Washington Nationals: Trevor Rosenthal’s Training Wheels Must Come Off

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 30: Trevor Rosenthal #44 of the Washington Nationals reacts after giving up a two-run RBI single to J.D. Davis #28 of the New York Mets (not pictured) in the eighth inning at Nationals Park on March 30, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 30: Trevor Rosenthal #44 of the Washington Nationals reacts after giving up a two-run RBI single to J.D. Davis #28 of the New York Mets (not pictured) in the eighth inning at Nationals Park on March 30, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

Washington Nationals pitcher Trevor Rosenthal struggled to get outs during his first five appearances this season, but it’s not time to give up on him yet.

The Washington Nationals big bullpen acquisition over the winter was Trevor Rosenthal, who was signed to take over as the new set-up man for Sean Doolittle. General Manager, Mike Rizzo, liked what he saw of Rosenthal during his showcase in late October and made him a $7 million guarantee, which includes a $1 million buyout of his 2020 option.

Rosenthal’s return to the mound is well documented after it took him five appearances to record an out. Rosenthal was removed from the set-up role and at the moment seems only to be used in blowout scenarios where the Nationals are either up by 5+ runs or down by 5+ runs late in the game.

Being that Rosenthal signed a big league deal with the Nationals, he can’t be optioned to the Minor Leagues to work through his troubles. He’s also not hurt, so placing him on the 10-day Injured List would raise some eyebrows around the league.

The rest of the Nationals bullpen isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire with four blown saves through 14 games. The Nationals bullpen ranks dead last in the Major Leagues with a collective ERA of 7.75, despite throwing the fewest innings of any bullpen in the league.

Nationals starters lead the Majors so far this season in innings pitched per start, averaging 6 1/3 innings per start. If this sounds familiar, it should because this is how the 2017 season started too, when Dusty Baker was riding his starters deep into games so that he could avoid using his bullpen at any cost. Eventually, Rizzo went out and traded for Doolittle and Ryan Madson in mid-July of that season.

Davey Martinez has been searching for answers to bridge the gap from the 8th to the 9th, most recently using Wander Suero in consecutive high leverage situations. Suero turned in one excellent performance and one poor performance.  Inconsistency is an issue here.

Before that, he tried using Justin Miller in the 8th and then after that, tried sharing the 8th inning between Tony Sipp (18.00 ERA) and Kyle Barraclough. Not allowing Barraclough, who at this point is probably the second best reliever behind Doolittle, a fresh start to an inning was a mistake that bit Martinez on Friday. Matt Grace (10.13 ERA) is one of the only ones who hasn’t had a shot at the 8th inning, which is surprising because he’s warmed up in almost every game this season and is tied for the team lead in appearances, with 8.

All of this leads back to Rosenthal, who is not the only bullpen culprit failing to do his job. Being that he’s making $6 million this season (not including incentives), the Nationals will likely do everything they can to get him back on track before cutting him loose.

Right now, Rosenthal’s command is an issue and a big reason why he’s not having much success on the mound. Last week, Martinez referenced that they’ve tried to “tweak something in his mechanics,” and maybe that can help get him back on track. He’s consistently lighting up the radar gun at 98-100 mph with his fastball, but he’s not getting it over the plate and is quickly falling behind in the count.

According to Fangraphs, Rosenthal is throwing his fastball 85.9% of the time this year, which is an 8.9% increase over his career average of 77.0%. He’s almost eliminated the use of his changeup which is down to 2.8% this year, compared to 14.4% over his career. Rosenthal is also throwing his slider 11.3% of the time, compared to an average of 5.2% over the course of his career.

Rosenthal needs to get back to what’s helped him log a 3.20 career ERA through his seven seasons in the league – throw the fastball less and incorporate the changeup more. Right now, hitters are sitting on his fastball knowing that he’s relying heavily on it. Even though it’s a 98-100 mph fastball, Major League hitters can hit that if they know it’s coming.

The last part of this equation is letting Rosenthal get back into higher leverage situations. Since Rosenthal can’t be optioned, he has to be able to pitch in games more than once a week. If that means Rosenthal has to go out two or three times and get shelled while working on things, that’s fine.

In the long run, letting Rosenthal work things out during games will benefit the Nationals. He’s always been a little bit wild and prone to giving up walks, but he’s also always had a live arm capable of getting big outs in big situations.

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Martinez needs to show his confidence in Rosenthal by putting him out there a couple of times this week. It’s time to let Rosenthal sink or swim. Either he will show he’s capable of getting big outs, or he’ll continue to issue free passes and give up runs. Either way, the Nationals can’t afford to have Rosenthal taking up a roster spot much longer if he can’t prove he can get hitters out.