Goss: Tanner Roark beginning spring in big-league camp
By Dick Goss email@example.com January 19, 2013 12:05AM
Wilmington graduate Tanner Roark, who spent the 2012 season with Washington's Triple-A affiliate at Syracuse, will begin spring training with the parent club as a non-roster invitee. | Supplied photo
Updated: February 21, 2013 6:33AM
On the surface, Tanner Roark’s path to the major leagues appears blocked.
The Wilmington graduate spent 2012 in the starting rotation of the Syracuse Chiefs, the Washington Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate in the International League. While that may suggest the right-hander is on the doorstep of his major league debut, there are hurdles.
The Nationals boast one of baseball’s best pitching staffs. The four returning starters are Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. Edwin Jackson left as a free agent and signed with the Cubs, but the Nationals signed Dan Haren to fill that spot.
They also signed Rafael Soriano to strengthen a solid bullpen that already included Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen. So openings are scarce.
Roark, who began his pro career in the Texas organization before being traded to Washington during the 2010 season in the deal that sent shortstop Christian Guzman to the Rangers, is not yet on the Nationals’ 40-man roster, which would move him another step closer to the big leagues.
However, the 26-year-old Roark, who is in Arizona preparing for the season, will be in major league spring training camp as a non-roster invitee, beginning Feb. 12. That’s a good sign.
“It’s my first time,” he said. “I’m ecstatic about it. The experience of pitching to big-league hitters, I’m very excited.”
Typically, non-roster invitees are veterans who were not offered a major league contract by any club or prospects who are there to gain experience against better competition and receive instruction from the major league coaching staff. Roark falls into the latter category.
“Tanner has done a good job for us,” said Joliet Catholic graduate Chris Michalak, who’s entering his fourth season coaching in the Washington organization and second as pitching coach at Potomac in the A-Advanced Carolina League. “He’s improved every year. He threw the ball well last year, better in the second half of the season from what I understand, which is always a good sign.”
Roark, who enjoyed some success during his collegiate days at Illinois, readily admits his raw numbers at Syracuse, in his first Triple-A season, were nothing special. He went 6-17 with a 4.39 ERA. But he did strike out 130 while walking 47 in 147⅔ innings, and he pitched reasonably well in his six starts in October and November in the Venezuelan Winter League.
“My year wasn’t what it was supposed to be last year,” he said. “But I feel I got better mentally. I think of it as a very breakthrough year even with the ups and downs. I felt a lot stronger, a lot better mentally, later in the season.”
The turning point might have come when Roark sat down just before the All-Star break with Syracuse manager Tony Beasley, pitching coach Greg Booker and the organization’s director of player development Doug Harris.
“We all talked, and I took to heart what they said,” Roark said. “I was feeling sorry for myself and you can’t do that. Nobody feels sorry for you in baseball. If someone hits a home run off you, oh, well, just get back on the mound and throw the next pitch.
“I got mentally better after that talk. If something does not go my way, what’s the use of getting upset over it? Just control what I can control.”
There is no hiding a 6-17 record, but Roark is not dwelling on it.
“That may be the worst record in International League history, but I have built off that,” he said. “I didn’t say, ‘That’s it, this is the end of my career.’ That’s not what I’m seeing in my head at all.
“Last year got me mentally prepared for any situation. If somebody hits one out against me, I don’t get messed up now. I move on to the next pitch.”
Roark, the Rangers’ 25th-round pick in 2008, has been healthy throughout his pro career — certainly a positive — and is 40-39 overall with a 4.21 ERA.
“Knock on wood, I haven’t had arm problems or anything like that,” he said.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Roark throws a four-seam fastball, has been working on bettering his two-seamer, and has a change, curve and slider in his assortment. He has no concern for what the speed gun suggests.
“The way I look at it, you think Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine cared?” he said. “Put the ball where you want it and don’t look up there (at the speed board). I laugh at guys who check their speed constantly.”
Roark said his mechanics have improved.
“Here’s an example,” he said. “The arm speed on my change is a lot better than it used to be. It used to be a lot slower, and the hitters would pick up on it and just lay off it. Now they don’t recognize it as easily.”
Roark starred in football and basketball in addition to baseball at Wilmington. He has made steady progress through the minors during his five pro seasons.
While there are hurdles to clear, he believes his shot in the big show will come. Perhaps his first taste of spring training in major league camp will provide a boost in that direction.
“The big thing for me in camp will be consistency,” Roark said. “I have to go in there well conditioned and consistent. I know what I can do; I can’t try to do too much.”
“Too much” probably includes making the Nationals’ roster out of spring training. But you never know about injuries and other circumstances where the major league club may need help. Roark plans to be ready when opportunity knocks.
Meanwhile, nothing wrong with a second, and better, summer in Syracuse.