly win big seems reasonably tantalizing for teams that don’t really want to dip into their farm system too deeply for upgrades.
The Tigers have two basic choices
They can hope that Rosenthal pitches reasonably well the rest of the season, and agrees to stick around for the 2020 season. Unless there is a hidden option involved, he’ll be headed to free agency this offseason as he is close to having six years of service time under his belt. However, as much as a rejuvenated Rosenthal might become a fiercely sought trade piece at the 2020 trade deadline with another year’s work under his belt, there’s a lot of risk to that approach. If he pitches too well over the rest of the 2019 season and looks like his old self, he’s going to be too rich for the Tigers’ blood based on their recent spending. Rather than playing for the lowly Tigers, the odds are that he would seek greener pastures.
If the Tigers don’t feel he’s worth anything in trade right now, they would be well advised to try and offer him a contract though next season immediately. However, Rosenthal is under no pressure to sign, and may simply have no interest in accepting a reasonable offer, hoping to pitch well and rebuild his value the rest of the season.
Or, the Tigers can just try to flip him sometime in the next seven days, hoping that a few more controlled outings will sway a team to take a chance on a low-risk, high-reward play.
No, the Tigers aren’t likely to get anyone particularly notable in return. And it’s possible that Rosenthal had a few rough outings, teams decide to pass, and he gets two months working things out in the Tigers bullpen while sitting on the millions the Nationals owe him. Then he goes right back on the free agent market in the fall. But while Matt Boyd, Shane Greene, and Nick Castellanos were the featured attractions for scouts as they played the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday night, you can be sure Rosenthal drew plenty of attention as well.
We’re not going to be wowed by a return, but there is an opportunity here for the Tigers to pick up a decent prospect. Perhaps a young infielder or pitcher that a club with a deep farm won’t miss can be acquired. In return, a contender gets to try Rosenthal out with the chance to get a low-cost jump on the rest of their competition as the major league season turns toward the stretch drive. It’s also possible that a team in need of weapons in their bullpen, who is balking at the Tigers’ price for closer Shane Greene, can be swayed with a wild card like Rosenthal as a kicker.
The acquisition of Trevor Rosenthal isn’t going to pay off big for the Tigers, but it’s small moves like this that can help bolster your system depth if you can identify the right player. Right now, he is an uncomfortable at-bat for any hitter in the game. If he can hold it together for a couple of outings, the Tigers are going to find themselves holding a modest trade chip, and every little bit can help.