Watching the Max Scherzer-to-Washington news from afar in Arizona, where he has been training for the past few weeks, Tanner Roark had a feeling what might be coming. The Nationals sent shock-waves through the baseball world when they added Scherzer, the best free agent all winter, to an already-talented rotation that finished with an MLB-best 3.04 ERA last season.
In his first full season as a starter last year, Roark was a revelation, finishing 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA as a 27-year-old. Two years before, he had an ERA over 4.00 at Class AAA Syracuse, but the late-blooming Roark finally figured it out, jumped to the majors in 2013 and posted the third-best ERA on a studded Nationals rotation in 2014. Over the past two seasons, among pitchers with at least 250 innings, Roark has the fourth-best ERA in baseball behind all-stars like Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto and Felix Hernandez.
But because Roark held the final spot in the rotation last season, has less experience than his Nationals’ peers and has pitched well out of a major league bullpen in the past, he may be headed there again — that is, if the front office decides not to trade Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister before their walk years.
“When you sign a caliber guy like Scherzer and me being the fifth guy last year — and I hope everybody stays, which would be great – it’s just out of my hands,” Roark said by telephone on Tuesday morning. “It’s what everybody else wants to do and establish the Nationals even more. I’m just here to help out the best I can and do the best I can.”
Like many, Roark didn’t expect the Nationals to add a starting pitcher this offseason to a rotation that could return intact for at least one more season. But the Nationals agreed to sign Scherzer, who is expected to be introduced at a Wednesday press conference and could serve as a bridge to future younger rotations if Zimmermann and Fister aren’t here this season or beyond.
“It was definitely surprising to see him come over but it’s going to help out the team,” he said. “That’s what I’m most excited about. … He was the 2013 Cy Young winner so he’s got that. He’s been very very good for very long. An added plus to the team.”
Baseball, though, can be tough. Roark, who will earn the league minimum next season and won’t be arbitration eligible until 2017, pitched well enough to keep a spot. But his peers have more pedigree and moving Roark to the bullpen, if everyone else stays, could keep a very capable back-up starter on hand in the case of injuries. The Nationals haven’t publicly stated a role for Roark but moving him back to the bullpen could be an option.
“I’d think I’d be the odd man out unfortunately,” Roark said. “It is what it is. I’m glad to be on the team and helping out the team as best as I can. If I get moved to the bullpen, I’ve done it before and I know I can do it. I have confidence in my stuff and my ability. We’re playing each year to win a World Series. If I have to get moved to the bullpen for us to win a World Series, I’m fine with that. If that’s what it comes down to, so be it.”
Even as Roark came up to the majors, enjoyed unexpected success and was put in the postseason bullpen last season, he handled it all with a happy-go-lucky attitude. Of course he would prefer to be a starter but he’s just happy to be in this position overall.
“It’s just the person I am,” he said. “Grateful to get every opportunity. I’ve worked every bit to be up to where I am. I don’t ever want that to slip through my fingers. That’s my mentality on the mound and every day when I’m working out out here six days a week.”
Roark is still preparing as a starting pitcher. He is two weeks into his throwing program. As he has done for the past several years, he went from his offseason home in Pennsylvania to Tempe, Ariz. to work out at Pro Training before heading to spring training in Viera. He hasn’t been told to change anything about his offseason training routine with Scherzer now in the fold so he isn’t.
“As far as I know, I’m still training to be a starter,” he said. “I’m working out to be a starter. I’m throwing my bullpens to be a starter. Who knows what happens until spring training or after spring training. So I’ll keep going on my regular routine.”