Nobody epitomized the Nationals’ 2019 bullpen issues more than Trevor Rosenthal.
The former St. Louis Cardinals closer signed with Washington on Oct. 31, 2018, just a few days after the Boston Red Sox won the World Series. It was an incentive-laden deal, starting with a base salary of $7 million that had the potential to reach $15 and included a team option for 2020.
But none of that came to fruition as Rosenthal lasted just three months with the National; he was released in June sporting a 22.74 ERA over 12 games. Rosenthal failed to record an out in each of his first four appearances, becoming the first pitcher in MLB history to do so. And even though his fastball was topping out at 101 mph, the Tommy John recipient struggled to stay in the strike zone.
However, the rest of the Nationals’ bullpen wasn’t doing much better. The group posted a season ERA of 5.68, which ranked last in the NL and among the 50 worst marks in MLB history. Blown saves became a nightly occurrence, leading to Washington’s ugly 19-31 start to the season. Manager Davey Martinez gave almost every pitcher a shot to earn a high-leverage role but no one was able to stick in front of closer Sean Doolittle.
One year later, the Nationals’ relief corps is better but starting to feel the effects of pitching after such a short training camp. On Tuesday night, Martinez was forced to use seven relievers against the Atlanta Braves after starter Austin Voth only managed to get through four innings. Three of those pitchers were rookies, including 28-year-old Kyle Finnegan, who inherited a runners-on-the-corners situation with one out in the eighth inning and managed to work his way out of it.
The rag-tag group did combine to post five straight scoreless frames, but several innings were an adventure and one required Victor Robles to pull back a go-ahead home run from over the wall.
“I’m proud of those guys,” Martinez said about the rookies after the game. “It’s baby steps for them. But we’re going to use them.”
Meanwhile, Rosenthal received another opportunity with the Kansas City Royals and the results have been striking. In 10 games this season, he’s posted an 0.90 ERA with 13 strikeouts and four walks over 10 innings of work with five saves. With the trade deadline quickly approaching, Rosenthal figures to be a sought-after bullpen arm for a contending team looking to bolster its late-inning staff.
The Nationals are teetering on the edge of “contending team” status with a 9-12 record on the year but even if they start forcing their way into the playoff picture, the addition of Rosenthal would be unlikely. And yet, the team could use him right now with Doolittle experiencing a drop in velocity and both Daniel Hudson and Will Harris seeing mixed results.
Tuesday night’s rookie parade was the product of necessity more than design. Set-up man Tanner Rainey was out of commission after pitching the previous two days, Doolittle is on the injured list with right knee fatigue and lefty Sam Freeman is out for the foreseeable future with a left flexor mass strain. Even so, three weeks ago the Nationals didn’t envision themselves relying on a player such as Finnegan for an eighth-inning jam against a division rival just 21 games into the season.
Then again, not many envisioned the kind of start of that Rosenthal is having either.