The Nationals Signed One of 2017’s Best Relievers

In the binary world of most baseball conversation, a party should be either (A) going big, or (B) going home. In baseball, the way this manifests is that fans frequently think a team should either go for it or blow it up. There are, of course, other options — a lot of other options, all somewhere in the middle — but people like dramatic action, especially right now, on the heels of the playoffs. And when you look at the Nationals, you can almost see one side of things. I’ve seen it asked whether the Nationals should take a step back. They’ve already taken a step back in the standings, and the Braves and Phillies might only get better, and Bryce Harper is probably a goner. How do you make up for probably losing Bryce Harper? Are the Nationals at the end of an era?

With or without Harper, the Nationals can contend. The idea of them blowing it up was always silly. Far too much talent remains, and on Wednesday, the club has made a notable addition. The Nationals signed a free agent. Not a new free agent, but rather, a preexisting free agent. Trevor Rosenthal spent the 2018 season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Now he’s the newest member of the Nationals’ bullpen. A bullpen they hope can lead them back to October.

If this feels a little like when Greg Holland signed with the Rockies, that’s not a coincidence. Holland was coming off Tommy John, and he was represented by Scott Boras. Rosenthal is coming off Tommy John, and he’s represented by Scott Boras. Rosenthal is already 14 months out from his surgery, and he’s currently throwing without restrictions. He’s younger than Holland was as a free agent, but the contracts are very similar.

Holland signed the same kind of deal, and when his option vested, he turned it down to become a free agent. Things have only gone south from there, and Rosenthal might not make the same decision should he end up in the same place, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The commitment here is something like $7 million for one year. The maximum here is something like $30 million for two years. There’s protection for both parties. That’s how contracts work.

There’s plenty of offseason to go. There’s literally almost all of the offseason to go. There’s no point in trying to see now how things will come together. We can assume, though, that the Nationals intend to try to win. That’s the signal this move sends, more than when the Nationals exchanged international bonus money for Kyle Barraclough. That was an affordable buy-low, using money the Nationals maybe weren’t going to spend. Barraclough’s performance has dropped. Rosenthal’s performance dropped in a way, in that in 2018 he didn’t perform, but it’s important to remember just how good Rosenthal was the last time he was healthy. Let me express this in terms of percentiles. In 2017, there were 192 relievers who threw at least 40 innings. Here’s how Rosenthal ranked among them:

Not good by walks, and not great by park-adjusted ERA. But thanks to the strikeouts, Rosenthal still finished with excellent peripherals, and there’s no point in putting a lot of stock in a relief pitcher’s single-season ERA. The rest of the package appears so promising. Rosenthal has always thrown his fastball extremely hard. In 2017 in particular, it made him very difficult to hit, and while that’s made evident by the strikeouts, I like to look at that Z-Contact% measure. That shows contact rate on pitches in the strike zone. I like it as a measure of dominance. Anyone can get whiffs on chase pitches in the dirt. Not anyone can get whiffs over the plate. In 2017, Rosenthal managed one of the lowest zone-contact rates. Rosenthal’s zone-contact rate in 2017 was bested in 2018 only by Josh Hader. That’s the kind of stuff we’re dealing with. Or, that’s the kind of stuff the Nationals hope Rosenthal still has in his arm.

The last time Rosenthal was healthy, this was his fastball:

The last time Rosenthal was healthy, this was his changeup:

And the last time Rosenthal was healthy, this was his slider:

That slider might’ve been a difference-maker. Rosenthal wasn’t so good in 2016, and then he formally scrapped his curveball and leaned on his slider more than ever before. He still worked fastball-first, in almost all situations, but the slider was improved, and according to Statcast, between 2016 and 2017, Rosenthal’s slider added nearly 400 RPM. Something clicked there, allowing him to throw three quality pitches. The last time he was healthy. Everything we can say about Trevor Rosenthal’s performance, we say with the understanding that his elbow did eventually blow. That’s what he’s trying to come back from, and for all the positive reports about how he’s been throwing, Rosenthal has zero statistics since his operation.

You don’t need me to tell you that Tommy John surgery doesn’t have a 100% success rate. You know there are pitchers who don’t come back the same. You know there are pitchers who don’t come back. At the same time, the odds are still pretty good. When Greg Holland came back with the Rockies in 2017, he was mostly fine. And one of this year’s most sought-after free agents will be Nathan Eovaldi, who just shined bright after missing 2017. Eovaldi certainly didn’t lose any stuff. And that was after his second Tommy John. Rosenthal should come out of this all right.

Given that, then, Rosenthal’s 2017 was fairly similar to, say, Corey Knebel‘s 2018. It was fairly similar to, say, Craig Kimbrel’s 2018. That’s what the Nationals hope they’re signing. That’s what the Nationals hope they’re putting in front of Sean Doolittle. This was a thin bullpen. This still is arguably a thin bullpen, depending on how much you like Barraclough. How much you like Justin Miller. How much you like Matt Grace and Koda Glover. Rosenthal’s got his injury concerns, and so does Doolittle, too. But when they’re right — if they’re right — those are two of the game’s more unhittable relievers. You can imagine October baseball and dream, to whatever extent Nationals fans still have hope in their hearts.

The offseason is underway now. Or maybe it was underway when the Nationals got Barraclough, or when the Diamondbacks re-signed Eduardo Escobar. But this is the first real move of the offseason-offseason. The Nationals have revealed their intentions, not that it ever made much sense to believe they’d step back. They’re still too good a baseball team.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

When I put 1 year and 6 million into the FA Predictions for Rosenthal, I was only talking about the salary commitment. I swear it. I knew about vesting options and incentives.