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Rosenthal’s signing gives Nationals elite 1-2 punch in bullpen

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USA Today Sports

Rosenthal’s signing gives Nationals elite 1-2 punch in bullpen

The light of these things comes from being at home when ordinarily not. Trevor Rosenthal was around for the mid-summer birth of his third child, catching all the firsts that can elude a new father when the baseball season is underway. He spent more time with his wife, Lindsey, and coached T-ball. Trainer visits, work with college kids, a slew of things other than flying from city to city and running to the mound with “300 Violin Orchestra” thumping in a stadium filled his time.

Rosenthal’s unexpected availability was tied to his rehabilitation process following Tommy John surgery in 2017 to repair his right ulnar collateral ligament. It tore after a he sent a 98-mph fastball to Freddie Freeman Aug. 12, 2017. Surgery and a release by the St. Louis Cardinals followed. As did 12 months of rehab, much of it spent on the red mound up the right field line at Maryville University in the St. Louis suburbs.

In between family time and rehab protocols, Rosenthal watched baseball. His arm felt so well after the All-Star break he began to wonder if he could pitch in the majors in 2018. Instead, he fought that notion, then later the angst that comes with watching the postseason on a couch, staying within the physical therapist-recommended process and targeting an October workout to reveal his 99-mph fastball was back.

The Nationals watched his 35-pitch workout Oct. 3 at UC Irvine. That was enough. Rosenthal and the Nationals agreed to terms Saturday on a one-year, incentive-filled deal worth at least $6 million the first year. A $14 million 2020 club option vests if Rosenthal appears in 50 or more games or finishes 30 or more. The cash pops him into a bullpen that needs a second dominant, late-inning reliever to work in front of closer Sean Doolittle. Together, if healthy, they form one of the more potent late inning duos in baseball.

“Obviously I think the plan is just being in high-leverage situations and hopefully as a team we're winning a lot of games and we have those opportunities to get on the mound,” Rosenthal said on a conference call Monday. “For me, it's not something where I need to know what exactly my role is going to be. It's something that I'm used to in the past. I've done it both ways where I just go in and I'm just going to take care of business and do my best and everything shakes out the way it should and we win a lot of games.”

Health is always the if. The Nationals believe they have existing framework to aid any pitcher who received Tommy John surgery. The process does not scare them. Still, they need Rosenthal to be the strikeout force he was prior to surgery, ideally with a corralled walk rate, in order to receive the proper dividend on their investment. They also need Doolittle, who has made more than 60 appearances just twice in his seven MLB seasons, to be at maximum availability. There’s risk in assuming both occur.

Should they, Rosenthal and Doolittle present an elite, fastball-reliant combination. Rosenthal’s Z-contact percentage — the percentage of the time a batter made contact against him on a pitch in the strike zone —was 72.7 in 2017. Doolittle’s was a flat 75. That’s optimum Kenley Jansen territory and creeping toward Josh Hader’s (68.7) dominance.

Backing the Z-contact number are two others: pull percentage and hard contact allowed. Again, Rosenthal and Doolittle shine in these categories that show they are not just getting outs, but overpowering hitters, primarily with one pitch type.

Rosenthal’s career pull percentage against is 32. His hard-hit percentage in 2017 was 26, in line with the 26.8 of his career. Doolittle ran at 33.7 and 29.5, respectively, during his 2018 All-Star season. When Jansen stormed through the National League in 2017, he did so with a 34.5 pull percentage and 25.9 hard-hit percentage. His decline this season showed in bumps in both: 43.1 and 33.0, respectively. Simply, Doolittle and Rosenthal dominate with explosive fastballs that trouble hitters even when well inside the strike zone. Contact is rare and often meager.

Yet, each continue to hunt for a secondary pitch. The type almost doesn’t matter. Call it the seed of doubt. Doolittle spent much of spring training in 2018 trying to hone a slider. He maneuvered his thumb to change his grip, threw it in counts he ordinarily would not, tested it on back fields and game mounds alike. The tinkering had little relevance during the season. Doolittle reduced his slider usage for the third consecutive season.

Rosenthal, 28, is hunting for something to play off his 98-mph fastball. He deployed a curveball until 2017, finally shelving that under the watch of then-St. Louis pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, who he will work with again in Washington. He increased his slider usage once the curveball was discontinued. Rosenthal looked further into his breaking pitches during the latter parts of his year-long recovery process from surgery. He learned more about how spin rate and tilt relate to his release point. The curveball, he thinks, remains out. A breaking pitch, of some ilk, is in.

“I’m hoping over those few weeks I did that, [and] the weeks to come leading to spring training, I can dial in on that a little bit more and hopefully understand it and make some adjustments and get more of a true breaking ball, whether it’s a slider, cutter or curveball, something that I fully understand what it’s doing and able to repeat it consistently,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal will find a reconstructed Nationals bullpen -- an annual event -- when he arrives in West Palm Beach, Fla., for spring training. The Nationals flipped aside international slot money to trade for hard-throwing but erratic Kyle Barraclough early in the offseason. Expect him to work in the middle innings. Justin Miller could be back. Matt Grace will return. Multiple young arms, led by Wander Suero, are again in the mix.

This time, the team is at least working top down. Doolittle is the closer. Rosenthal, healed and anxious, is being paid to setup or close on Doolittle’s days off. He can’t express enough how well the surgery and recovery went. Video from the Maryville mound shows his pop his back. The California workout was enough to earn him an immediate contract. What remains is the actual season.

 

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Nationals on periphery at Winter Meetings this week as they appear all but out on Bryce Harper

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Nationals on periphery at Winter Meetings this week as they appear all but out on Bryce Harper

LAS VEGAS -- Marlins Man walked into a modest eatery Sunday here in Las Vegas to look over the options. His bright orange jersey stood out among the cowboy hats and zombie-like Sunday exodus inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

While another Las Vegas weekend closed, sending an army of roller bags across the casino floor toward the exit and airport, baseball started to creep into the home of the 2018 Winter Meetings. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wandered across the marble floor. Media members from cities across the country became situated. Television stations raised their studios and radio talkers began to ramble. Everyone is wondering if the show in Vegas will be filled with drama or just another stall along the way to the offseason’s biggest news.

We know Rizzo turned in his homework early. Patrick Corbin’s money and introduction arrived late last week. Corbin, presumably, is the Nationals’ largest offseason expenditure. Surprising comments from Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner to 106.7 The Fan on Friday made that seem to be the case. He described Bryce Harper as all but gone, speaking wistfully, if not definitively.

Which means Rizzo is here for smaller shopping and the rest of baseball waits on Harper and Manny Machado.

A look through the Nationals shows few remaining gaps. Rizzo publicly contends he feels all right about starting the season with a Wilmer Difo/Howie Kendrick platoon at second base. The outfield is clear without Harper. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde will fight for the final rotation spot. Two new catchers have arrived. The bullpen was upgraded. Rizzo didn’t wait and watch what other teams were doing.

“We like the club we have at present,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington last week. “But, we’re never satisfied. There’s tweaks and combinations we can go after. We’ll be looking for values out there. What works for us, how do we construct the periphery of the roster. You can never have enough pitching and we’re always on the look for good starting and relief pitching. That could be something we attack either via the free agent market or trade market.”

One thing the market remains full of is left-handed relievers. The Nationals currently have three. One of which is Sammy Solis.

Washington decided to tender him a contract and the sides reached a one-year deal. There was consideration not to tender him a contract, which would have ended Solis’ time with Nationals. Instead, he’s back despite two back-to-back poor seasons following a strong 2016. Last season was a wreck. Solis finished with a 6.41 ERA. The other two lefties, Sean Doolittle and Matt Grace, were excellent. So, are the Nationals in the market for one more left-handed reliever to be sure?

“We’ve got right now on the roster three really competent left-handed pitchers,” Rizzo said, “in Doolittle, Grace who had a magnificent season last year and Sammy Solis, who we feel is a bounceback candidate. We feel good about the left-handed spot. We feel good about our bullpen as a whole.”

The Nationals were mid-pack last season in relievers’ ERA in both the National League and Major League Baseball. Their bullpen does appear close to done: Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Koda Glover, Grace, Solis, Justin Miller and Wander Suero are eight quick spots down there.

One upside here for Rizzo is he can wait. He doesn’t need to jump at the flush reliever market, which includes several decent left-handed options, because of the team’s prompt signings. A discount may arrive later. A factor to remember in regard to Solis is the Nationals would only be on the hook for 1/6th of his salary if they cut him in spring training. That’s a small penalty if someone in West Palm Beach appears more capable.

Washington also needs a left-handed bat off the bench that can play first base. Matt Adams, Justin Bour and Lucas Duda are names that could fill that slot. None will rattle the meetings.

This is life on the periphery, as Rizzo puts it. Will they talk to a lot of agents here? Yes. Will they consider an upgrade at second base? Of course. Are they part of the gigantic Harper and Machado storylines unlikely to conclude in Las Vegas but en route to dominate the conversation? Not really. At least not if Lerner’s public declaration is filled with flat facts. They offered Harper, he can do better elsewhere, and now life is quieter, even in Las Vegas.

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Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

NATIONALS PARK -- A small break in the midst of the hoopla brought together $525 million in starting pitcher salary when Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin said hello for the first time Friday.

Scherzer and Strasburg sat in the front row during Corbin’s press conference. Scherzer shuffled a few seats down from his original landing spot to make more space. New catcher Yan Gomes filled in to his left, Ryan Zimmerman next to him and Strasburg on his side. 

Those top three in the rotation represent Mike Rizzo’s steadfast belief. Winning in the major leagues starts with foundational pitching. Every year. All year. And in the playoffs. 

“I think bullpenning in the playoffs is much different than bullpenning in the regular season,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington.

“The marathon that is the 162 is, I think, dependent and driven on starting pitching. Our philosophy is, how we built what we built so far is pitching, athleticism and defense. I think being strong up the middle and being able to catch the ball as you pitch it not only improves your pitching staff but limits the outs of the other team. Pitching has always been important to us. Starting pitching I think is our key and will continue to be so and developing them and signing them is important to us.”

The Nationals view Corbin as an ascending player. Three consecutive years of ERA reduction, helped by a new breaking pitch that is sort of a curveball, vaulted Corbin to a 3.15 ERA last season and a six-year, $140 million deal with a contender this offseason. That contender is the Nationals, who have more than a half-a-billion dollars tethered to three pitchers, who will be together a minimum of the next three years.

“The payroll's the payroll,” Rizzo said. “We all have budget restrictions and payroll restrictions. We've allocated a lot of resources to our front of the rotation and I think that elite starters, middle-lineup bats and back-end relievers is where I think you spend your money and you try to get values along the periphery of your roster.”

Corbin’s second off-speed pitch pushed him toward elite status. He talked with former Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt about what gave him trouble. He watched Clayton Kershaw round off and drastically drop speeds with his curveball. Both made Corbin think another layer would benefit him after years of mediocre results with his changeup, which has been shelved.

Enter the curveball. In essence, it’s just a slower slider. The speed gap -- about nine mph -- couples with an arm angle and release point that directly mimics his slider. He doesn’t even change the grip. Corbin just twists his wrist ever so slightly to slow the pitch and change its shape to the plate, providing a heftier vertical break.

“The slider has always been my pitch coming up from the minor leagues,” Corbin told NBC Sports Washington.

“It was a grip that my father showed me when I was really young. It’s kind of neat I was able to keep that up to this point in time. I have a great feel for it. Able to change speeds and location on the slider. Then adding a slower breaking ball helped just keeping some hitters off-balance.”

The length of the deal gave him assurance and critics pause. The Nationals believe Corbin’s 2018 uptick is closer to who he is as opposed to the prior two years following Tommy John surgery when he struggled.

Corbin was impressed with multiple things from the Nationals: that someone from the ownership level came to dinner with them (principal owner Mark Lerner); that they were willing to annually invest to be competitive; and, despite being an upstate New York native, Washington appealed to him and his wife, Jen, as place to be for several years.

Corbin’s presence takes a rotation that plummeted to 13th in starter ERA among National League teams last season and puts it back toward the top. Tanner Roark will slot in behind the uber-rich trio. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde are among the contenders for the final spot. Rizzo took the organization’s cash and dumped it into his annual priority. He hopes it pays them back. 

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