LAS VEGAS — The Washington Nationals traded right-handed starter Tanner Roark to the Cincinnati Reds for reliever Tanner Rainey on Wednesday, a move that gives the Nationals more financial flexibility in their pursuit of strong starting pitching.
Roark had mostly been a part of the Nationals' rotation since 2014 and finished last season with a National League-high 15 losses. Roark endured an up-and-down year — a fitting illustration of his up-and-down career — pairing a dreadful start with a much stronger finish. He will now look to find consistency with the Reds after the Nationals dealt him in the sixth notable move of their busy offseason, nearly a decade after he was a 25th-round pick out of the University of Illinois.
“It was a great experience. I learned a lot from veteran pitchers and position players and the guys that were there when I first came up,” Roark said of his time with the Nationals on a conference call with reporters Wednesday night. “They taught me how to be professional. I’ve taken that a long way, and I always remember certain things, to always be a professional. I’m going to miss the guys, of course. But like I said, that’s the name of the game. I have new teammates now. Now I have to face [the Nationals].”
The 32-year-old was thought to be a part of Washington’s rotation before the start of these winter meetings. He is due to make $10 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility, and that is money the Nationals can now use to round out a rotation that features Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and two question marks on the back end.
Once the Nationals started listening to offers for Roark, with reports first surfacing Monday night, it seemed like they would only move him if they could acquire a proven starter to replace him. That is not Rainey, who came out of the bullpen in the minors and in his brief stint in the majors last season. So it would appear that the Nationals are confident they can add another starter or two this winter. The team’s in-house options include Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and not much else once the team traded depth starter Jefry Rodriguez at the end of November. And so an offseason already full of pitching transactions for the Nationals, including the splash signing of Corbin, could include a few more.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said Tuesday that teams started inquiring about Roark once Corbin landed with Washington last week.
Roark’s tenure with the Nationals was sometimes rocky. After he won 15 games in 2014, he was moved to the bullpen when the Nationals signed Scherzer. He then struggled to find a rhythm as he bounced between relief appearances and spot starts throughout 2015. He rebounded in 2016, winning 16 games, finishing with a 2.83 ERA and earning National League Cy Young votes at season’s end. But he never seemed to be the same after pitching in the World Baseball Classic in 2017 and had wildly inconsistent results in 2018.
“Life’s too short to hold grudges. But [shuffling between starting and relieving] is what they wanted to do. If they can live with it, then they live with it,” Roark said Wednesday when asked if there were any hard feelings between him and the Nationals. “They treated me great, but there were times when I would be very frustrated and I would get pissed off. But that made me stronger mentally, how to handle certain things like that. It helped me.”
The right-handed Rainey spent most of last season with the Class AAA Louisville Bats, where he had a 7-2 record and a 2.65 ERA in 44 appearances. The 25-year-old made his major league debut out of the Reds' bullpen in 2018 and gave up 19 earned runs in just seven innings. Rainey, a second-round pick by the Reds in 2015 out of West Alabama, brings youth and upside, including a high strikeout rate and good numbers against right-handed hitters in the minors. There is a chance he develops into a solid late-inning reliever for a franchise that says, repeatedly, that it could never have enough arms to choose from.
But the move, more than anything, gives the Nationals more money to work with as they continue to seek a deep, shutdown staff for the coming season. Addition by subtraction on Wednesday may have gotten them closer to that goal.
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