As the sixth overall draft pick out of Cal State Fullerton in 2005, you might think the bar for Ricky Romero would be set pretty high. However, as many of us know, the first round of the amateur draft is anything but an exact science in Major League Baseball – and Romero also had the misfortune of being taken right before a player by the name of Troy Tulowitzki, who finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2007.
In pro ball, Romero rarely showed the form that made him the first pitcher selected in the 2005 draft, besting Tampa Bay’s Wade Townsend by two slots and New York’s Mike Pelfrey by three. Romero made it to Double-A in his first full season in 2006 but the southpaw then spent parts of three seasons at that level before tasting Triple-A for seven starts in 2008. At the time of the draft, Romero was considered the 13th-best draft prospect by Baseball America. Here is what the scouting report said on the left-hander prior to the draft:
Romero has three solid, major league-ready pitches that he can throw for strikes almost at will, including a fastball that sits at 90-91 mph and touches 93-94…. But Romero gets his highest grades for his makeup, temperament and competitive zeal. He is an excellent student of the game who understands the science of pitching, and is a master at controlling the tempo of a game. He often has one poor inning a game, gets mad at himself and responds by pitching better the rest of the way.
Considered an advanced pitcher, Romero spent far more time in the minors than was expected. His command and control also took a huge step back as he posted a 3.80 BB/9 in his pro career prior to 2009, as well as a walk rate above 4.00 BB/9 at Double-A or above. As he struggled on the mound, Romero’s “competitive zeal” also took a hit along with his confidence and he began to pitch away from contact. Last year in High-A ball, Romero allowed 139 hits 121.2 innings with rates of 4.07 BB/9 and 5.77 K/9. In Triple-A, he allowed 42 hits in 42.2 innings and had rates of 4.22 BB/9 and 8.02 K/9.
Toronto entered this spring desperately needing pitching, with serious injuries to two young starters: Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan. Another injured pitcher, Casey Janssen, who was expected back at the beginning of the season to help soften the blow, had a set back. Two other southpaw hurlers, Brad Mills and Brett Cecil, had seemingly passed Romero on the depth chart and one or both of them were set to win a spot with spring training winding down.
However, with Romero on the cusp of being demoted to the minor-league camp, Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg stepped in and asked management to rethink the decision. The pitching coach had an idea. He made some tweaks to Romero’s mechanics, moved his feet, and lessened the amount that the former No. 1 pick was throwing across his body. Miraculously, Romero’s command and control improved almost overnight. He was reborn.
The results can be seen in his young MLB season to date. In his debut, he out-dueled one of the Top 10 young pitchers in baseball in Detroit’s Rick Porcello. In his second game, he held Minnesota to just two runs in eight innings. In his third start, just yesterday against Oakland, Romero shutout the A’s over seven innings. In three games, he’s allowed 19 hits in 21 innings and posted rates of 1.71 BB/9 (!) and 5.57 K/9. As well, he’s caused 28 groundball outs compared to 19 flyball outs.
In his game against Oakland, Romero was mixing four pitches (FB, CB, SL, CH) well and commanding all four in the strike zone. As well, his fastball that was struggling to sit around 90 mph last year, was hitting 94 mph – a velocity he has not seen consistently since his college days.
You cannot look at Romero’s first three starts and make a definitive statement about his potential for 2009 or his future beyond the present, but his start to the year is definitely encouraging, especially since the improvements can be traced back to a mechanical adjustment. As well, the left-hander showed this type of potential in college and he’s still just 24 years old. It’s far too early to call Romero an ace-in-waiting, or even a guaranteed No. 3 starter, but his future definitely has a brighter shine to it.
Perhaps the left-hander will one day be able to say, “Tulo-who?”
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