By Rob Rains
Trevor Rosenthal is a pitcher without a team, which is why four days a week he makes the short drive from his home in west St. Louis County to Maryville University. It’s been his baseball home since June.
Stepping on the mound in the bullpen down the right field line of the school’s baseball facility, Rosenthal is where he wants to be, where he needs to be, as he tries to work his way back toward a major-league stadium.
It’s been just over a year since Rosenthal underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, and he said his rehab is going as scheduled. He became a free agent when the Cardinals released the former All-Star closer last November, the result of baseball’s arbitration rules which would have forced the team to pay him more than $4 million this year not to pitch – and then he still could have become a free agent at the end of the season.
Rosenthal has no ill feelings about that decision, or regrets about mapping out his own rehab program through the help of his agents, the baseball staff at Maryville and Keith Sanders, a physical therapist at Barnes West who has rehabbed numerous Cardinals’ pitchers in the past.
Sitting out this season, Rosenthal said, has had its advantages.
“I wish I wouldn’t have gotten hurt, but it’s been a really big learning experience,” Rosenthal said after a recent workout. “I’m kind of having that mid-career time to sit back and watch everything. You learn from the past and plan for the future. I’m confident the future is going to be good.
“I’m excited to get back, but I’ve definitely enjoyed this time and it hasn’t been too difficult. I think it’s easier because I know there’s a really good chance I will have an opportunity to be back and play again. I think it would be different if I knew I was at the end of the road.”
The 28-year-old Rosenthal has spent much of his free time with his family. He and wife Lindsey have three children – 5, 3 and a two-month old.
He built a temporary deck for a swimming pool and the family has done some traveling, but most of Rosenthal’s time has been spent rehabbing his right arm.
“It’s really been pretty awesome,” Rosenthal said. “It’s like getting to do things on my own schedule, which is not normal. Knowing that I will be back next year it’s like instead of having a three-month off-season I’m having an 18-month off-season. That’s what it feels like.
“It’s been pretty much what I expected; not that tough. I’m still playing; just missing the games. I’m pretty much doing everything else I would be doing. I’m working out, I’m working on my pitching skills, my mechanics. It still feels like I’m playing baseball.”
Rosenthal knows some players who would have trouble organizing their own workouts and rehab schedule, relying on team personnel to tell them what they need to do when. One of the reasons his rehab program has worked, he said, is that he knew doing it without that team support would not be a problem because of his ability to motivate himself.
“When we evaluated the situation going into it after I had the injury and the surgery, we were considering taking the year off,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve always done a lot of work on my own. I knew being focused and dedicated over a long period of time was something I was good at. To make this decision we knew I was going to be able to follow through with the commitment.
“There are so many different guys in a locker room; some really are dependent on the staff and others do all the stuff on their own. For me I’ve always done a little bit of both. We kind of put our own crew together, with the help of the Cardinals’ workman’s comp staff.
“Whether I’m at Maryville or at the complex in Jupiter the protocol would be the same either way. It might be even better in some cases with what I have here because I have a group of people who are dedicated to just me versus rehabbing other people at the same time.”
Rosenthal has gradually ramped up his workouts and throwing sessions since June and said there have been no setbacks. He is now throwing all of his pitches at close to 100 percent, and is even using computer-based technology to film his bullpen sessions so he can watch his pitches afterward.
“I knew my arm was going to feel good, just from what everybody said,” Rosenthal said. “The doctor going into it said, ‘Your arm is going to feel like it did three or four years ago,’ and that’s exactly what it feels like.”
Back then, Rosenthal was the Cardinals’ closer. He was throwing 100 miles per hour and in 2015 set the franchise record with 48 saves, becoming the first pitcher in team history to save 45 or more games in consecutive seasons.
That wear and tear began to get to him, however, and finally snapped on a pitch to the Braves’ Freddie Freeman on Aug. 12 last year.
“I definitely felt it on that one pitch,” Rosenthal said.
He stayed in the game and struck out Nick Markakis to finish the save, and then tried to come back in Boston four days later. He faced two hitters, giving up a home run and a walk, and had to come out of the game.
Surgery followed two weeks later.
“The plan the whole time was to really take it slow and build in extra rest,” Rosenthal said. “I didn’t expect there to be a ton of hiccups with how slow we were doing things. We’ve been able to do everything we planned on doing without a delay.”
The next stage of the plan now is for Rosenthal to continue to ramp up the intensity of his bullpen sessions. He likely will start facing hitters in live batting practice sessions in a couple of weeks.
Rosenthal will then fly to Los Angeles for a followup medical appointment and physical and final clearance, at which time he expects to face hitters in a few more outings before heading back to southern California to hold a showcase for all interested teams.
“We’ve had a lot of teams call already but we’ve sent the message that we’re waiting and will let teams know when we’re ready,” Rosenthal said. “I’m excited to see how those conversations progress once we do the showcase and are ready to see how we can help whatever organization is interested.”
While Rosenthal has spent this summer in St. Louis, he has not been glued to the television watching every Cardinals’ game and has not been to Busch Stadium. He has kept in touch with his friends on the team, and sought advice from Adam Wainwright – also a Tommy John survivor – as he has worked his way through the rehab schedule.
What Rosenthal will be looking for in his free agent negotiations is an opportunity to pitch the eighth or ninth inning. He realizes he might have to agree to a contract loaded with incentives, perhaps for games finished, until he proves he is healthy.
The Cardinals could be one of the teams at his showcase, especially as they sort through their closer options for next season. Rosenthal did pitch for manager Mike Shildt in the minor leagues.
“I’m not in any position to close any doors right now,” said Rosenthal, who wants to sign before Nov. 1 so he can then have a “normal” off-season and be ready to go for spring training.
“Walking back into the clubhouse for the first time is definitely going to be a good feeling,” he said. “We will have a better idea of what’s going to happen once we do the showcase and start talking to teams.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains