TORONTO – Back in February when the Toronto Blue Jays needed a 40-man roster spot, they designated Shun Yamaguchi for assignment and then promptly released him. Their willingness to eat the $3.175 million owed to the right-hander in 2021, rather than playing things out in the hopes he rebounded, was a clear indication that they would let meritocracy rule this season.
Although it didn’t carry the same financial implications, the decision to go with Alejandro Kirk over Reese McGuire out of spring training was another call made in a similar vein. Carrying the best roster for a given period is the clear priority over the asset management of years past.
All of which leads us to Tanner Roark, who entered this season as an area of concern after a dreadful 2020 and did nothing in his debut Tuesday night to quiet the doubts. The veteran righty surrendered five runs over three innings to bury the Blue Jays early in a 7-4 loss to the Texas Rangers, who rocked him for three homers – including a pair of two-run drives by Nate Lowe – and averaged an exit velocity of 96.4 m.p.h.
Afterwards, Roark summed up his evening by saying that “nothing was working” and that all he could do with his performance was to “flush it, I guess,” and “get ready for my bullpen in two days.”
“Not a good outing. Not a good first start of the season overall,” he said, clearly frustrated. “Just all over the place, getting behind guys. I threw three innings as a starter. That's it. It's not good. Gave up five runs. So not very good with anything.”
Now, in fairness, both of Lowe’s homers came in innings that were extended by defensive plays not made behind Roark. In the first, Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s chopper ate up Cavan Biggio at third base for a generously scored single. In the third Bo Bichette, who hit a pair of solo homers, couldn’t get Joey Gallo’s grounder out of his glove and settled for one out rather than an inning-ending double play.
But in the second Ronald Guzman also took Roark deep, three of the nine outs against him came on flyouts at 99.5 and 95.2 m.p.h., and a groundout at 98.5, and the Rangers swung through only six of his 59 pitches, none on a fastball he threw 21 times.
And remember this was the Rangers, who very much look like American League fodder, he was facing. Next up for him are Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday and that’s not a matchup the Blue Jays should feel especially comfortable with.
Especially since Roark’s hiccup can’t be viewed in isolation as a one-off rough outing given the way he pitched last season, when he was in the 33rd percentile for the exit velocity and 18th percentile for hard hit percentage. He didn’t make it through five innings in his final five starts of 2020, surrendering six earned runs in two of those outings, and four in another.
The results suggest trend more than aberration.
“That could affect people, but Tanner has been around. There's a reason why he's pitched in the big-leagues for so long,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “I don't think that's going to affect him. But he knows that today he just didn't have it. He couldn't command his pitches and you pay the price.”
Still, the Blue Jays have good reason to give Roark more runway, at minimum until Robbie Ray is ready to rejoin the rotation, but perhaps longer than that, too.
Money is one factor – he’s due $12 million this season, and eating that number, as sunk a cost as it may be, is much tougher than swallowing Yamaguchi’s salary.
But pitching depth is also essential this season, and while so many of the signs were worrisome Tuesday, Roark’s fastball velocity of 91.2 m.p.h. was up a tick from last year’s 90.6 and his curveball played, with misses on four of the six swings against it.
With all the work Roark put into adjusting his delivery over the winter, seeking to hinge more on his back hip to generate better drive with his lower half, it’s not unreasonable for the Blue Jays to watch it a bit longer to see if it clicks.
There’s a need at the moment anyway with Ray, Nate Pearson and Thomas Hatch on the injured list. Once they’re ready, the Blue Jays could stick Roark into the bullpen to do the mop-up duty Tommy Milone delivered in relief, or give him a reset with an IL stint.
Ray is slated to throw a bullpen Wednesday and while the Blue Jays haven’t publicly detailed how they’ve mapped out his rebuild, he’s coming soon and at that point someone is getting dropped from the rotation. Roark’s five runs allowed was one less than Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ross Stripling, T.J. Zeuch and Steven Matz gave up in total in the four starts before Tuesday.
“We'll see, I don't want to speculate on what's going to happen,” Montoyo said of how Roark’s performance might impact his runway. “We've got to see first how Robbie Ray's doing and we'll go from there.”
The Blue Jays don’t need Roark to be an ace, they just need him to provide reliable innings and keep them in ballgames. If he can’t do that, then a difficult decision looms, and as the release of Yamaguchi showed, it’s one they’re willing to make.