It's not exactly fair, no. It's not. As players are fond of saying when asked to explain the inexplicable or answer a question they'd rather avoid answering, "It is what it is."
The fact that a pitcher coming off a season as strong as Tanner Roark's 2014 campaign might not have a spot in the Nationals' rotation is hard to believe, until you list all of the starting pitchers ahead of him on Washington's depth chart.
Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez are likely to line up 1-5 in some order.
Roark, the 28-year-old right-hander who finished his second major season in 2014 at +3.0 fWAR, going (15-10) in 31 starts with a 2.85 ERA, 3.47 FIP, 39 walks (1.77 BB/9) and 138 Ks (6.25 K/9) in 198 ⅔ IP, might find himself relieving again in 2015 as he did at times during his breakthrough campaign in 2013.
Since debuting in the majors with the Nats on August 7, 2013, Roark's 2.57 ERA in 252 ⅓ IP is the fourth-lowest league-wide amongst pitchers with at least 250 IP, behind only the likes of the Seattle Mariners' Felix Hernandez (2.55 ERA in 440 ⅓), the Cincinnati Reds' Johnny Cueto (2.37 ERA in 304 ⅓ IP) and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw (1.80 ERA in 434 ⅓ IP).
He's enjoyed success as a reliever, however, which he admitted before the 2014 campaign was a bit of a double-edged sword when it came to the tough decisions on what was then a less-stacked but still impressive collection of arms.
"I'd love to be the fifth starter," Roark told reporters. "But if I can make the team out of Spring Training, that would be great to help the team out any way I can. So I just want to make the team and I want to win the World Series. That's everybody's desire, right?"
Both Roark and right-hander Taylor Jordan, who battled for the fifth spot last Spring, made the rotation at the start of the 2014 campaign when Doug Fister suffered a lat strain late in Spring Training, and though Jordan struggled and fell out, Roark stuck even after Fister returned and finished out the year as part of the Nationals' staff, pitching deep into the season before moving to the pen with Gio Gonzalez getting the fourth start in the Nats' NLDS loss to the San Francisco Giants.
Until the Nationals signed Scherzer, giving the 30-year-old now-former Detroit Tigers' right-hander a 7-year/$210M deal, Roark slotted in nicely as one of the better "fifth" starters in the majors, now he may have to settle for spot starts and bullpen work.
He said pretty much the same thing he said last winter when asked, after the Scherzer deal was announced, about potentially moving back to the 'pen.
"'I’d think I’d be the odd man out unfortunately,'" Roark told Washington Post writer James Wagner:
"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."
Citing the injury to Fister last March, Matt Williams explained to reporters last month, including MASN's Dan Kolko, that Roark would prepare to start this Spring and the Nats would make a tough decision at some point before Opening Day.
"'If for some reason there's a need for him to start, he's ready,'" Williams said. "'If for some reason, there's a need for someone to go to the bullpen within that starting rotation, then we'll have to make that decision, too.'"
Before the rotation competition grew even more crowded with Scherzer's addition, Roark said he was taking nothing for granted as he prepared for his third season in D.C.
"I always think that somebody can come in there and prove themselves and do better than me," he said.
"That's what I've got to do myself," Roark explained. "Still prove each year that I can still be a starter and still pitch at the big league level. That's still my mentality. That always will be my mentality."
When he worked out of the 'pen in 2013, Roark posted a 1.19 ERA and held hitters to a .180/.247/.195 line in 22 ⅓ IP.