Roark not taking anything for granted in '17

Righty established himself last season, but will go to camp with mentality that he doesn't have 'free spot'

Roark not taking anything for granted in '17

WASHINGTON -- Tanner Roark proved in 2016 that he can be a dominant starting pitcher. He had carried that burden on his shoulder entering Spring Training last year, wanting to show everyone that he should never have been booted from the rotation.

After his success as a starter last season, Roark has established himself as an integral part of the Nationals' rotation. But the same desire to prove himself remains.

"I still don't like to go to Spring Training thinking that I have a free spot," Roark said. "I was once a kid in the Minor Leagues wanting to take someone else's spot up here, so I never take that for granted. I don't ever want to take that for granted, because that keeps the fire inside me to compete against every single person on the team."

The first interaction between Dusty Baker and Roark became one of the Nats' manager's favorite stories in his first season at the helm. Before the start of Spring Training, Baker asked Roark whether he was more comfortable as a starter or a reliever. The righty, who had spent most of the previous year in the bullpen, replied emphatically that he wanted to start.

Baker gave him a chance, and Roark ran with it.

That mentality helped keep Roark motivated not only to prove that he belongs as a starter, but also to start getting him mentioned among the best starters in the National League. When Stephen Strasburg was sidelined for the postseason, Washington was comfortable having Roark as its No.2 starter behind Max Scherzer.

Roark threw a career-high 210 innings in 2016 and posted a 2.83 ERA with a career-best 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings and a 148 ERA+. His 5.5 Wins Above Replacement, according to baseball-reference.com, ranked fourth highest in the NL. Roark led the NL with nine starts of seven or more scoreless innings. Baker called him a bulldog, and Roark was right along with Scherzer as the team's most reliable and durable starting pitchers.

"You've got to maintain your body," Roark said. "You've got to stay working out, keep working hard as you did Game 1 or the first day of the season. You've got to be that way, or you start to break down. I'm a firm believer in 'Hard work pays off,' so you do that hard work, and then you have good luck on your side."

Roark attributed his strides last season to being comfortable throwing all his pitches to both righties and lefties. The one adjustment he wanted to make was to cut down on his walks. He walked 3.1 batters per nine innings in 2016, a career high and well above his 1.8 mark from '14, his last season as a full-time starter.

Still, the Nationals' rotation looks like it can once again be one of the best in baseball next season, and Roark cementing himself as a major part of that rotation is a big reason why.

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.