The Cardinals have a big decision coming this offseason. I asked my followers on Twitter if they would keep Trevor Rosenthal with his second year of arbitration looming. To no surprise, 61% said they would cut ties with the 2015 All-Star. I personally side with the other 39%. I remember checking stock prices in school when my teacher stressed the importance of buying low and selling high in our Wallstreet simulation. This basic economic principle also applies to baseball. Although I wasn’t on VEB at the time I wanted Mozeliak to dive into the Trevor Rosenthal trade market this past offseason, especially after seeing the haul the Phillies got back for Ken Giles. There is no doubt in my mind that entering this season Rosenthal had a more extensive track record than Giles. The reality is that opportunity is gone, but if Mozeliak non-tenders Rosenthal he would be selling low on an asset who could quite easily reestablish himself and become the Cardinals’ most valuable reliever in 2017. While Rosenthal is set to receive a salary spike in his second arbitration year, the Cardinals have enough payroll flexibility to sustain if not increase their bullpen spending.
First off, we need to assess Rosenthal’s current salary situation. If you want to skip my boring number crunching I will bold Rosenthal’s projected 2017 salary. On the last day possible, Rosenthal avoided arbitration by signing a 1 year, $5.6 million contract this past offseason. To put that into context, this is more than Aroldis Chapman got in his first arbitration year. While there is no definitive way to project what a player would receive in arbitration, we do know that arbitration cases are usually based off what similar players are being paid. I looked at every arbitration eligible reliever over the past three seasons whose salary was within $1 million of Rosenthal’s $5.6 million. The average increase in salary for the next year was 52.86%, which would bring Rosenthal’s salary up to $8.56 million in 2017. Luckily for the Cardinals, Rosenthal’s poor performance this season would probably give them leverage in contract negotiations. The aforementioned relievers had an average bWAR and fWAR of 1.4 before their salary increase. Rosenthal’s bWAR and fWAR this year are -0.4 and 0.0, respectively. So it would be fair to assume that Rosenthal’s 2017 salary would fall somewhere between $7.5 and $8 million.
No, I’m not saying the Cardinals should give $8 million to this year’s Trevor Rosenthal. (WARNING: This is where I begin stat-vomiting; reader discretion advised.) Rosenthal has always had very high BABIPs (.337 for his career) but his .442 BABIP this season will drop in 2017. Rosenthal’s insanely high HR/FB rate of 14.3% this year will level out in the future. It’s been overlooked that Rosenthal’s strikeout rate has been at a career high this season. Rosenthal’s opponents plate discipline stats prove he misses bats at a well above average rate; we already knew that about him. Rosenthal’s main problem this year has been his rise in walks. I find it fascinating that Rosenthal’s first pitch strike rate has increased by about 4% yet his walk rate has also increased by nearly 8%. I know it may be difficult to process, but Rosenthal’s struggles this year have been incredibly overblown. In fact, if we go by xFIP- (where 100 is league average and lower is better) Rosenthal has been an above average pitcher this year. His recent rash of homers, walks, and hard contact will more than likely stabilize going into next year. As a side note, if we take all of Rosenthal’s stats from this year but lower his BB/9 to 4 his FIP plummets to about 2.90. His hypothetical xFIP (FIP with a HR/FB rate of 10.5%) is even lower. I haven’t even pointed out that Rosenthal doesn’t need to reach his past performance level for an $8 million salary to be below market value. If Rosenthal can become the 1.5 to 2 WAR pitcher we’re accustomed to an $8 million deal can be considered a bargain.
There is still one argument that can be made for non-tendering Rosenthal this offseason. The Cardinals are not the Yankees. They’re not the Dodgers. The Cardinals aren’t your prototypical big budget team who can afford to bank $8 million on a turnaround season. You might note that the Cardinals payroll is expected to rise in the near future so packing on "expendable" salary should be avoided. I would argue that this season has proved the Cardinals need to stockpile bullpen assets and devote more resources into their relief corps. This season the Cardinals spent $24.8 million towards relievers. When adding all of the salaries for next year (I went with $8 million for Rosenthal), the 2017 bullpen totaled $23.5 million… or so I thought. That 23.5 didn’t include Seth Maness entering his second year of arbitration and the first for Kevin Siegrist and Tyler Lyons. Matt Adams will be in year 2 of arb while Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha hit arbitration for the first time. Add in the impending free agency of Brandon Moss and you’d assume the Cardinals are tight on money. As TRB wrote about in detail, the Cardinals have money to move around. The Cardinals have a combined $39 million committed to Jaime Garcia, Jhonny Peralta, and Matt Holliday next season. I’m not suggesting you let them go just for the sake of keeping Rosenthal. I’m suggesting that those moves might be in the organization’s best regardless of Rosenthal. As the days go on, I’m pretty sure the growing consensus among fans is that the Cardinals should decline Matt Holliday’s $17 million option for next season. Moving Peralta would not only free up $10 million but send a steadying hand in the rotation, bullpen reinforcements, or an extra bat back to St. Louis. This would open up playing time for Jedd Gyorko, Kolten Wong, and Aledmys Diaz that at times has been hard to come by this year. I wouldn’t actively shop Jaime Garcia but with the emergence of Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver, the return of Lance Lynn, Tim Cooney, and Marco Gonzales, and prospects like Austin Gomber on the way, Jaime Garcia could become a movable asset if need be. But back to Rosenthal. He wouldn’t interfere with any new contracts anyway because the Cardinals now have the luxury of backloading contracts with their billion-dollar TV deal set to begin in 2018.
The Cardinals’ bullpen has been their biggest weakest area this season and letting go of Trevor Rosenthal this offseason would only weaken it even more going forward. I’ll spare you a stat-seizure by [just] saying Seung-Hwan Oh probably won’t be able to keep up his current pace. For a rather reasonable price tag of around $8 million, Rosenthal can rebound and reassert himself as the backend force that has helped the Cardinals win three straight division titles. The next question would be, "If the Cardinals tender Rosenthal a contract what would the next move be?" I’ve heard a lot of talk about avoiding arbitration with Rosenthal and then dealing him. I strongly disagree because Rosenthal’s value will never get lower than it is right now. The Cardinals face three situations assuming Rosenthal is on the Cardinals come Opening Day 2017. 1) Rosenthal has a strong first half and the Cardinals sell high by dealing him at the deadline. 2) Rosenthal is merely a 0 to 0.5 WAR player and the Cardinals cut ties with Rosenthal in the offseason. 3) Rosenthal bounces back and becomes the All-Star closer he has been as Rosenthal hits free agency as a Cardinal. The worst case scenario is the Cardinals give Rosenthal a one year contract that doesn’t pan out as planned. Simply put, keeping Trevor Rosenthal is a fairly low risk, high reward decision.
Thank you for reading. If you’re interested in finding more of my Cardinals commentary, hot takes, interactions, and other shenanigans, follow me on Twitter @Tyler_Opinion