The Toronto Blue Jays’ search for starting pitching has been the major recurring story this offseason, and on Wednesday morning they made their first foray into the free-agent market official. The team announced the signing of starting pitcher Tanner Roark to a two-year deal worth a reported $24 million.
The agreement was first reported last week at the annual MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego, where news of the possible signing sandwiched in nicely between Gerrit Cole’s monstrous new contract with the New York Yankees and persistent rumours that the Blue Jays were courting Korean pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu.
The 33-year-old Roark sports a career 3.71 ERA spread over seven major-league seasons with the Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, and most recently the Oakland Athletics. That number may be a little deceiving in terms of his current level of production, as he has not posted a sub-4 mark since 2016.
By most measures, he profiles to be an average if not slightly below average starter overall, with a relatively low 7.1% walk rate (31st among major league starters with as many innings pitched) providing insulation for some uninspiring peripheral numbers. In 2019 he carried a below average strike out rate, exit velocity, and hard hit percentage, as well as sub-20th percentile fastball spin, wxOBA, xSLG, and xBA.
Relying mostly on a sinker and fastball mix that both hover around 92 mph, Roark also sports an above-average curveball in terms of both spin and vertical drop. His troubles in recent seasons can be linked fairly strongly to a decrease in ground balls; in 2019 his rate dropped more than six percent for the second straight year to 36.7%, or nearly ten percent below league average. When he was at his best in 2016, he threw his four-seam fastball less than five percent of the time compared to 57% sinkers, but in the last two seasons the two pitches have combined to a much more even split of 30% sinker and 25% fastball.
Perhaps his biggest asset to the team right now is not a glamorous one, as Roark has proven consistent and dependable in his durability. He has pitched at least 165 innings in five of his seven seasons in the majors, topping 180 four times. Along with that bulk durability, he has fairly consistently provided the same value, charting somewhere between 2.0 and 3.3 WAR (per Fangraphs) in four of the last five years. Simply put, the Blue Jays know what they’re getting; a dependable every fifth day option that should keep things from getting totally out of hand more often than not.
Nobody will confuse Roark with a staff ace at this or any other point of the year but he does provide something the Blue Jays are severely lacking at the moment, and that’s pitchers with track records of success at the major league level. With Chase Anderson already in the fold and import project Shun Yamaguchi reportedly on the way as well, the offseason strategy for the Blue Jays rotation is becoming clear: collect as many bottom rotation candidates as possible and hope they provide enough stable runway for one of the glut of tweener prospects to break out and over-perform. There’s no guarantee that providing said opportunity for players like Anthony Kay, Trent Thornton, T.J. Zeuch, or Ryan Borucki will directly lead to that result, but this route at least alleviates some of the pressure on all of them to step up and fill out the entire rotation right away.
In a vacuum, the Roark addition is not a major needle mover for the team’s current state of competitiveness. If further and larger moves for the pitching staff are on the way, Roark could be pushed down the rotation and help the team look downright competitive.
If they aren’t, he slots in as someone that can show the team’s many Triple-A arms how to survive at the major league level.
More Blue Jays coverage from Yahoo Sports