- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2016

VIERA, Fla. — A few lockers apart, the two men expected to grapple for a back-end spot in the Washington Nationals’ rotation began unpacking. Tanner Roark arrived first, taking time to situate his locker, then head off for a workout. Bronson Arroyo, with his blond dyed hair and the crow’s feet around his eyes in an age-determining tussle, pulled black cleats from a bag with one big word on the outside: “Reds.”

Thursday was the first mandatory day for Nationals pitchers and catchers to arrive at quiet Space Coast Stadium in still-developing Viera. Roark knew he would be here, spending the spring trying to regain the rotation spot taken away last season. Arroyo wasn’t sure where 2016 would take him in baseball. He hasn’t pitched in a year and a half because of Tommy John surgery. He’ll be 39 years old on Feb. 24. Arroyo is aware he’s a sliver away from getting on with the rest of his life.

The arrival at this point for each was produced by things largely out of their control. What happens going forward should be within it.

Roark floundered in the bullpen last season as a long reliever. He had to rush to warm up instead of procedurally readying himself to stand on the rubber and have an umpire fire a finger toward him, signaling it was time for the first pitch. He also had to swallow the fact he was removed from the rotation after a surprise 15-10 record with a 2.85 ERA in 2014, a year when he threw seven shutout innings in the National League East-clinching game. He was reliable — pitching 198 2/3 innings — as well as in control, with a tidy 1.092 WHIP. Yet, he sat out in right field during 2015, watching most of the underachieving season slink by. A 4.38 ERA was the result.

“It was just, I think, a big learning experience,” Roark said. “A mental [thing], which is always a good thing to have. You always can be mentally sharper, because this game can wear on you, and you want to be as mentally sharp as possible. It helps you build up, I guess, your tolerance for some things that you might not like and you have to deal with regardless.”

Roark said a large part of last season’s backpedaling was because how he used his fastball. As a reliever, he figured fewer pitches meant he could throw as hard as possible. His fastball usage was level with the prior season, but the pitch was delivered at 92.8 mph on average as opposed to 91.1 the season before, according to FanGraphs. Roark often worked a careening two-seam fastball in 2014. Last season, he relied more on might and was foiled by the change.

“I actually learned to not try to blow it out of the water,” Roark said.
The only way Arroyo can blow something out of the water is with dynamite. His fastball has never averaged more than 89.5 mph for a season, and he doesn’t even bother throwing it more than half the time.

But, he does bring an ability to gobble up innings with his straight-leg kick and guile. He threw an average of 206 innings per season in Cincinnati when he last worked under new Nationals manager Dusty Baker from 2008 through 2013. His 4.17 ERA and 1.26 WHIP over that period were serviceable. As a non-roster invitee, he has a month to prove he can still do that.

“I needed to be in a place where people have seen me perform because I tend to be the type of guy who’s not going to wow you with my bullpens or half my starts, you know what I mean?” Arroyo said. “But, I’ve been steady enough and consistent enough. You need to see that over a long period of time and I needed somebody who can trust in that process with me.”

Arroyo has been playing long toss a couple days a week. He’s also thrown bullpen sessions after beginning to play catch again Dec. 1, 2015. The Los Angeles Dodgers shut him down Oct. 10, 2015 because he couldn’t clear the final twinge of pain within his repaired elbow. A platelet-rich plasma injection seems to have solved that. He said he feels good.

He bounced last year from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Atlanta Braves to the Dodgers as teams shuffled his contract. The Reds, Arroyo said, offered him a spot on the roster in order to return and mentor their young pitchers. Baker offered him a fair chance, but no guarantee.

So, Thursday morning, he shook hands with Stephen Strasburg for the first time. Clubhouse workers welcomed him. He laughed at memories of Baker’s speeches during team meetings. Roark checked the new color-coded pitching schedule posted by new pitching coach Mike Maddux. He chatted with Arroyo. In the coming days, Roark will compete to again be a starter, which was always his preference. Arroyo will be trying to rediscover himself, knowing six weeks in Viera might be it for his playing career.

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