Royals: Another KC pitching reclamation project begins

(Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

A former star National League closer is the latest reclamation project for the Kansas City Royals. Can he help the KC bullpen?

Trevor Rosenthal, once a premium All-Star closer, is the latest reclamation project of the Kansas City Royals.

Rosenthal, a veteran of four playoff appearances with the St. Louis Cardinals and owner of a powerful fastball, has inked  a $2 million minor league contract with Kansas City, replete with a non-roster invitation to 2020 Spring Training and, contingent on making the big league club and major league performance, incentives worth another $2.25 million .

Although Rosenthal had a disastrous 2019 season–he was 0-1 with a 13.50 ERA in 22 combined games with the Washington Nationals and Detroit Tigers–the signing isn’t really surprising. Rosenthal enjoyed his greatest success as a lock-down closer for new Kansas City manager Mike Matheny in St. Louis, and plucking once successful pitchers off the scrap heap is a trademark of KC General Manager Dayton Moore.

A 21st-round Cardinal draft pick in 2009, Rosenthal spent much of his minor league career as a starter but appeared only as a reliever in his six St. Louis seasons. He was overwhelmingly successful in his second full season under Matheny, saving 45 games in 72 appearances in 2014, with 83 strikeouts in slightly less than 69 innings. The season affirmed the potential reflected by his official rookie campaign of 2013 when Rosenthal posted a 2.63 ERA, 1.91 FIP and 12.9 SO9 in 74 games, a performance that earned him a spot on Baseball America’s All-Rookie team.

Rosenthal’s 2015 remains his best big league season. He pitched in 68 games with a 10.9 SO9 and 2.10 ERA and his 48 saves set the Cardinals’ single-season record, an accomplishment made even more impressive because it bettered the best St. Louis seasons of Cardinals’ career saves leader Jason Isringhausen and Hall of Famers Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith.

The 2016 and 2017 seasons weren’t as kind to Rosenthal, however: he recorded a combined 25 saves over 95 games and his ERA ballooned to 4.46 in 2016. After losing his role as the Cards’ closer in 2016, surgery followed a 2017 UCL injury; St. Louis let him go and rehabilitation from his injury robbed him of his 2018 season.

Rosenthal signed with the Nationals for 2019, but a catastrophic performance led to his release well before the Nats reached and won the World Series. His best Cardinal form vanished–he gave up an astonishing 16 earned runs in only 6.1 innings for a grotesque 22.74 ERA and had an almost unimaginable 21.3 BB9. Washington released Rosenthal but the Tigers took a chance, signing him just six days later.

As unimpressed with him as the Nationals had been, Detroit released Rosenthal after six weeks–he walked 11 batters (11.0 BB9) and posted a 7.00 ERA and 1.556 WHIP in 10 games.  Although he posted a 12.0 SO9 with the Tigers, the 2019 Rosenthal clearly wasn’t the Rosenthal of old, and certainly not the All-Star hurler of 2015 who saved 48% of the Cardinals’ wins. (The Yankees signed Rosenthal after Detroit gave him his walking papers, but he never threw a big-league pitch for New York).

Rosenthal’s Tommy John injury, his long rehabilitation from it, and the debacle that was his 2019 season weigh against the likelihood of him regaining the magic of his best Cardinal years. A complete return to All-Star form seems improbable and reliance on Rosenthal illogical.

It is his history with new skipper Mike Matheny and a Dayton Moore tendency that makes Rosenthal’s arrangement with the Royals more predictable than logical. That Rosenthal had his best years under Matheny is a fact and the two are certainly well-familiar with each other’s tendencies; Moore’s record of trying to salvage pitchers fallen on hard times is an established part of the Royals’ approach, as evidenced by his signings of Clay Buchholz, Ricky Nolasco, Wily Peralta and Al Alburquerque (among others)–and his steadfast commitment to Kyle Zimmer.

Too, Moore’s attempts to salvage pitchers seem to fail more than they succeed and there are reasonable grounds to believe Rosenthal’s signing may end in another failed effort to rejuvenate a former star. Not since 2015 has Rosenthal been consistently effective; his 2018 season was lost to Tommy John rehabilitation; and his career hit rock-bottom in 2019.

Conversely, the impending Rosenthal experiment poses little risk to KC. His $2 million price tag doesn’t threaten even the oft-stingy Royals’ financial well-being; if ultimately paid, his $2.5 million in incentives will likely be money well spent and well-earned. His Spring Training invitation status as”non-roster” indicates the Royals aren’t willing to make a long-term commitment until if and when Rosenthal proves he can approach his once-stellar form.  But should the Royals really take a chance on him?

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Whether Rosenthal becomes yet another of Dayton Moore’s unsuccessful reclamation efforts is anyone’s guess; while the project may be more likely to fail than succeed, it may be a chance worth taking for the Kansas City Royals. The financial obligation isn’t overwhelming for the cost-conscious club (especially if Rosenthal doesn’t earn the incentives) and the Royals’ present commitment is short-term. KC will have added a stabilizing force to its bullpen if Moore’s newest salvage operation succeeds. But as is the case with all of Moore’s gambles, time will tell.