DUNEDIN, Fla. — The not wholly unsurprising optioning of Ricky Romero to single-A Dunedin is more Cliff Lee in 2007 than Roy Halladay in 2001, an opportunity to give the left-hander a chance to regroup and adjust without the immediate pressure to perform as opposed to a total rebuild of body and mind.
There is plenty for the 28-year-old, last year’s opening day starter, to work on mechanically in the coming weeks, a point underlined during the 4.1 innings of work in the Toronto Blue Jays’ 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday that sealed his fate.
Crisp at times, awful at others, enigmatic throughout — Romero, like he’s been for the better part of a year, was simply not good enough. And rather than let him try to grind through things the way he did in the dismal 2012 that started his free-fall, GM Alex Anthopoulos decided with the unanimous agreement of assistant general manager Tony LaCava, manager John Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker that a trip to the minors was now the best course of action.
“It’s one thing if there are no changes to be made and you just need to get through some things, fight through slumps and so on, but when you need to make mechanical changes … it’s hard to do that in an environment where it’s all results-oriented,” Anthopoulos said during a hastily arranged media availability a couple of hours after the game. “If we need him to throw five changeups in a row down here, or five curveballs in a row, it’s hard to do that against the New York Yankees because he needs to feel that extension on his front side, just to make sure he gets it.
“Ultimately what happens is we need to get these three outs, do whatever you’ve got to do to get those three outs and at some point we’ll try to work on sides. You never get the problem fixed.”
Having J.A. Happ around to step in as the No. 5 starter in Romero’s place afforded the Blue Jays the luxury to make that decision, something they could not have done last year when they were badly depleted by injuries to their starting rotation and didn’t have enough depth in the minors.
While on the surface sending Romero all the way down to Dunedin seems harsh, the move was not made with the complete recalibration Halladay went through under late pitching guru Mel Queen with former GM Gord Ash’s Blue Jays nearly a decade ago.
A desire to keep Romero in warmer climes as opposed to the chill of triple-A Buffalo or double-A New Hampshire was the primary motivator, although being at the club’s minor-league complex was also part of the equation.
Roving pitching instructor Dane Johnson will be the point man in working with Romero in getting his balance and path straight to the plate, with rehab pitching co-ordinator Rick Langford also involved in the process.
Anthopoulos insisted repeatedly that Romero is not far off from regaining his all-star form from 2011 and that the delivery he wants to see from his former ace has been there this spring “in drips and drabs and spurts.”
“We need to now get it over seven innings, eight innings, six innings and then to do it over again each time,” he explained. “It’s there because he’s showing it in flashes.”
In that sense, a better precedent for Romero’s demotion is Lee’s in 2007 with the Cleveland Indians. Like Romero, the left-hander came undone during his fourth season in the big-leagues after three years of progressive success, and was optioned down to triple-A Buffalo to get right.
The next year Lee started the all-star game and won the AL Cy Young Award, and the Blue Jays can only hope it turns out as well for them and Romero, who’s guaranteed $7.5 million this season and in each of the next two years.
“You talk about direction and lines to the plate, it’s basically your balance going towards home plate and where your front foot lands,” Anthopoulos said of the changes Romero needs to make. “It sounds easy but it just takes time when you start to repeat it, he’s done this before, he has a tendency to do it.
“We have a plan for him, we know what we need to address, it’s just not coming as fast as we want it to come.”
Anthopoulos, Gibbons and Romero each pointed to progress Tuesday when Romero allowed three runs, two earned, on six hits and three walks, and compared to last Thursday’s four-run, five-hit, five-walk face-plant in a minor-league start against the Pirates that turned the tide on his fate.
But it would have taken everything to click on this day to avoid the option as the Blue Jays don’t want an inconsistent and mediocre facsimile of what Romero has been, and they can’t afford to let him work through his issues in a season when every win should matter, no matter how often Anthopoulos tried to soften the blow by saying he’s close to finding his form.
Speaking to reporters before his demotion, Romero admitted this training camp hasn’t been a good one — a 6.23 ERA with 10 walks over 13 Grapefruit League innings speaks to that — but said, “whatever happened this spring happened, whatever happened last year, everyone has to just get over it.”
“It was bad, yeah, I know that,” he added, “and I don’t have to keep hearing it.”
Instead, Romero told Walker between outings “enough of this being a little down, let’s have some fun, and let’s try this,” before suggesting that he make throws from third base to help him rediscover his natural arm slot and “to feel like an athlete again, not feel so robotic.”
“Sometimes we take this game too serious and let the negatives take over the positives,” said Romero, who made a point of relying on his athleticism to guide him through his delivery, and not thinking of where each part of his body needed to be. “The mechanics are going to play themselves out because you’re working on them, and when you don’t pay attention to them, it’s when they’re good.
“When you sit there like where’s my foot, I don’t feel my back leg, then you let the wrong things creep into your mind. You’ve got to be able to recognize yourself and compete.”
The good in Romero’s performance could be found there and in throwing 44 of his 75 pitches for strikes (progress), but the bad came in back-to-back walks to open the third, some ugly breaking balls well off the mark, and some fastballs that weren’t all that fast. He sat 86-88, hitting 92 once on the stadium radar gun on a cold, blustery day that wasn’t very conducive to popping catcher’s mitts.
“When I’m popping those fastballs at 90, 92, whatever they were, that’s where I want to be, that’s where I’ve always been,” said Romero. “I’ve never been a super overpowering guy, but when I’m in that zone and my fastball is moving, I give myself a pretty good chance.
“At times I fight myself,” he added. “Instead of being the attacker you become the protector and the good thing about this outing was that I was able to recognize that. I was able to recognize it after those two hitters (in the third) and something just turned back on and I know when I’m in that zone and I’m pitching down and making my pitches, no one is going to hit me.
“That’s the confidence I take up there, and that’s the kind of stuff I feel like I have.”
Only he doesn’t have that stuff or that confidence right now, and the Blue Jays are giving him a chance to regain both away from the spotlight of a team he so desperately wants to be a part of, on a detour reminiscent to the ones Lee and Halladay took to stardom.