As we’ve mentioned several times here, the Astros will likely be looking for starting pitching help on this summer’s trade market. A lot of the names we’ve looked at so far have been longer-term options, with players like Matt Boyd and Marcus Stroman under contract into 2020 or beyond.
Of course, there are other options as well. Accumulating multiple long-term starting options is never a bad thing, with all the uncertainty on the horizon, but the Astros also have flexibility and don’t necessarily need to solve all of their 2020 problems right now. And with teams valuing young pitchers under team control more than ever, it might not be a bad idea to look at more short-term rental options.
There aren’t a ton of great options out there, unfortunately, as most of the pitchers coming up on free agency this coming winter are either on competing teams and unlikely to be moved, or just not very good this year. But there is one name that stands out: Tanner Roark.
Tanner Roark: Actually pretty good this year?
He’s not going to work his way into the Cy Young discussion any time soon or anything, but Tanner Roark has had a solid rebound of a season this year. In 80.1 innings, Roark has posted a strong 3.36 ERA and a 3.47 FIP that backs that up. He’s striking batters out at a career best rate of 23.3% as well, and his home runs allowed are down despite the overall uptick in homers this season across the league as well as his move to a more homer-friendly park in Cincinnati. On the whole, both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference’s versions of WAR have him as more valuable than most of Houston’s starting pitchers (all but Verlander for B-R; Verlander and Cole for Fangraphs) so far this season, and for an Astros rotation that has had a revolving door at its back-end, that type of production would be a welcome relief.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that, while this is something of a “rebound” season for Roark, even the two seasons he is bouncing back from were still perfectly competent back-of-the-rotation campaigns. And more importantly, in a year where the Astros’ pitching staff has felt a little thin at times, Roark’s reliable durability could go a long way; Tanner has reached 30 starts and 180 innings or more every full year of his career except for 2015 (when he was temporarily bumped from the Nationals’ rotation to accommodate the signing of Max Scherzer).
Roark isn’t a frontline starter, but between Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, Houston doesn’t need that; they just need quality innings to take them to the end of 2019, which he’s more than qualified to deliver. And as a 32-year-old in his final year of arbitration, there’s no obligation to him beyond this season, which helps clear payroll space for signings this winter. Those two aspects also limit what the Reds might ask for him in a deal; of course, the other team in the equation is also what might make things awkward.
Do the Reds think they’re competing?
Cincinnati surprised everyone this past winter when they started bringing in talent while still technically being in a rebuild. While some moves have worked out, like Roark, Sonny Gray, or Derek Dietrich, plenty of others haven’t. That has left them in a sort of uncertain middle ground, fourth place in the NL Central but only six games back (and a game closer in the Wild Card chase). Their odds aren’t great, but they’re also not totally out of it yet.
Given their improved play as of late, as well as players like Scooter Gennett and Alex Wood returning from injuries soon, the team seems to be a little hesitant to make deals right now. Plus, they don’t seem opposed to extending good players for a few years, as demonstrated in their extension for Gray. A rough few weeks could change their minds and lead them to sell a few players off, it seems, but they aren’t to that point yet. And of course, sweeping a certain division leader last week probably helped their optimism for this year, if only a little.
Of course, in being the most unpredictable team in the majors right now, there might be another way in which the Astros might line up with them especially well. Given that they seem to want to compete in the next year or two, the Astros might be able to work out a trade not unlike the Gerrit Cole trade a few years back. Houston has plenty of talented players in their upper minor leagues who are major league ready, but blocked from starting; maybe the Reds could be interested in a deal centering around players like Derek Fisher or Myles Straw, who could slot into their weak lineup immediately and be under team control for several years.
All in all, Tanner Roark strikes me as the most economical target for the Astros this summer. He’s not the best pitcher they could acquire, but he should be one of the easier targets to shake loose and he wouldn’t be a bad choice to start a playoff game. And given the unique direction the Reds seem to be taking, the Astros might be able to get him for just extra depth that they don’t have space for. He’s not as shiny and projectable as someone like Marcus Stroman or Matt Boyd, but he still noticeably improves the 2019 Astros.