As much as doctors, trainers and pitching coordinators have fine-tuned the rehab process from Tommy John surgery to the point some just believe it’s now routine, there are always a few surprises along the way. A hiccup, or even a setback. Maybe a few moments of trepidation from a pitcher who begins to doubt he’ll be able to make it all the way back.
Trevor Rosenthal insists he experienced none of that. Yes, he’s surprised by it. But the veteran reliever, who just signed as a free agent with the Nationals, can’t help but be supremely encouraged with the by-the-book rehab he has now completed since his August 2017 surgery to replace the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
“Everything just went so well, and my arm felt so good through the whole process, I’ve just been excited,” he said this morning in a conference call with Nationals reporters. “It’s just been a lot of fun. It’s made me really excited for this upcoming year, knowing how good I feel. I feel like the results are going to be really good.”
The Nationals are banking on that after making Rosenthal their first free agent signing of the offseason. The 28-year-old signed a one-year deal that guarantees $7 million, with a conditional option for 2020 worth another $15 million that would automatically vest if he makes 50 appearances in 2019.
There’s risk involved from the club’s standpoint. But given how strong Rosenthal says he feels after missing the entire season, it wasn’t so much risk that the Nats weren’t willing to jump right in and sign the right-hander before the clock even shifted to November.
As he progressed in his rehab over the summer, Rosenthal began to wonder if he might actually be ready to return before season’s end. Doctors told him it was better to stick with the predetermined plan, show the baseball world he was healthy following the season and put himself in position to sign a guaranteed deal well before spring training.
A recent throwing session in Irvine, Calif. - roughly 35 pitches thrown to live batters over two simulated innings, with his fastball topping out at 99 mph - was viewed by representatives of all 30 clubs. And the Nationals wasted no time making an offer that not only gave them another late-inning weapon but also gave Rosenthal peace of mind early in what could have been a long winter of uncertainty.
“It wasn’t but a few hours after we were done that people were already calling and wanted to progress with conversations,” he said. “So I felt really good about it then, but definitely even better now already having something finished.”
The owner of 121 career saves to go along with a 2.99 ERA - not to mention seven saves and an 0.69 ERA in 23 career postseason appearances - Rosenthal signed knowing he wouldn’t be the Nationals’ closer. Sean Doolittle, despite a lengthy absence due to a foot injury, was an All-Star this season and one of the best closers in the sport.
That doesn’t bother Rosenthal, who insisted he doesn’t get preoccupied with bullpen roles, so long as he gets opportunities to pitch in high-leverage situations no matter the inning.
“For me, it’s not something where I need to know what exactly my role is going to be,” he said. “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.”
Some return from major surgeries as changed pitchers, but Rosenthal believes he’ll be the same guy he always was. His bread-and-butter remains a fastball that reaches triple digits. He’ll continue to use his slider and changeup to keep hitters off-balance.
Perhaps he feels confident in his ability to pick up right where he left off because of the lack of setbacks during his rehab.
“Looking back now, I definitely wouldn’t want to do it again,” he said. “But I just felt like mentally I was in such a good place that the days just went by. Worked hard every day, and it wasn’t too bad. I just trusted the process, and everything worked out well.”
Now this accomplished reliever who was part of a perennial postseason participant with the Cardinals looks forward to doing it all over again with a Nats club he respected for many years from a distance.
“It was a place I played at a bunch with St. Louis, and always really enjoyed the park,” Rosenthal said. “And playing against the Nationals organization, always admired the players they’ve had and the success they’ve had over the years. And then also the city. Being in the nation’s capital was always a fun time for me and my wife, and we enjoyed traveling there. I’m excited to be a part of it now. And looking at D.C., it seems like a really good sports town as well. So I’m really looking forward to being a part of that.”