The Toronto Blue Jays enter the 2019 -20 offseason with financial flexibility and some areas that need improvement. One free-agent pitcher seems to be a good fit to wear the Blue Jays uniform next year, and management will most likely be able to bring him to Canada.
While he isn’t the flashiest name on the free-agent market or the Blue Jays free agent board, pitcher Tanner Roark has quietly been a consistent force on the starting rotation scene for the past 4 seasons.
Roark spent his first few seasons in the MLB has both a starter and a reliever with the Washington Nationals organization. It was in 2016 that Roark found the consistency of being a starter on a full-time basis, a position he has been utilized in for the Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, and Oakland Athletics during his 7 years in the MLB.
For his career, Roark has amassed a 14.7 fWAR along with a 74-64 record. Through his 1100.1 innings pitched, he has accumulated 1047 hits, 314 walks, and 890 strikeouts, along with 213 games pitched (172 as a starter).
His best statistical year came in 2016, where he would pitch in a career-high 210.0 innings with 172 strikeouts, 73 walks, and an impressive 2.83 ERA.
In 2019, Roark spent time with both the Reds and Athletics, starting 31 games and pitching to a 4.35 ERA with 180 hits, 51 walks, 158 strikeouts, and a 2.1 fWAR.
There are a few reasons Tanner Roark will most likely be considered as a top option on the Blue Jays management free agency whiteboard.
For one, he pitches with a level of consistency that would make him a #3-4 dependable starter. Roark has shown flashes of 3.00 ball while going deep into games as a starter, doing this both in 2014 and 2016 with 30+ games each season. For the past three seasons, Roark has sat between the 4.00 to 4.70 ERA range, which at first glance doesn’t seem that appealing to fans.
His 4.35 ERA this past season would have narrowly won him the lowest ERA award on the Blue Jays starting rotation, narrowly beating Jacob Waguespack by 0.03 points for qualified starters (I don’t count Wilmer Font and the opener strategy). He also pitched against some tough teams like the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Milwaukee Brewers, so he did have to earn his wins and strikeouts against tough playoff-bound teams. This would bode well against teams in the tough A.L. East division.
It’s his consistency that makes him more appetizing than other options on the market, as well as internally within the Blue Jays organization. With his 7 years of MLB experience comes a player with Marco Estrada like qualities that fans are used to seeing.
Secondly, signing Roark will not destroy the Blue Jays pocketbook, with an expected average salary coming in around $10-14 million a year. While this may seem like an overpay to some, starting pitchers are worth a pretty penny on the open market, and starters generally receive a few million more than they are worth due to competition amongst teams for experienced starters. In his last year of arbitration in 2019, he earned $10 million dollars.
Roark should also generate a 2-3 year deal, which would be a perfect length for a rebuilding squad looking to generate some veteran leadership in the clubhouse while still trying to compete each season. After the 2-3 years, the young prospect pitchers will have gotten their feet wet and the organization would figure out who stays and who goes, whether to other teams or to the bullpen.
Tanner Roark also comes with no draft pick compensation, as he cannot receive a qualifying offer since he was traded midseason in 2019, as well as the Athletics, were most likely not going to give him a QO because he would probably sign the offer (and be overpaid in the process).
Lastly, Roark would be a good fit in the home run happy Rogers Centre, considering he is a sinkerball pitcher with a career 45% ground ball ratio. He is also very durable, starting 30-33 games over the past 4 seasons as well as pitching a minimum of 165 innings during that time span.
While Roark does seem like a fitting option for the Toronto Blue Jays, he does come with some risk.
At 33 years old, Roark has seen his line drive percentage increase over the past two seasons, as well as an increase in hard-hit ball percentage over the past three seasons. Last year, he was roughly 6% higher in the line drive percentage than the starting pitcher league average, whereas in 2018 and his previous seasons he was right around the average mark. He may need to find some tweaks in his pitching mechanics, as it seems opposing teams have figured out how to square up the sinker and his secondary pitches, mostly attributed to the hard-hit ball percentage increase.
Roark also saw a decrease in his ground ball percentage, which is a bit alarming for a sinker-ball type pitcher. His GB percentage decreased approximately 4% to 36.2% when comparing the 2018 and 2019 seasons. His 36.2% GB percentage sat 6% lower than the league average, which again, is not a comforting statistic when you consider Roark is predominantly a sinkerball pitcher.
Could this downward trend be indicative of the future of Tanner Roark, or was this past season just an unfortunate blip on his career radar? He has shown brilliance in a few of his previous seasons, as well as the consistency found with a 3-4 starter in the rotation. Roark could also find himself pushed into being the possible opening day starter when you look at the current Toronto Blue Jays rotation.
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While Tanner Roark isn’t the flashiest name on the free-agent leaderboard, he does fit into the mold of a rebuilding squad that is still looking to compete while still trying to figure out where their future prospects stand. A simple 2 or 3-year contract could do both parties well, and his salary wouldn’t be detrimental against the overall payroll picture of the future Blue Jays organization.
I wouldn’t personally give Roark more than 3 years in contract length or more than $15 million a year, but if the Blue Jays can find him within that happy medium of $10-$15 million a year, a deal could be hashed out that would benefit both sides.
Signing Roark also doesn’t mean the Blue Jays couldn’t pursue other free agents, given his salary and contract approximation. It’s out of my hands as to how much the organization would offer him in terms of a contract, as well as whether or not they would pursue him at all, but Roark does check a few boxes that the starting rotation currently has.
Tanner Roark may not be the end-all solution for the Blue Jays, but he would be a solid upgrade over some of the internal or external options available to the organization. He wouldn’t take away too many starts from the up and coming prospects but also possesses that veteran leadership, durability, and experience that the Blue Jays may need over the next few years to still be somewhat competitive while also rebuilding for the future.
The team could still rebuild and figure out which prospect starting pitchers will fit into the future foundation of the Toronto Blue Jays organization but also attempt to stay competitive with an experienced starter pitching every 5 games.