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Is Tanner Roark a lock to start the season in the Washington Nationals bullpen?

Tanner Roark was outstanding out of the rotation for the Nationals last season, going 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP in 198.2 innings. However, the Max Scherzer signing has pushed him to the bullpen to begin the 2015 season. Roark hasn't exactly appeared to take to the role so far this spring.

Coming off of a fantastic first full season, Tanner Roark looked like he'd be a great weapon out of the bullpen in 2015. With just one week to go in Spring Training, Roark has arguably been the worst pitcher in camp.
Coming off of a fantastic first full season, Tanner Roark looked like he'd be a great weapon out of the bullpen in 2015. With just one week to go in Spring Training, Roark has arguably been the worst pitcher in camp.
Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

The Nationals entered Spring Training with a bullpen that looked to be pretty well set for the start of the regular season.

  • Drew Storen would serve as the closer
  • Casey Janssen would serve as the primary setup man
  • Matt Thornton and Jerry Blevins will be the situational lefties
  • Craig Stammen and Aaron Barrett will work predominantly as middle relievers
  • Former starting pitcher Tanner Roark will be the long man out of the bullpen

The assumption all along has been that Roark, who had a magnificent season as a starter in 2014, would transition seamlessly to the bullpen.  He has worked there in the past during his minor league career, so there wasn't much concern about him being able to adjust his routine.  While I'm sure that it's difficult to be "demoted" after the year that he had in 2014, he's handled the situation well publicly, saying that he's comfortable doing whatever will help the team win.  Unfortunately, his on field success hasn't translated so well to this point in March.

It's hard to get too concerned (or excited) about Spring Training statistics.  Pitchers, specifically, tend to have outings (primarily earlier in the spring) where they're focusing primarily on throwing just one or two pitches, so results aren't necessarily as important as process during March.  We can often dismiss a player who is having a great spring by pointing out just who the players are that they're dominating against.  Minor leaguers and backups tend to see a lot more time during spring training, so a terrific March ERA or batting average can be deceptive.  Finally, we're dealing with extremely small samples.  Ballplayers run into hot and cold streaks all the time.  Over the grueling course of a 162 game season, these streaks tend to even out.  When we're dealing with a 25-30 game sample size, they don't.

At any rate, Roark has really struggled this March.  After allowing 5 runs (just 2 ER because Dan Uggla was playing defense) in 1.1 innings Saturday, Roark has now allowed 15 runs in 11.1 innings this Spring.  Is it a small sample?  Of course it is.... one or two bad games could really swing what his spring line looks like.  That doesn't really seem to be the case here, though....

Date Opp. Score Dec IP H R ER HR BB K
3/28 @NYM L 2-10 - 1.1 5 5 2 2 0 1
3/26 NYM L 3-8 - 1 2 1 1 0 0 0
3/22 @DET T 7-7 - 1.1 2 0 0 0 0 3
3/19 DET T 0-0 - 2 3 0 0 0 0 3
3/14 MIA L 0-4 L 2.2 4 4 4 1 1 1
3/9 ATL L 1-2 L 2 2 2 2 1 0 2
3/5 NYM W 5-4 - 1 4 3 3 1 1 0

This is a bit troubling to me.... Roark has now made seven appearances this Spring.  He's allowed multiple runs in four of those and at least one run in five of them.  After allowing two homers Saturday, Roark has allowed five home runs in just 11.1 innings this Spring.  He allowed just sixteen home runs in 198.2 innings last season.

Regarding the overall numbers, it's Spring Training.  I rewatched Roark's outing from Saturday to see if I could find any reason for the struggles.  He definitely didn't look sharp.  He pretty much threw his fastball exclusively in the sixth inning after replacing Blevins.  His fastball was most certainly not playing up as we often hear it can when starters move to the bullpen.  The Mets gun had him between sitting 89-90 for the most part.  He topped off at 91.  Wilmer Flores' RBI double was a first pitch middle/middle fastball.  While the location was begging to be tagged, I'm not sure I'll say that he necessarily missed.  It seemed like a get me over fastball.

In the seventh inning, Roark did mix in his changeup and curveball a bit more.  He also allowed two home runs... one to journeyman catcher Johnny Monell and one to Lucas Duda.  Both were definitely well struck balls, but neither would have left a big league ballpark on a calm day (the wind was nuts in Saturday's game).  The Monell homer was on a fastball where Roark seemed to miss his location a bit.  I'd say Duda just got him.  He sat on a breaking ball just below the knees and yanked it down the line.  The only other baserunner in the inning came when Dan Uggla mishandled an easy chopper to second base.

Let's take another look at that game log

If you'd like, feel free to scroll back up to that game log for Roark so far in March.  Feel free to take a look at which teams have been doing the most damage against him.  I may be making a bit too much about this, but it bothers me a bit.  Don't take that the wrong way and think that I'm saying that the Nats should beat up on all of their divisional opponents in the preseason, though.

What truly bothers me about this is that these are the teams that have the most familiarity with Roark from having faced him in the past.  They're also teams that he's likely to face more often than any others in MLB this season.  If these are the teams that have been lighting him up, I worry that they have something on him.  Is it possible that Roark is tipping his pitches somehow?  Is it possible that the teams that have seen him more often could be starting to figure him out?

It's possible (probable) that he's just going through a bit of a rough patch and things will turn around.  It's possible that he has let the demotion to the bullpen affect him more than he's let on.  No matter what the root of the problem is, Roark hasn't really looked like he's ready to be a key piece in the Nats bullpen come opening day.  His command seems to be off.  His fastball doesn't seem to have a lot of life on it.  If only he had minor league options remaining.... What's that you say?  He does!?

By no means am I saying that the Nats should send Roark to Syracuse and forget about him.  The man did have a 2.85 ERA over 198.2 innings in his first full season last year.  The expectation is that when Zimmermann and/or Fister leave via free agency after the 2015 season, Roark will regain his spot in the Nats' rotation.  No... you send him down to work through his issues.  If he's having trouble adjusting to pitching out of the bullpen again, you let him work out those issues in AAA.  If he's consistently struggling with his command (this is trouble for any pitcher, but even more so for a pitcher whose style leans more towards finesse), I have to feel like he's better off finding it in Syracuse than with the big league club.  He'll be able to see more game action, and even if he does continue to struggle for a little while longer, it isn't hurting the big league club.

Of course, the idea of taking advantage of the fact that Roark still has options remaining doesn't work unless they have a suitable replacement........

Admittedly, I've been looking for a way to say the Nats need to make room for Blake Treinen in the bullpen since last summer.  He's basically a two pitch pitcher (OK... One fantastic sinker and a slider that's just kind of there) who dabbles in throwing a third pitch that he just hasn't seemed to be able to develop.  Despite lacking any spectacular offerings outside of the sinker, Treinen was fantastic (primarily as a starter) in both Syracuse (3.35 ERA, 3.31 FIP) and Washington (2.49 ERA, 3.09 FIP) last season.  Treinen has looked terrific this March, allowing just 5 hits and 2 unearned runs with a 5:1 strikeout to walk ratio in 8.1 innings.  I was wondering heading into the Spring if Aaron Barrett might leave the door open for him... It's starting to seem as if Tanner Roark has...