As Tanner Roark struggled through his first start of the season, fans are already calling for him to be released. As much as I can understand the sentiment, it’s a bit premature for now.
The Blue Jays have moved into the first step of a “win-now” phase, and as such we’ve seen them make more aggressive decisions like eating the cost of Shun Yamaguchi’s contract rather than trying to keep him around and make use of the 3.175 million they’re paying him this season. There were some fans that hoped the front office might do the same with Roark after his disastrous first season with the Jays in 2020 when he posted a 6.80 ERA and a 1.781 WHIP over 11 starts. The chatter will only get louder after he allowed five earned runs over just 3.0 innings in his first start on Tuesday.
There are a few problems with that idea, starting with the fact that he’s paid significantly more than Yamaguchi. Roark is in the second of a two-year deal he signed ahead of last season for 24 million in total, and he’ll make 12 million in 2021. Sure, it’s not your money or mine, but convincing ownership to just eat 12 million is easier said than done, especially for a player that is healthy and could still contribute in theory. Asking them to do that also doesn’t help with keeping the chequebook open for the next round of free agency either.
Speaking of contributions, the Blue Jays certainly have a use for the veteran this year as long as he can perform well enough to stay on the mound. There is more pitching depth in the organization than there’s been in previous years, but as the saying goes, you can never have too much pitching. For example, they used 15 different starters in 2019, and that’s not including the other half dozen or more that were utilized as an “opener”. Even in a lot more stable year in 2018, they still used more than a dozen starting pitchers, and another 14 in 2017. It takes a lot of arms to get through a 162 game schedule.
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Remembering that fact will be important for the Blue Jays as they make roster decisions over the next few weeks. Slowly but surely they should start to get some reinforcements in the rotation, with the pending return from Robbie Ray, and Nate Pearson a few weeks behind him. Thomas Hatch could also be an option as he works to come back from injury as well, so they’ll need to make some room on the 26-man roster, and likely in the rotation.
Those injury concerns also highlight why the Blue Jays would be wise to keep Roark around for now, even with the recent positive updates. For example, there is no guarantee that Pearson will be able to stay healthy, as he’s struggled in that department since his MLB debut. The Jays will also have to consider his workload this year if he can take a regular turn on the mound, as he’s never thrown more than 101.2 innings in a season, and that came back in 2019. Similarly, even the veterans had a reduced workload in 2020 with just a 60-game schedule, so it’s doubtful that anyone is going to throw 200 innings this year.
Over the first turn through the rotation the Blue Jays used Hyun Jin Ryu, Ross Stripling, T.J. Zeuch, Steven Matz, and Roark. Zeuch can return to Triple-A if they choose, and Stripling has a history of bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen from his time in Los Angeles, so Roark might be able to hang on to his starting job for now even after Ray and Pearson return. Having said that, I’ve already mentioned that the Blue Jays aim to compete and return to the playoffs this year, so if someone like Zeuch keeps putting up zeroes then he’s going to keep getting the ball regardless of Roark’s salary or veteran status.
Even if he does get pushed to the bullpen for a period of time, Roark could pitch in with some mop-up duty to save the rest of the bullpen, much like Tommy Milone did to follow up him on Tuesday, and stay at the ready for when he’s inevitably needed in the rotation again at some point. With a powerful offence to support him, there’s more room for error than he’s experienced in the past, but that also comes with increased expectations.
At this point I’m no longer willing to advocate for Roark to keep his spot in the rotation, but I do think that since we’re just five games in to a long schedule, it’s premature to consider an option like designating him for assignment. The unfortunate reality is that at some point this year they’re going to need him to throw some valuable innings, and hopefully he can figure out a way to perform at a much higher level.