Why Trevor Rosenthal won’t return to the KC Royals

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

The KC Royals took a chance on Trevor Rosenthal and it paid dividends. But will he return to the club next season?

Less than a year ago, after disappointing their fans and embarrassing themselves with another 100-plus loss season, the KC Royals took a familiar step in their quest to improve a team that ruled the baseball world just a few years before.

They signed a broken pitcher searching for a place to rebuild himself. This time, it was Trevor Rosenthal, whose greatness as a closer was long gone. After saving 121 games in five years for St. Louis, including 45 in 2014 and a team record 48 in 2015, Rosenthal slid into a four-season decline that reached its low point in 2019 with a save-less, 13.50 ERA 22-game effort split between the Nationals and Tigers.

The Royals, though, considered Rosenthal worth a look and made him another of general manager Dayton Moore’s cheap, low-risk acquisitions. The club signed him to a one-year deal and it paid off. Rosenthal mesmerized hitters throughout a shortened spring training, then replaced Ian Kennedy as Kansas City’s closer as soon as the abbreviated 2020 season began. Stingy from the beginning, he gave up only one run in his first 11 appearances, and it was only a rough late August outing that skewed his ERA to a misleading 3.29. He saved a team-high seven games.

Realizing Rosenthal’s trade deadline value, and to no one’s surprise, the KC Royals put him on the midsummer market and shipped him off to San Diego for Edward Olivares. Rosenthal was perfect for the Padres, going 1-0 with four saves in nine scoreless outings and striking out 21 in just under 14 innings. Not giving up any National League runs gave him a 1.90 ERA for the entire season. (He wasn’t good in the playoffs, though—although he wasn’t credited with any of the Padres’ losses, he gave up six runs in four innings).

So where does that leave the rejuvenated reliever who’s about to hit the free agent market again? That Rosenthal expressed his desire to remain in Kansas City not long before the trade (“This is where I want to be,” he told the Kansas City Star) and his close ties to the area (he’s from nearby Lee’s Summit), suggested Moore could lure him back for 2021.

But if he ends up with only the Royals and Padres on his list, which is certainly conceivable considering his success with both clubs, logic tells us Rosenthal probably won’t return to Kansas City. He has it too good with the Padres, and they have it too good with him. Staying with them is a proposition Rosenthal would be wise to accept and unwise to reject.

First, there’s the money. The Padres have a lot of it and will spend it freely; the Royals don’t and won’t. Rosenthal’s 2020 performance means he’ll likely command much more than the $2 million (plus incentives) the Royals reportedly signed him for. Advantage San Diego: its deeper coffers will give it the financial edge over the ever-frugal Royals, who may find Greg Holland more affordable.

The teams’ relative positions also weigh heavily in San Diego’s favor if Rosenthal’s future comes down to the Padres or the KC Royals. Competitively speaking, Kansas City isn’t in the same ballpark with San Diego, a team that just ended years of frustration by crashing the National League’s postseason party for the first time in 14 seasons and winning its NL Wild Card series before bowing to the Dodgers in the NLDS. The Padres have everything they need and are well-suited today for more postseasons.

In many ways, the Padres as presently constituted are everything the Royals aren’t. Little about the latter compares favorably with the former. Realistically, Kansas City isn’t likely to contend again until 2022, while the Padres are an excellent bet to return to the playoffs next season, especially if Major League Baseball carries this year’s expanded playoff format forward.

So if Rosenthal wants an immediate shot at October baseball, something he experienced four times with St. Louis, San Diego is his best choice in a Royals vs. Padres contest for his services. He and the organization obviously fit well together and, while the same can be said of him and the KC Royals, the Padres are winning and contending now. And they have unfinished business to attend to. That may be all it takes to keep Rosenthal, entering his age-31 season as a Tommy John surgery veteran with a few stints on the Injured List, happy.

And then there’s this Rosenthal tweet from late September:

A single message doesn’t, of course, a commitment to the Padres make, but Rosenthal clearly found San Diego, the Padres, winning and postseason baseball to his liking. His personal and baseball connections to Kansas City notwithstanding, he’s more likely to return to the Padres than to the Royals. For Rosenthal, the road to a World Series is shorter through San Diego.

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Kansas City could use Trevor Rosenthal next season. If his choices come down to the Royals and Padres, expect to see him in a San Diego uniform.