In appreciation of Tanner Roark

Because the trade occurred late in the Winter Meetings last week, and because the Nationals have made more news since, Tanner Roark’s departure for Cincinnati perhaps hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves.

Consider this, then, one final acknowledgement of Roark’s career in Washington. Because it was significant, it was very good at times and it may not be as easy to replace as some would like to believe.

Did Roark have his faults? Sure. Especially over the last two seasons, he struggled to find any level of consistency, making any given start of his a crapshoot.

But view his five-plus seasons with the Nationals in their entirety, and this guy was awfully impressive when you consider where he came from.

Roark, you may have forgotten, was a middling prospect when the Nats acquired him in 2010. A 25th-round pick out of the University of Illinois (not exactly a baseball powerhouse), he was no guarantee to even reach the majors at the time. Not that Mike Rizzo expected to get much in return for Cristian Guzman, who was pawned off on the Rangers in exchange for Roark and fellow minor league righty Ryan Tatusko. A 6-17 record and 4.39 ERA at Triple-A in 2012 did nothing to boost Roark’s case for future success.

Roark-Pitch-Blue-v-PHI-sidebar.jpgBut then the lightbulb came on in 2013, and by late summer, Roark was making his big league debut and turning heads with a 1.51 ERA over 53 2/3 innings. He joined the rotation full-time the following year and was an absolute revelation, going 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA.

Bumped to the bullpen because of the Max Scherzer acquisition, Roark took a step back in 2015. But given a chance to be a full-time starter again in 2016, he nearly duplicated his performance from two years prior, going 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA.

The last two seasons, as stated earlier, were a struggle. And at times, Roark seemed to have lost the confidence that helped make him so effective despite less-than-dominant stuff. But let’s not discount what this guy still was in the big picture. For his career, he’s 64-54 with a 3.59 ERA and a 1.209 WHIP. He made 30-plus starts each of the four full seasons he spent in the Nationals rotation. He has never spent a day on the disabled list.

That track record of durability was Roark’s biggest selling point, and it’s why he was expected to make up to $10 million via arbitration this winter. Turns out the Nationals were somewhat concerned that was too steep a price to pay for a pitcher who at 32 might be entering the decline phase of his career.

OK, that’s fair. Roark was no sure thing to bounce back in 2019, and the Nats couldn’t afford to watch him post an ERA in the mid-4.00s again and struggle to put away hitters with two strikes again. But if they think it’s going to be easy to find a better alternative for less money, they better recognize the current state of the pitching market.

Matt Harvey just signed with the Angels on Tuesday night for a guaranteed $11 million. Yes, Harvey, who over the last three seasons was 16-26 with a 5.39 ERA and 1.454 WHIP for the Mets and Reds, all while dealing with various injuries. Does Harvey have more upside than Roark? Sure. But if you had to pick one of them to be your No. 4 starter for the entire season, who would you take as the safer pick? No question it’s Roark.

And Harvey’s contract wasn’t an outlier this winter. The Rangers gave Lance Lynn, who is the same age as Roark and had a higher ERA and WHIP this season, three years and $30 million. The Yankees gave 36-year-old J.A. Happ, who admittedly has improved with age, two years and $34 million.

What are the Nationals’ options right now? They could go big and make a long-term commitment to Dallas Keuchel, who has very similar numbers to Roark over the last three seasons, it should be noted. Or they could go cheap and sign Aníbal Sánchez, Wade Miley or Jeremy Hellickson (or maybe even two of them) and hope they catch lightning in a bottle.

(Yes, there’s also the possibility of a trade, but it’s tough to imagine the Nationals acquiring a legit starting pitching without having to give up one of its top prospects: Victor Robles, Carter Kieboom or Luis Garcia.)

Look, Rizzo knows what he’s doing. He has earned the benefit of the doubt. Shoot, he turned the final 15 games of Cristian Guzman’s career into Tanner Roark. We don’t know exactly what his pitching plan is, but it’s safe to say he has a plan.

Maybe he’ll end up with a pitcher better than Roark, and the Nationals will end up with an elite rotation once again in 2019. But that wouldn’t diminish what Roark meant to this franchise over the last six seasons.

Because he meant a lot to the Nats. And one way or another, they’re going to miss him.

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