Spring Training Question 4: Can Tanner Roark Fit In the Starting Rotation?

@aNatsFan gets Roark on the mound.

@aNatsFan gets Roark on the mound.

So you may have heard in December that the Nationals have the best starting pitching rotation in baseball, or darn close to it. You may have heard more recently that the Nationals made that rotation even better with the addition of free agent Max Scherzer.

The rotation was already stacked. Ranked by fWAR across both leagues, The Nats featured Jordan Zimmermann (#10) and Stephen Strasburg (#13), two top 20 pitchers overall. Gio Gonzalez didn’t pitch enough innings to be a qualified starter (thanks shoulder issues), but still posted a 3.1 fWAR and would have slotted him around 30th overall. Doug Fister was technically the worst of the bunch, at 54th overall and a 1.3 fWAR, but I don’t think you’d find a Nats fan who’d complain about him (or wouldn’t agree that fWAR may be cheating him a bit based on how its calculated).  The rotation, as a whole, finished first overall in fWAR – and then they added the 7th best pitcher by fWAR to that.

A pitching rotation we thought was the the X-men turned out to be the Justice League, and now it is a Justice League with three Supermen (probably from alternate timelines), a Batman and a Wonder Woman (and you’re a damn fool if you’re snickering at Wonder Woman. She’s awesome).

And then there is Green Arrow, personified in this case as Tanner Roark. Resourceful, not super powered, but still one of the better Justice League alum: We all remember the time that the Arrow saved all his super powered bretheren (yeah, yeah, yeah: Batman doesn’t have super powers: But anyone who can go toe to toe with Superman and win counts). But is there room for Arrow on a Justice League of heavy weights like-

Sorry, I totally got side tracked. Point being: One of the questions that will resolve in spring training is whether there is room for 3+ WAR pitcher on a rotation of Ubermenches? The deck is stacked way against him, but let’s go through the possibilities anyway.

And you’re sure Tanner Roark is the odd man out? Almost certainly yes. Like 99% yes.

Are you sure its not someone else? Short of trade or injury, I’m pretty sure.

And you are sure it is not Max Scherzer who is the odd man out? Yes, I am entirely sure it is not him.

So Why?

I think it comes down to the fact that: no one can exactly tell you how Tanner Roark does the voodoo that he do. I did a podcast last year with Stuart Wallace (listen!), and the idea seems to come down to two things: Roark is merciless in his attacking of pitchers, and the tried and true location, location, location. Roark doesn’t have the “stuff” other pitchers do, but he will throw the same pitch until a batter hits it (something not all “stuff” pitchers do). James O’Hara points out he’s throwing more strikes and walking fewer guys than in the minors.

Necessity being the mother of invention, Roark earned his place in the rotation by working on the things he could control and doing the things he could do to win. And that’s as close as I’ll ever get to saying someone has “grit.”

But even with all of that, Roark is still the least known quantity of the group, and there are some red flags floating around. His BABIP was very low over the last two years, meaning the balls in play were becoming outs at a higher rate than average. If that goes back to average, his numbers jump up a bit. The other five starters have a longer track record of starting games, and consequently there is a better sense of what you’ll get from any of them than Roark- and what you’ll get is likely as good, or better, than what Tanner has shown so far.

If Tanner Roark isn’t a starting pitcher this year, it is not because he is bad, or messed up, or anything like that. It’s more like his company downsized, and based on seniority he was the odd man out. It’s not fair, or nice- but it is what it is.

So if he isn’t a starter, what will the Nats do?

Option 1: Roark to the Pen

It may look and feel like a demotion to send Roark to the pen, but it might be simply where you can best leverage his talent. While his postseason appearance from the bullpen was nothing to write home about (and really, that was basically everyone), he does have 22.2 IP in relief. A very small sample size, but a 1.19 ERA and .208 wOBA is encouraging.

And there is room for him too. The Nationals traded away Tyler Clippard, so there is room for an established pitcher to take up a late innings role. Drew Storen should start the year closing, and new guy Casey Janssen ought to slide into the 8th inning spot.  The 7th inning might belong to usual long relief man Craig Stammen. Stammen has thrown more than 240 innings in the last three years, and his ERA, K/9, WAR all moving the wrong way last year. That may be a blip (his velocity etc. seems the same) but maybe Stammen would benefit from being a 6th or 7th inning reliever (making way for Roark to be the new long man).

Roark might be a perfect, if an overqualified, option for the long relief spot in the bullpen (and a little easier to tap for a spot start if he was already on the team).

If this is the plan, we’ll find out quickly. If Roark is a bullpen guy, he’ll be doing that in spring training to get used to the routine. This is good news (and probably the best news) for folks that want to see Roark on the 25 man roster at all.

Option 2: AAA

Fans might remember this as the John Lannan plan.

This solution would offer one particular advantage: It would keep Tanner Roark doing what he appears to do best – start baseball games. If you don’t want to monkey with his routine (or Craig Stammen’s for that matter) and you want to keep everyone, this is what you do. Roark is ready in case of injury to slide right in and pitch like he did last year.

The problem with this is that you’re leaving one of the best pitchers on the team off the field. You’re rather wasting his talent by sending him to AAA. That said, I think this is the second most likely of the scenarios to happen before the start of the season. It’s not very likely, but it is possible.

You may also be able to suss this out early in spring as well. If Roark is starting games in the spring, the Nats expect him to start during the season: But there isn’t any room for him to start in Washington. That is, unless…

Option 3: Trade a Pitcher

Before Max Scherzer signed, the offseason was dominated by whether the Nats would trade/sign Jordan Zimmermann (and Ian Desmond). Neither of those things have happened, and the Nats appear ready to roll with Zimmermann for the rest of the year and risk letting him go. It’s not a bad strategy: The Nats got Jordan Zimmermann because they refused to trade Alfonso Soriano when they had the chance (picking up a comp pick).

But this could still happen. A pitcher might get hurt in spring, and a team that wasn’t really considering trading for a pitcher suddenly is. If they come knocking on the Nats door, Zimmermann presents an A level pitcher that could anchor just about any staff.

And ZNN isn’t the only pitcher that could go. Car-sales man Mike Rizzo might show the ZNN floor model, but then walk a team over to the used lot if they can’t quite swing the payment. Doug Fister is probably a slightly less expensive option who is also going to be a free agent at the end of the year. Looking to spend more? I don’t think Rizzo would trade Strasburg like some sources have thrown out there, but it is possible and it would easily cost more than Jordan Zimmerman- He’s got the bigger upside and another year of control.

The Nats just signed Scherzer, so I wouldn’t count on him being traded. Gio could be moved, but then puts the Nats in the position of not having a left handed starter- so that also seems like a no-go to me. Craig Stammen could be moved if someone comes looking for a reliever, which would be another way to make room for Roark (without having to shift Stammen’s responsibilities).

The reason I think this is unlikely (at least before the trade deadline) is this has been the situation all offseason, and all of these guys are still on the team. If someone was going to meet Rizzo’s price, they would have done so already. That price will come down as the season goes on (and depending on how the Nats are doing). Come the trade deadline, trading a pitcher may be an option, but right now is unlikely.

Still if you see Roark starting games this spring, but want to hold out hope he won’t be sent to AAA, you can imagine #NinjaRizzo has something in the works. Of course, be careful of what you wish for…

Option 4: Trade Tanner Roark

Mike Rizzo likes players with a lot of arbitration years left a lot, and Tanner Roark is under contract until 2020. If there is one thing Mike Rizzo may like more, it is selling high. Ask Matt Capps. Or Ryan Langerhans after his rebound(ish) year. Remember at the outset when we were talking about how there are still some red(ish) flags around Roark? If you’re unsure of what this guy has, or how long he can sustain success, it might be a good time to send out Roark. He presents a very nice option for another team that can use him as a starter immediately, and the Nationals aren’t necessarily concerned if he pitches well for another team or not because, presumably, they are set with pitching. Sure, it’s nice to have him available as a back up in case of injury, but the Nationals do have other prospects that could step in in a pinch.

This is the hardest option for me to gauge because it represents a genuine roll of the dice. This is the ballad of Tanner Roark so far though: for all he’s shown, there is still doubt. Still stacking up of things that don’t weigh in his favor. Green Arrow isn’t Superman.

And yet he endures. Thrives, even. This is why Roark is great: He simply shows up and pitches as well as he can. The man has been handed changed assignment after escalated expectation, on and on: and he just gets it done. However this spring unfolds for Roark, I expect you’ll see him take it in stride and succeed at whatever is asked of him.

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