Improved Tanner Roark Could Be the Boost the Nationals Need

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Tanner Roark is the forgotten man in the Washington Nationals rotation. But if he can bounce back from his underwhelming 2017 campaign, the righty could be the boost the Nats need to get out of the NLDS this season.

Last season, Roark endured a discouraging and head-scratching year. Finishing 2017 with a career-worst 4.67 ERA and 1.33 WHIP, he was hit hard, put runners on base often, and didn’t look like himself. He struggled with his command, showed signs of regression, and didn’t have the trust of then-manager Dusty Baker to make a single appearance in the Nationals’ NLDS series matchup with the Chicago Cubs.

In years past, Roark has been, at times, the Nats’ most consistent arm. He recorded ERAs of 2.85 or better twice, got batters to ground out, and could pitch deep into games; last season he struggled to do those things.

Roark is apart of a lethal Nationals pitching staff. With Max Scherzer (who won his third Cy Young in 2017), Stephen Strasburg (who was also a Cy Young candidate last season), and lefty Gio Gonzalez (who recorded a 2.96 ERA in 2017), first-year manager Dave Martinez has one of the more potent pitching staffs in baseball at his disposal. Imagine how much better that rotation would be if Roark returns to form?

Roark has shown a tendency to pitch well one year, fall off the ensuing year, and then rebound the year after. Based on that bizarre trend, 2018 should be a successful season for the righty. Of course, that cannot be relied on, but there’s no denying Roark’s worth to the Nats, especially when you take into account the uncertain future of Gonzalez and silence on management’s end in free agency this offseason.

The Nats are prepping for what will be a critical 2018 offseason. With Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Madson, and Gonzalez hitting the open market, general manager Mike Rizzo (assuming ownership renews his contract) will have to make some hard decisions on who to pay and how much to fork over, already having the fifth-highest payroll in baseball. Assuming the Nationals prioritize keeping Harper and/or Murphy, Gonzalez will likely be the odd man out. With righties A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde in the team’s future, the Nats will likely value youth over the veteran southpaw. Roark’s presence also makes letting Gonzalez walk a bit easier.

While a free agent after 2019, the Nats are in dire need of Roark to bounce back and stay in place. Gonzalez has been a staple in the Nationals staff in his six years in the nation’s capital, but chances are slim that he remains past 2018. The Nats need Roark now and down the road. Their rotation is certainly a dangerous staff, but outside of Scherzer and Strasburg, they’re inconsistent; Roark’s consistency, when he has his command, has propelled their staff to greater heights.

The Nationals expressed interest in starting pitching on the free agent market this offseason. They were in on Chicago Cubs righty Jake Arrieta up until he signed a three-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies and had interest in St. Louis Cardinals righty Lance Lynn. At the end of the day, they decided to stay with their horses and bank on internal production and growth.

The Nats are a World Series contender in 2018. It’s just a matter of whether they can get over the mental hurdle of advancing past the first round. But the Nationals’ past failures can’t stop them from improving, whether it be internally or from the outside. They have a high-octane lineup that features the likes of Harper, Murphy, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, and Trea Turner, among others. And they finally have a stable bullpen with Sean Doolittle, Madson, and Brandon Kintzler in their backend. With an improved Roark, the Nats rotation becomes even more formidable and well-rounded, which makes them an even more complete roster.

The Nationals didn’t sign a free-agent starting pitcher and have penciled in Cole as the number-five arm. Roark, for the moment, is the four, but with a bounce-back year, he can return to being the three and a postseason starter. And if he rekindles his command and consistency, the Nats become even better. Roark’s ability to thrive is a game-changer for Washington.

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