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A’s sign Trevor Rosenthal to one-year, $11 million contract

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Oakland paid for a new closer after all

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game Three Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s are paying for a new closer after all.

The A’s lost All-Star Liam Hendriks to free agency over the offseason, and it appeared they might replace him from within. Instead, on the second day of spring training, they found a new star to take over the role.

The A’s signed free agent Trevor Rosenthal to a one-year, $11 million contract, reports insider Jon Heyman on Thursday. Some of the money is deferred beyond 2021, adds Jeff Passan of ESPN. Update: The deferral works out to $3 million in each of 2021 and 2022, and $5 million in 2023, per the unrelated Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.

The right-handed Rosenthal was one of the best relievers in the majors last season, and he has a track record to back it up.

From 2012-15 he was brilliant for the Cardinals, including monster playoff runs in 2012-13 that totaled 20⅓ scoreless innings with 33 strikeouts. He followed with 45 saves in 2014, and then in 2015 he upped it to 48 saves while earning votes for Cy Young and MVP. He took a step back the next two years but was still good, and overall for St. Louis he converted 89% of his save/hold chances (123 saves, 45 holds, 20 blown).

Rosenthal, 2012-17 STL: 2.99 ERA, 325 ip, 435 Ks, 143 BB, 17 HR, 2.60 FIP

However, that success was interrupted by Tommy John surgery in 2017, which cost him all of the next season too. When he got back on the mound in 2019, for the Nationals and Tigers, he couldn’t find the plate at all, walking or pegging 30 of the 86 batters he faced over 15 frames and posting an unsightly 13.50 ERA.

He had to settle for a minor league deal last winter to re-prove himself, but he bounced back in a major way for the Royals. They traded him to the Padres midseason, and his overall numbers were eye-popping.

Rosenthal, 2020: 1.90 ERA, 23⅔ ip, 38 Ks, 8 BB, 2 HR, 2.22 FIP, .210 xwOBA

That Statcast xwOBA is even better than Hendriks had last year, and ranked among the top five relievers in the game. Only Devin Williams threw more pitches with a lower mark.

Rosenthal also added 11 saves and a hold with only one blown; his Win Probability added was fourth among MLB relievers; and his 16.5% swinging-strike rate was a career-high and one of the better marks in the majors. Hendriks had him beat in all three of those stats, as well as ERA and FIP, but this is about as close as you can get to replacing what the AL Reliever of the Year provided for Oakland last summer.

In terms of stuff, entering his age 31 season, Rosenthal still has every bit of the 98 mph velocity he’s carried throughout his career. He uses that heat about two-thirds of the time, and last year it was the second-hardest four-seam fastball among relievers at 97.9 mph (by one-tenth of a tick behind Josh Staumont) and topped out at 100.1 mph.

His main secondary is his slider, and he also mixes in an occasional changeup and sinker. Here’s a look at the contrast.

And from the batter’s view.

He can handle hitters on both sides of the plate, and in fact lefties have an even lower OPS against him than righties for his career.

The A’s bullpen is suddenly packed, not only with bodies but with talent. Rosenthal joins All-MLB Team finalist Jake Diekman, free agent signings Yusmeiro Petit and Sergio Romo, trade acquisitions Adam Kolarek and Nik Turley, and holdovers J.B. Wendelken, Lou Trivino, Burch Smith, and Jordan Weems, among others. The group might be even better than last year’s unit, which was arguably the best in the majors.

Analysis

This is the biggest addition of the A’s offseason. In case that wasn’t clear from the salary figure, which is now the second-highest on the team.

Rosenthal is a star. Not an optimistic bounce-back candidate who could maybe turn out well on a buy-low deal. He already did that last year. He’s re-established as a star now.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t risk. There’s always risk with any reliever, and this one has his fair share. There’s already a Tommy John surgery on his record, and his recovery included a case of the yips that was Jurickson Profar At Second Base bad, Rick Ankiel Maybe You Should Try The Outfield bad. He’s worked past it, but it still happened, really recently. It’s just that you don’t have to imagine what it would be like if he got back to his peak.

I don’t normally like to pay big bucks for relievers, but if you’re going to do it then at least make it one as good as Rosenthal. And make it a one-year deal, which this is. I would have been excited enough with the bullpen as it was yesterday, but now, yowza. We’ll get more into the full analysis in a future post, but this pen is somehow better than last year’s even without Hendriks.

There’s always a chance it could go wrong and turn into a waste of money. It often seems to when the A’s try expensive closers instead of making them DIY-style out of common household items. But that gamble in itself is refreshing, because at least the A’s finally spent some money.

At this point, after getting Fiers, Petit, Romo, Moreland, and the portion of Rosenthal’s salary due this year, they must have gone beyond whatever cash they received from the Rangers in the Elvis Andrus trade. After not shelling out a penny all winter, they’re having a contending offseason after all, just entirely in mid-February. While the extent of the late shopping spree is a surprise, the A’s did always maintain that they were waiting out for deals at the end of the market.

Meanwhile, even though their highly criticized offer to Marcus Semien was mostly deferred, it did include a few million upfront (even before the Andrus trade), and Rosenthal isn’t signing for any more overall than they offered their former shortstop. If your question is why they would give this kind of money to Rosenthal but not Semien, the answer is they tried to but Semien turned it down (and rightfully so, because someone else gave him way more).

Oakland came through in the end, after months of looking like they weren’t doing enough to capitalize on the moment of their contention window. They are most definitely not punting on 2021 after all. They still need things to go right, like any team in any year, but the A’s are in it to win it.