Looking at Nationals’ non-tender candidates

Having passed Tuesday’s deadline for adding players to the 40-man roster to protect them from being exposed to the Rule 5 draft at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas next month, it’s now time to take a look a possible non-tender candidates.

For the uninitiated, major league clubs can choose to not offer a contract to an arbitration-eligible player - non-tender him - if they would rather risk losing the player to another club than paying him what he might earn through the arbitration process. Most times, arbitration-eligible players receive raises, and those who fail to reach contract terms and instead go through the arbitration process are often handsomely rewarded for even meager statistical gains.

Teams need to offer - or not offer - their arbitration-eligible players contracts by Nov. 30.

This doesn’t mean that players who are non-tendered cannot re-sign with the team that chose to cut ties with them. That happens, usually when a team values a player and a player values his role on the team - just not at an inflated salary. They meet in the middle.

MLBTradeRumors.com has identified two players on the Nationals who are non-tender candidates, both of them pitchers.

Sammy Solís has probably pitched his last game with the Nationals, the result of consecutive seasons of statistical regression and a general feeling that they can no longer rely on the southpaw reliever whose reverse splits make it difficult to formulate a role for him.

Last season’s 6.41 ERA in 56 games covering 39 1/3 innings (and a demotion to Triple-A Syracuse that didn’t bring the desired turnaround), included a 1.55 WHIP and a .277/.367/.490 opponent slash line. Most troubling, however, was the fact that Solís struggled to retire left-handed batters, who slashed .329/.398/.595 off him with five homers in 79 at-bats. His stats against right-handed batters - .224/.337/.382 - were better, but a left-hander who can’t defend himself against lefty batters is just asking for trouble (and low-leverage situations).

Solís’ best stretch came between May 12 and June 18, when he appeared in 15 games and yielded only two earned runs in 10 innings. But he pitched an inning or more in only half of those games, and manager Davey Martinez clearly lost confidence in him. When the Nationals needed a roster spot to accommodate Jeremy Hellickson’s return from the disabled list on June 30, Solís was the odd man out. He had surrendered five runs in his previous four appearances covering 3 1/3 innings.

MLBTradeRumors predicts that Solís could still get a raise despite his disastrous campaign, jumping from a 2018 salary of $560,300 to $900,000. Given the fact that general manager Mike Rizzo is deep into his annual retooling of the bullpen, it’s likely that the pitcher taken in the second round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of San Diego has thrown his final pitch in a Nationals uniform.

Yes, teams always covet left-handed relief. But a lefty who can’t retire left-handers and is prone to long bouts of ineffectiveness? Not so much. The Nats could probably sign a reasonably priced free agent to fill Solís’ current role, and they could get better production for not much more than it would cost them to keep Solís.

roark-pitch-gray-sidebar.jpgThe other Nats non-tender candidate identified by MLBTradeRumors is more of a surprise: right-handed starter Tanner Roark, who is predicted to get a bump to $9.8 million in his third crack at arbitration. Roark’s salary has risen from $543,400 in his last year before arbitration in 2016 to $4.315 million in 2017 and $6.475 million last season.

But Roark’s production in 2018 took a major nosedive. He went 9-15 with a 4.34 ERA in 31 games (30 starts) and led the National League in losses. The 32-year-old’s ERA topped out at 4.87 on July 13 when he was knocked around by the Mets and fell to 4-12, but a mechanical tweak suggested by then-teammate Brandon Kintzler restored his lost sinker, produced the groundball outs Roark thrives on and helped turn his season around.

Roark won his next five starts, posting a .177 ERA and an opponent slash line of .214/.282/.529 in that span. The second half saw Roark go 6-3 with a 3.43 ERA and 1.081 WHIP in 11 starts. It was a respectable finish to an otherwise frustrating season.

The question for the Nats seems to be whether Roark works best as a No. 3 starter or whether he’d be better slotted lower in the rotation. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg hold down the first two spots in the starting five, with Roark next in line. Yes, bad luck combined with poor performance to leave Roark searching for answers in 2018. But will Roark return to the form he displayed when he was a 15-game winner in 2014, a 16-game winner in 2016 and a 13-game winner in 2017? The Nats want to count on Roark for 30 or more starts, but they have to be effective outings that don’t roast the bullpen.

If the Nationals dip into the free agent pitching market to sign a top starting pitcher - left-handers Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel and J.A. Happ interest them - an acquisition could push Roark further down the pecking order. Pride aside, that could help strengthen the rotation overall. And though $9.8 million is a lot of money, a starting pitcher who can log 30 starts and win more games than he loses without getting lit up is well worth that sum.

For that reason, and because the Nats have a dearth of rotation-ready candidates in the upper minors, it’s a good bet that Roark stays. But look for the two sides to settle on some figure between last season’s salary and this winter’s arbitration projection.

A note of thanks: People often ask me what the best part of my job is. Hands-down, it’s the people. On this day where we give thanks, I’m thankful for you - the fans who read what we write, engage us on social media, say hello at Nationals Park and share our passion for baseball. Enjoy your holiday with family and friends, and give thanks for blessings great and small.

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