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Tanner Roark the right choice for Washington Nationals

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With no real news regarding a timetable on Doug Fister's return from a flexor strain, the Nats are taking advantage of a few off days and stretching Tanner Roark out to take Fister's spot in the rotation.

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The Washington Nationals announced how they're going to replace Doug Fister's spot in the rotation for the near future Friday.  Matt Williams told reporters that Tanner Roark would pitch either Monday or Tuesday at Wrigley Field and would be limited to about seventy pitches.  We examined how the Nats should handle replacing Fister's spot last week, concluding that A.J. Cole could be a decent call if the club felt Fister's absence was going to be a short term thing. If the organization had concerns that Fister's injury might lead to a prolonged absence, Roark seemed like the better choice.  While the Nats said that Fister's MRI yielded positive results, we still haven't heard anything about a timetable for his return.

A week later, there have been some other factors that helped make the decision a bit easier for the Nats.  Let's examine them and see why they helped point towards going with Roark over Cole.

Casey Janssen returned from the DL

Sammy Solis was placed on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation on Friday and replaced on the roster by Casey Janssen, who was nearing the end of his rehab anyway.  These moves actually affected both players in contention for the open rotation spot.

Janssen was signed this offseason to help solidify the back of the Nats bullpen.  The former Blue Jays closer has a 3.52 career ERA (2.92 as a reliever) and should help fill a void in the late-inning relief corps.  Janssen's absence (as well as Craig Stammen's) had left the Nats with very few stable options to work in setup situations.  Among right-handers, just Aaron Barrett and Roark seemed to be capable of getting the job done in a setup role in front of Drew Storen.  With Janssen back, he and Barrett can share the right-handed setup duties, which frees up Roark to take on a different role.

Solis' trip to the disabled list means that Cole can stay up and work as the long man in the bullpen.  Roark could just as easily fill that role, but the long man is so often used in games that have gotten out of hand (one way or the other).  Taking a pitcher like Roark, who was one of the better starters in the National League last year, and limiting his outings to games that are already out of hand seems like a waste.

The Nats are in contention... and there's a long way to go in the season

Yes.... It's only May 23.  The Nats are 1.5 games up on the Mets.  Both the current trend(s) and the preseason expectations for both teams tell us that the Nats lead is more likely to increase than decrease.  However, there's still a lot of baseball to be played.  For a team playing to win this season, they should try and run their best five starters out there if possible.  Based on their track records at the big league level (Cole doesn't really have one), Roark is the clear choice for a team playing solely for 2015.

Timing does factor in.  If this were August or September and the Nats had around a ten game lead, I could see Cole getting the nod for a couple of reasons:

  1. Each marginal win in the standings would be a little less important.  With a big lead in the division and the season winding down, you worry a little less about running the risk of a rookie starter getting lit up.
  2. At that point, you think more about keeping Roark in the bullpen because that's what he's going to be doing when the postseason rolls around anyway.  You don't risk messing with his workload or worry about him making the change from a reliever's mindset (throwing max effort in shorter bursts) to a starter's mindset (holding something in reserve to extend an outing).

At this point, it's late May.  The Nats haven't run away with anything, and just recently went out in front of the Mets.  Each marginal win still carries a great deal of significance at this point in the year.  There's still plenty of time for Roark to transition back into being a starter... and even plenty of time for him to readjust to pitching in the bullpen when Fister returns (assuming the rest of the rotation stays healthy).

It gives A.J. Cole a chance to adapt to the big league level in relatively low pressure situations

Cole does appear to fit into the Nats' long term plans.  As we discussed last week, he has the best mix of a high ceiling and big league readiness among the Nats starting pitching prospects.  There are probably still some things Cole could learn in AAA, so they could let him go back down to Syracuse and start every fifth day.  However, he can also learn on the job at the big league level and adjust to pitching in the majors as the long man in the bullpen.  Cole will certainly face more talented hitters in the big leagues, even if his usage will be a little less regular.

Perhaps most importantly, Cole will get an opportunity to learn on the job in lower pressure spots. Serving as the long man, he'll most often be used in games that have gotten out of hand a bit, one way or the other.  If a starter has a rough outing, Cole will be asked to come in and save the bullpen a bit.  If the Nats have a big lead, they may decide not to have their starter pitch real deep into a ballgame and let Cole eat up a few innings.  I'm sure Cole will see a few spots where there's a little more pressure on him to perform as well, but he's unlikely to see a lot of leverage work.

By no means am I saying that Cole can't handle pressure spots, but it's an awfully difficult situation for a rookie to instantly be thrust into high leverage situations.  Cole has still thrown just 90 AAA innings under his belt and just 220 innings (including his 5 innings in the majors this season) above A ball.  He's fairly polished, but he's not a completely finished product.  Letting him work on things in situations where it's not the end of the world if he struggles a bit should help make the transition a bit easier for him.

It will allow the Nats to limit Cole's innings a bit

The Nats would probably prefer to gradually build Cole's innings total from year to year than let it suddenly spike.  Cole has steadily increased his innings total each season as he's ascended through the minor leagues, but he's never thrown more than 143.2 innings in any season (2013, actually) and threw just 134 innings last year.  By letting Cole pitch out of the bullpen (for at least a little while), the Nats should be able to limit his innings total a bit this season.