“I was kind of anxious and thinking I might be able to pitch before the season was over,” Rosenthal said in a conference call with reporters Monday morning. “But the plan all along from my doctor was to take this year off, so we stuck with that plan and did the workout and we’re at where we are at today.”
Rosenthal, a 28-year-old right-handed reliever, is now a member of the Washington Nationals after signing as a free agent last week. He threw in front of a few dozen scouts in Irvine, Calif., at the end of October, and that convinced the Nationals to extend a one-year, $7 million deal with a vesting option for 2020. There are also a handful of incentives in his contract that could allow him to make $14 million in the upcoming season. The Nationals are investing in the pitcher Rosenthal once was, before he underwent Tommy John surgery in early September 2017, before he was released by the St. Louis Cardinals two months later, and before he started his 14-month climb back onto a major league roster.
That pitcher recorded back-to-back 40-save seasons for the Cardinals in 2014 and 2015, pumped high-90s fastballs past hitters, and could be a key reliever for the Nationals if his arm can throw as well as it feels at the start of this offseason. On Monday, Rosenthal said there were no setbacks in the recovery process and reports from his Irvine workout noted that his fastball velocity was where it used to be. That is a good sign for the Nationals, who made Rosenthal the next step of a bullpen rebuild that started with a trade for Miami Marlins reliever Kyle Barraclough in early October.
“It’s gone really well,” Rosenthal said of his path back to being signed last week. “The whole process has been fairly smooth, no hiccups, I felt really good the whole time. Almost too good.”
When Rosenthal threw again for the first time, he thought his arm felt as good as it had in five or six years. He was frustrated that he could only make a handful of throws from a maximum 40 feet away from his target, but made sure he never veered from a plan crafted by his surgeon, athletic trainers and agency. That led him to face live hitters this past summer and, after he did, start revving up for his return to baseball. Rosenthal said teams started reaching out about him in the spring — he is represented by Scott Boras, like many other Nationals — but he wanted to rehabilitate his arm before considering his future.
Then came the workout in Irvine, and the 36 pitches that flew out of his hand, and the teams that called within hours of him stepping off the mound. The Nationals emerged as the best fit, even though all-star closer Sean Doolittle has a strong hold on the ninth inning. Rosenthal, who built his reputation as a closer just a few years back, is not worried about having a defined role in the Nationals' shifting bullpen. He saw the Nationals signing of him as an indication that they want multiple options for high-leverage situations, whether that be the ninth or the eighth or the seventh, and so on.
He just wants a chance in any of those spots, to have a close game rest in his right hand again, like they so often did before his elbow needed repairing. He has felt ready for months, since the season turned and finished without him, and, at the very least, he has earned his chance to prove it.
“I’m definitely excited to step foot back into a major league clubhouse and being with the Nationals, into that clubhouse and with those guys,” Rosenthal said. “I’m obviously super grateful that the organization wants to give me that opportunity to show them how helpful I can be.”