Should the Nationals trade Tanner Roark?


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Entering November, the Nationals don’t appear to be in store for a busy offseason. Despite a disappointing NLDS loss to the eventual world champion San Francisco Giants, very few changes are expected to be made to a roster that netted Washington the best record in the NL. However, with the future in mind, there is a move the Nationals should consider exploring. I believe the Nationals should consider trading Tanner Roark.

I don’t believe Roark will even be discussed with other teams this offseason. He’s a very valuable commodity to the Nationals, as a cheap, controllable pitcher who put up stellar numbers last season. He’s also 28 years old, meaning the Nationals will have his rights through arbitration until he hits free agency at age 33. They’ll control him through his prime years at a good price for the caliber of pitcher he is. While he is 28 years old, he spent a lot of time as a reliever during his minor league years, meaning he doesn’t have the innings wear and tear other starters of that age would have. On the surface, it makes no sense to trade Roark.

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However, I believe that Roark’s trade value will never be higher. As a minor leaguer, Roark was never heralded as a top prospect, mostly due to his average repertoire and average minor league statistics. In six minor league seasons, Roark posted a cumulative 4.04 ERA over nearly 700 minor league innings. He allowed a lot of baserunners, as evidenced by his 1.3 WHIP over that time span. Then, something appeared to click for him in 2013. His minor league numbers vastly improved, and he suddenly just stopped allowing hits, despite having a very hittable repertoire. Maybe he did figure something out, but maybe his success has been due to luck. In his rookie year he posted a miniscule BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .248. Last year, he posted a BABIP of .270. In comparison the MLB average BABIP during that time span was .298. Roark may just be a pitcher who naturally produces low BABIP’s, but it likely is a result of some luck. Roark posted that well below average BABIP last year despite an above MLB average line drive rate of 27%. That definitely indicates some luck was involved in his dominant 2014 season. Roark also allowed an astonishingly low number of home runs for being a fly ball dominant pitcher. Last year, despite inducing a fly ball (line drives included) on 65% of the balls put in play off of him, Roark allowed a home run on only 5% of those fly balls. The major league average was 7%. To put things into perspective, Tim Hudson, one of the most dominant ground ball inducing pitchers in baseball, has a career rate of 6.6%. Even FIP (a better measure of a pitchers success at preventing runs than ERA) had Roark as a 3.5 ERA pitcher last year.

The point of this article is not to portray Roark as a below average pitcher. All I’m saying is that Roark’s “luck” may disappear, and that he’ll become more of a middle of the rotation innings eater than an ace. His trade value will never be higher.

The Nationals should also consider a Roark trade with an eye towards the future. Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, and Jordan Zimmermann will all be free agents at this point next year. The Nationals would like to keep all three, but they each may command a nine figure deal. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper will hit the open market just a few years after that. If the Nationals intend to keep their core intact, they’ll need to rely on young cheap players to produce and fill out the rest of their roster. While Roark fits that description now, he’ll start to get expensive through arbitration starting in 2017 if he does somehow manage to continue to produce excellent pitching numbers. The Nationals should trade him with an eye towards future payroll. Of course, with two more pre-arb years left of Roark, the Nats could wait a couple years to trade him. This is a dangerous strategy though, as Roark’s numbers could regress and his trade value will fall anyways due to the loss in years of team control. If they do manage to retain Strasburg, Fister, and Zimmermann, the Nationals will need an open rotation spot in 2016 for top prospect Lucas Giolito.

History also suggests that trading Roark now could net the Nationals a huge return in prospects. When the San Diego Padres traded Mat Latos to the Cincinnati Reds following the 2011 season, they received Yasmani Grandal, Yonder Alonso, Brad Boxberger, and Edinson Volquez in return. Grandal, Alonso, and Boxberger were all top 10 Reds prospects, and Volquez was a back of the rotation starter who was three years removed from an All Star year. Latos had four years of team control remaining. When the Nationals acquired Gio Gonzalez at the same time, they gave up three top 10 prospects in A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, and Tommy Milone. Gio had three years of team control remaining. Tanner Roark, in contrast, has five more years of team control. The Nationals could certainly demand a return comparable to the one Latos warranted three years ago. The Nationals could and should ask for a young arm, a young middle infielder, and a young catcher in any Roark deal. They could then sign a middle of the rotation arm (Brandon McCarthy, Jake Peavy, Hiroki Kuroda, Jason Hammel) to a short deal to keep the rotation spot warm for Giolito or A.J. Cole.

I doubt the thought of trading Roark has even crossed the mind of GM Mike Rizzo this offseason. However, I believe that trading the righty would be a innovative and easy idea to improve not only the roster in 2015, but also to create financial flexibility in the coming years.