Did Mike Matheny Cost Trevor Rosenthal $40 Million?

If you’re a Cardinals fan, there are very few reasons to like Mike Matheny. The team has gotten steadily worse on his watch, and despite him now being in his sixth season, he’s seemingly learned precious little about any of the managerial aspects of the game that fans have access to. He might well be the “Leader of Men” in the clubhouse (though given his handling of several players, that’s debatable as well), but in the dugout he’s a complete imbecile.

But we’re treading old ground here. Matheny makes a great punching bag with his constantly inventing new forms of tactical idiocy. Hell, back when I was freelancing, his ineptitude gave me fodder for a column or three every week. The man made me money.

And “making money” seems to be the one thing I admired about Matheny. No, not that he’s good at making money—he’s a schmuck at that, too—but rather that he wanted his players to get paid.

Matheny has said on more than one occasion that he’s aware that saves are the metric by which relievers are evaluated, fairly or unfairly. However meaningless it may be when it comes to constructing a winning team, it’s admirable that Matheny wants to help his players get paid in arbitration and free agency.

Alas, Matheny’s an idiot, and even his best intentions are bungled by his idiocy. In this case, the money lost in Matheny’s real estate bungling has nothing on what he’s presumably cost Trevor Rosenthal.

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Not to belabor the point (though if you want me to, click here), but free agency is the promised land that only a tiny fraction of professional ballplayers ever get to see. For those lucky few who manage to navigate the ridiculous hoops that make up the MLB labor agreement, free agency is a chance to reach the payday they should’ve had for years prior.

Trevor Rosenthal, who’s about to enter his final year of team control, was incredibly close to that payday. Instead, he is having Tommy John surgery. He’s certainly done for the balance of 2017, and in all likelihood finished for the entirety of 2018 as well.

Prior to the injury, he would’ve made about $8.2 million (using the 40/60/80 guideline for the three arbitration years) in 2018, though it’s debatable if that would’ve been in a Cardinals uniform. At the very least, he would’ve been attractive in a trade—some team would’ve happily paid him that salary for a single year as they chased a championship, and then also collected a draft pick when Rosenthal reached free agency as a very good closer.

And make no mistake: as frustrating as Rosey has been to watch at times, he’s a very good closer. Since joining the Cardinals in 2012, Rosenthal has accrued the twelfth-highest WAR among relief pitchers—behind eleven names that are also highly-paid closers:

I think we can all agree that Rosey doesn’t belong in the conversation for the top 5 guys on this list. Jansen, Chapman, and Kimbrel are all otherworldly talents who put up videogame numbers. Andrew Miller doesn’t close—his managers have been smart enough to just deploy him in the highest-leverage situations possible. His four-year, $36 million deal seems a bargain—the result of his both not accruing saves as a reliever, and perhaps his being a frankly terrible starting pitcher at the beginning of his career. One could forgive some GMs for thinking that Miller’s strong stats out of the bullpen before free agency were just a byproduct of small sample size, and that the larger body of uninspiring starting pitcher innings were a better descriptor of Miller’s future results.

Then there’s Betances, who only recently inherited the closer’s role in New York, taking over for the deposed Chapman. He’s similar to Rosenthal in that he walks too many and strikes out a ton, but he’s also much harder to hit. More importantly, Betances hasn’t reached free agency so we can’t really evaluate him.

But David Robertson? You could make a case that Rosenthal had similar numbers before Robertson reached free agency, and he signed a four-year, $46 million deal with the White Sox.

Mark Melancon? Rosenthal stacks up relatively well against him (a higher K/9, though a worse ERA and much worse WHIP thanks to Melancon’s superb control). Melancon just got a four-year, $62 million deal from the Giants.

You might’ve noticed I skipped a couple names on the list: Greg Holland and Wade Davis. I skipped them because the two of them are instructive when it comes to what happens to dominant relievers as they get hurt approaching free agency.

Greg Holland was, without question, an elite relief pitcher for the Royals. He put up a 2.42 ERA and a 12.1 K/9 for the Royals from 2010–2015, notching 145 saves in the process.

And then he got hurt. Holland was part of the elite big three for the Royals in their 2014 World Series run, but was nowhere to be found in the 2015 postseason when the Royals actually won the Series. He missed the entirety of 2016—in much the same way Rosenthal is going to miss the last little bit of this season and likely the entirety of next season—and ended up getting a flyer from the Colorado Rockies: one year at $6 million, with a $15 million player option for 2018. The Rockies were clearly cognizant of the going rate for an elite closer when it came to that option year—$15 million is too low if Holland recaptured his previous form. Indeed, he has, making the All-Star team and leading the league in saves. Holland is lucky—his injury apparently only delayed his payday, rather than negated it.

Then there’s Wade Davis, part of the Wil Myers-James Shields trade that the Royals inexplicably won, as it turns out. Davis signed a team-friendly deal with the Rays back when he was a starting pitcher, exchanging some of his highest earnings potential years for the certainty of drawing a large paycheck should he get hurt (or get bad) before reaching free agency. The Royals moved him from the rotation to the pen in 2014, and suddenly had a dominant reliever. Davis, in turn, came up lame in 2016, hitting the DL with the velocity loss and “forearm tightness” that all too often is a precursor to Tommy John surgery. He ended up traded for Jorge Soler, a toolsy player who hasn’t panned out thus far, and one with a much lesser value than most closers of his caliber fetch (see the package the Nats gave up for Melancon last season, or what the Cubs paid for Chapman).

Point being: a reliever, however good, who has the whiff of injury, is going to make a lot less money when he hits free agency. And Rosenthal, whose numbers put him comfortably in the at least four-year, $60 million range if healthy, instead is looking at best at a Holland-esque package that totals closer to $20 million.

Now, twenty million dollars is still a shitload of money, and it’s not like Rosenthal is going to be in the poor house anytime soon. But it’s also $40 million less than what he’d have gotten had he stayed healthy, and that’s just at the low end. Sure, the going rate for a Rosenthal-tier closer might be $60 million over four years, but that’s during the 2016 offseason. Who’s to say what the rate will be during the 2018 offseason, or if a particularly desperate team wouldn’t overpay him?

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There should be no question that Rosenthal’s injury will cost him at least $40 million dollars. Now the question becomes: who is to blame for that injury?

Maybe nobody is to blame. If there’s one conclusion I can draw from pitchers that get Tommy John, it’s that there’s really no consistent set of behaviors that invariably leads to—or avoids—ligament replacement surgery. Certainly, overuse is a factor—it’s why there’s such a rash of the surgery at the youth level: the human elbow just isn’t made to handle the kind strain pitching puts on it. But a pitcher has to pitch in order to make his living, and the line between “use” and “overuse” is fuzzy and difficult to define. Just ask the Nats, who iced Stephen Strasburg before their hilarious demise at the hands of Pete Kozma in 2012. Maybe Rosenthal goes under the knife no matter what his usage pattern was.

But let’s be honest about this: Matheny’s usage of Rosenthal didn’t help, and he was overused to the point that his agent tried to intervene. The Cardinals allegedly were internally concerned about Rosenthal’s overuse, though the concern wasn’t really borne out in subsequent seasons. Rosenthal was among the league leaders in both appearances and innings in 2015, and only recently fell off the leaderboard in 2017—makes sense, given that he’s now missed a week of service time.

And it’s not as if Matheny doesn’t have a history of burning out relievers to the point of injury and ineffectiveness. You could cobble together a damned good bullpen out of guys that Matheny has overused:

  • Jason Motte, 2012: 1st in saves and 20th among relievers in innings pitched (not to mention another 8 postseason innings). Needed Tommy John by the following season and has never come close to recapturing his dominant form.
  • Edward Mujica, 2013: an all-star who reached September with a superb 1.73 ERA over a whopping 57.1 innings, he was completely burned out by the season’s final month. His September ERA was 11.05, and he should’ve been left off the postseason roster entirely. He ended up getting a two-year, $9.5 million deal from the Red Sox and has been entirely ineffective since. His MLB career is almost certainly over given that he couldn’t cut it with the 2017 Tigers.
  • Pat Neshek, 2014: an all-star who reached late August with a superb 0.81 ERA over a whopping 55.1 innings, he was completely burned out by the season’s final month. His ERA the rest of the season was 6.75, and he gave up the game-tying home run to Michael Morse in the “let’s use Michael Wacha in extra innings on the road; who cares if he hasn’t pitched in a month” elimination game against the Giants.
  • Kevin Siegrist, 2015: he led all of MLB in appearances, but looked completely gassed by the postseason. Gave up a series of bombs to the Cubs (most notably the one by Kyle Schwarber which may not have landed yet) in the NLDS. His velocity—and as a result, his effectiveness—was notably down that October, and never recovered. It’s continued to dip in 2016, and further dipped in 2017. He’s spent time on and off the disabled list ever since.
  • Seung-Hwan Oh, 2016: an all-star who made the eighth-most appearances and seventh-most innings among relievers, despite the fact he’d come nowhere close to those totals since his rookie season in Korea. Charitably, he’s been mediocre in 2017, with an awful 1.3 HR/9, and a pedestrian K/9 of 8.7.
  • Seth Maness, 2013–2015: Despite being called up a ways into the 2013 season, Maness ranks eighth overall in appearances from 2013–2015, just one slot ahead of our man Rosenthal. Maness was never a power pitcher—his whole shtick was absurdly-good control, but even a finesse pitcher needs to have some measure of velocity. By 2016, Maness didn’t. His low-90s heater dipped into the upper 80s, and while the elbow surgery he needed wasn’t precisely Tommy John and is apparently medically interesting, he still hasn’t recovered. He allowed a whopping 14.9 H/9 during a brief tenure with the Royals this season, and has spent most of his time in AAA.

Stack those six guys up with Trevor Rosenthal, and if they’re all healthy and effective, you have the best bullpen in baseball by a long shot. Again: entirely possible some or all of these guys would’ve run into trouble even with more conservative usage. We don’t know. But Matheny certainly has a track record of burning his best pitchers out.

And now we add Trevor Rosenthal to the scrap heap. We’ll never know for sure if his overuse contributed to his injury, but we know that his overuse was intentional on Matheny’s part—he was trying to help. And we also know that Rosenthal’s injury has cost him at least forty million bucks.

It makes Matheny’s real estate bungling look positively pedestrian in comparison.

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