St Louis Cardinals

What do the Cardinals do now with Trevor Rosenthal?

(Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire)

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Trevor Rosenthal doesn’t have a defined role for 2017.

After a solid, three-year run as a fire-balling closer, Rosenthal’s 2016 fell apart on him and he lost his effectiveness and his job, with first-year player Seung-hwan Oh stepping in down the stretch and performing the duties in the ninth inning.

In total, Rosenthal pitched 40.1 innings with a 4.46 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 12.5 K/9 and an absurd 6.5 BB/9 on the season. That comes after starting his career in St. Louis with 237 innings, a 2.66 ERA, 2.49 FIP, 11.5 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9.

What went wrong with Rosenthal last year? I reached out to FanRag Sports scouting guru Bernie Pleskoff with that very question. Essentially, as the walk totals might suggest, Rosenthal lost control and tried to fix things on the fly. From Bernie:

Rosenthal does not have pinpoint command any longer. As a result, many of his pitches get too much of the plate. While he still throws hard, he has used secondary pitches to try to right the ship. However, when he falls behind in the count he has to rely on throwing the ball for a strike and it results in him getting too much of the plate at times.

In reality, Rosenthal’s velocity has not dipped more than perhaps a mile per hour in the past couple of seasons. He has, however, thrown far more changeups and secondary pitches and used his four-seam fastball less often.

Pleskoff is correct that the velocity on Rosenthal’s fastball hasn’t changed in a meaningful way—he still averages nearly 98 mph on his four-seamer. Interestingly, according to Brooks Baseball the movement on Rosenthal’s fastball hasn’t changed much from 2015 to 2016 and the strike percentage is only marginally lower.

We can see a few things happening here, specifically. Of the pitches thrown by Rosenthal and not swung at by batters, a slightly higher portion are out of the zone. But batters are swinging less frequently, picking and choosing which pitches to go after. They could be waiting for a pitch that isn’t a fastball or a changeup, as Pleskoff suggests—a solid idea, given that batters are 25-for-86 (.291) off Rosenthal’s slider and curveball since 2012.

Another key portion is that more of the fastballs put in play against Rosenthal fell in for hits, which seemed to be a theme for the Cardinals in 2016. While they outperformed their FIP as a team in 2015 (2.94 ERA with a 3.47 FIP) on their way to 100 victories, things reversed course last year (4.08 ERA with a 3.88 FIP). Rosenthal isn’t the only one that got BABIP’d to death for St. Louis, with Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, and Michael Wacha all sporting ERA’s well above their FIP.

But expanding on the changes in the Cardinals defense that led to regression for this pitching staff is a column for another day. The question remains: What to do with Rosenthal in 2017?

There had been some discussion about moving Rosenthal to the starting rotation over the winter, and the idea is worth exploring. He was a starting pitcher in the minors with the Cardinals, posting a 3.53 ERA with 9.2 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 in 285.2 innings. Baseball Prospectus ranked Rosenthal the No. 45 prospect in all of baseball heading into the 2013 season. At worst, giving Rosenthal a shot to prove himself in the starting rotation made sense.

But Rosenthal suffered a lat muscle injury early in spring training, causing him to miss two weeks of time. He’s back on the mound now, but without proper time to get stretched out there’s basically no chance he could make the starting rotation—which is pretty much set, given Michael Wacha’s rejuvenated spring.

Without a shot at making the rotation, there are two pretty clear paths left. First, St. Louis could continue to stretch Rosenthal out with the intention of using him as either a long reliever or a multiple-inning set-up man. If he comes out throwing like the guy the Cardinals had in the first few years of his career, he could be a poor man’s right-handed Andrew Miller.

Then there’s the other option, which is to send Rosenthal to Triple-A to continue to stretch out as a starter in the event of an injury in the rotation. With only four full years of major-league service time to his credit, Rosenthal has two minor-league options left and the ability to be sent down to the minors this season—and in theory, if he never made it up to the big-leagues in 2017, next year too. This probably isn’t Rosenthal’s favorite scenario, but it could be what is best for a Cardinals team that’s relying on Wacha and Lance Lynn, two pitchers coming off major injuries in 2016.

It’s been a long fall for Rosenthal, who has always been a bit wild but who threw the ball hard enough to blow away hitters and slam the door in the ninth inning on a consistent basis. Without that consistency, he completely lost manager Mike Matheny’s trust last year. His role heading into 2017 is completely up in the air, and with an uphill battle in the NL Central, the Cards are really going to need Rosenthal to step up and provide them quality innings again.

One way or another.

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