Another Dayton Moore-KC Royals pitching reclamation project appears to be more successful than most.
There was no baseball played last week–interrupted like everything by COVID-19, the game remains on indefinite hiatus and the futures of ballplayers battling for major league jobs are on hold. But for Trevor Rosenthal, the day before what would have been Opening Day for the KC Royals brought some good news.
Beginning to appreciate why Rosenthal might be pleased the day before a game that wouldn’t be played requires revisiting two dates from this past offseason: Rosenthal became a free agent Nov. 4, allowing him to seek employment with any big league team, then signed a minor league contract with the Royals, a deal reported in December but not officially announced until Jan. 13.
Rosenthal’s arrangement with KC came as no surprise to close followers of general manager Dayton Moore, a baseball executive with a legendary penchant for pitching reclamation projects. Typical of Moore’s previous attempts to turn around bright careers turned dark by injuries, poor performances, or both, the club signed Rosenthal to a minor league pact worth $2 million (plus incentives) conditioned on making the major league team and invited him to spring training as a non-roster player.
His situation and Moore’s tendencies in similar circumstances were a perfect match: a broken hurler searching for a place to rebuild the form that made him a superb closer, given a chance by a GM looking for inexpensive, low-risk solutions to his team’s pitching deficiencies. Rosenthal’s career was in tatters, derailed by inconsistent control, injury and corrective surgery that caused him to miss part of 2017 and all of ’18 and a catastrophic 2019 in which he pitched poorly for three minor league and three major league teams.
His pitching future was indeed bleak when the 2019 season ended. An uncanny ability to strike out hitters (10.0 SO9 combined for Washington and Detroit) was all that resembled the Rosenthal who closed so well for a time in St. Louis. That Rosenthal saved 45 games in 2014, then saved a Cardinal record 48 and was an All-Star in ’15; as his control and ERA became suspect, he dropped to 14 saves in ’16 and 11 in ’17.
The Cardinals found a tear in Rosenthal’s right UCL in August 2017; he underwent Tommy John surgery that month, St. Louis released him after the season and he missed all of 2018 recuperating.
The Nationals signed him but soon discovered he wasn’t the Rosenthal he once was–he gave up 16 runs and walked 15 in just 6.1 innings and was released June 23. (He also required a short minor league rehab assignment after suffering a viral infection). Detroit signed him but, after a short and shaky stint in the minors, found he was worse when he surrendered eight runs and walked 11 in nine major league innings. He was DFA’d in August.
The Yankees took the next unsuccessful chance on Rosenthal, signing him to a minor league contract that lasted just a third of an inning. Pitching at New York’s Triple-A affiliate, Rosenthal walked three, threw a wild pitch, hit a batter and surrendered four runs (99.99 ERA). (Ironically, and consistent with his continuing knack to fan batters–he’s averaged 12 strikeouts per nine innings in seven big league seasons–Rosenthal struck out the first batter he faced in the brief appearance).
So it was that Rosenthal presented a classic Dayton Moore-KC Royals reclamation case when he signed his Kansas City deal. But unlike so many of Moore’s embarked upon but now forgotten projects, Rosenthal’s appears fruitful; although solid regular seasons don’t necessarily follow stellar spring training performances, Rosenthal’s spring statistics are too good to ignore.
A game-by-game account isn’t required to understand how well this project has progressed, especially compared to Rosenthal’s miserable 2019. The numbers alone are sufficient: five games, 0 walks (suggesting his control may be under control again), nine strikeouts, five innings, three hits. The 16.2 SO9 isn’t surprising given his propensity to pile up strikeouts, the one constant through Rosenthal’s good and bad times. His fastball velocity, typically in the high 90’s and sometimes over 100 mph, hasn’t wavered.
But his excellent progress wasn’t the only source of recent good Rosenthal news–although there are no games in his or the KC Royals’ immediate futures, the club selected his contract last Wednesday, meaning he’s made the team and will break camp with it whenever baseball returns.
Trevor Rosenthal is pitching like he used to. That’s good news for him and the KC Royals.