Blue Jays’ Jordan Romano motivated by failed audition with Rangers

Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect Jordan Romano of the triple-A Buffalo Bisons. (Michael Majewski/Buffalo Bisons)

Jordan Romano’s been throwing his slider a bit tighter this season. Nothing crazy, but it’s spinning better, coming out a little sharper, getting loose less often. That’s thanks to a slight adjustment he made to his grip. Turns out, the Toronto Blue Jays prospect was throwing the pitch incorrectly for years.

It was late this March at the Blue Jays facility in Dunedin, Fla. when Romano noticed the problem, thanks to slow-motion video captured with an Edgertronic camera. The ball was moving in his hand as he threw it — not dramatically, but enough to take his fingers slightly off its seam. In a job as precise as pitching, those millimetres can mean the difference between a wipeout slider that earns a whiff and a hanger that gets hit over the fence.

Funny thing is, Romano never would’ve discovered that flaw if his dreams hadn’t been dashed a week earlier. He was only in Dunedin — throwing a bullpen for the Blue Jays, who this year caught up to baseball’s best teams and invested heavily in pitch tracking technology — because he didn’t win a major-league job with the Texas Rangers.

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It was the Rangers who traded for Romano minutes after he was selected by the Chicago White Sox in December’s Rule 5 Draft, and brought him to spring training in Surprise, AZ with the hopes he’d earn a job in the club’s bullpen. The 26-year-old was working out at Rogers Centre that day with Blue Jays starter Ryan Borucki and fellow Canadian prospect Connor Panas. Romano wasn’t sure he’d be selected, but they threw the Rule 5 radio broadcast on the gym’s speaker system anyway. Only three picks in, they all heard his name.

"So, it’s the White Sox. And we were all pretty excited — we’re going off the walls a little bit," Romano says. "And then 10 minutes later, the Rangers call and say, ‘Hey, we took the pick from Chicago. You’re a Ranger now.’ So, within like 15 minutes, I found out I was going to a different organization, and then to a different one from that. It was kind of a crazy day."

The Markham, Ont. native cut his workout short and rushed home to tell his parents. Two months later, he reported for his first spring training anywhere but Dunedin, and was handed an unfamiliar uniform along with his best opportunity to the reach the majors since he was drafted in 2010.

"It’s like first day at school. You go in, you don’t really know anyone. You’re like, ‘Oh, what are these guys going to think of me?’" Romano says. "When you’re throwing your stuff, you’re like, ‘Oh, man, I hope they think I’m good.’"

He certainly didn’t suffer for opportunity. The right-hander made seven appearances, tied for the fourth-most of any pitcher at Rangers camp. And his outings were all stellar with the exception of one, right in the middle of his audition, when Romano allowed a four-spot in a nightmare inning against the San Diego Padres that saw doubles off the bats of Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado, and homers by Ian Kinsler and Franmil Reyes.

It was the only time Romano was touched up all spring. In three outings prior to the Padres appearance and three outings after, he allowed only three hits (just one for extra-bases) while striking out six, and finished on a run of five scoreless innings. In the process, Romano showed mid-to-upper 90s velocity, throwing his fastball with a bit more juice as a reliever after spending the last three seasons working as a starter in Toronto’s system.

Jordan Romano 2019 spring training game logs

Date Opponent IP H R BB SO
Feb. 24 MIL 1 0 0 0 2
Feb. 28 LAA 1 1 0 1 0
March 3 LAD 1 0 0 0 0
March 7 SDP 1.1 4 4 1 0
March 11 KCR 1 0 0 0 0
March 15 CLE 2 1 0 1 2
March 19 MIL 2 1 0 2 2

The negatives? Five walks over 9.1 innings stand out. And the majority of his outs were coming in the air — he had 13 flyouts vs. six groundouts — which can be a dangerous way to live. But the fact remains that in six of his seven outings, Romano didn’t allow a run.

That’s pretty good for a guy whose job was on the line every time he took the mound. Romano wants to say he wasn’t carrying a nervous energy on the days he was scheduled to pitch. But he also doesn’t want to lie.

"I definitely was — I was thinking about it going into every outing," he says. "It’s just throughout the day, like, ‘Hey, I’m pitching today, you’ve got to pitch well, you want to make the team.’ But when I was on the mound, I didn’t think about it. I was just trying to get hitters out."

And he did more often than not, but evidently it wasn’t enough. A week before the Rangers broke camp, Romano got that tap on the shoulder.

"’Hey, skip wants to see you.’ That’s when you know," he remembers. "Yeah, that sucked. That really sucked."

Romano spent his next few days in roster purgatory, hanging out in Arizona while he was passed through waivers. Texas attempted to work out a trade with the Blue Jays to keep him in their system, but ultimately Toronto opted to take back the player they’d drafted five years prior, and poured seasons of development into since.

The outcome of the process was a disappointing one for a guy who’s spent his entire life dreaming about one day pitching on a major-league mound. It was bittersweet for Romano’s minor-league teammates, as well, who unanimously told him upon his return to Dunedin that they hated to see him but loved that he was back. But he at least got something out of it.

"The one thing it taught me is I can get big-league hitters out," he says. "I was going up against a lot of good players — a lot of good teams over there. And I held my own. So, it’s a feeling of, ‘Hey, I can actually do this.’"

But the reality for Romano is he’ll now return to facing minor-leaguers for some time. He’s joined the triple-A Buffalo Bisons rotation, where he’ll face the task of building up to a starter’s workload during the regular season. It’s less than ideal, but Romano got up to 82 pitches his last time out, his fourth appearance of the young season, and should start to get his sea legs soon.

A significant challenge will be reincorporating his change-up, which Romano didn’t use much when pitching relief for the Rangers. It’s a crucial pitch for his development as a starter, giving him a secondary weapon against left-handed hitters and a different look to show right-handers when going through an order two or three times.

"It’s a lot better than last year. It’s just a pitch I’m always working on," he says. "But I think this year is probably the best it’s been in my career. I’m kind of excited to get to use it more."

Meanwhile, in side sessions with Bisons pitching coach Doug Mathis, Romano’s been working on achieving a truer backspin with his fastball. All that data gathered with Toronto’s pitch tracking technology has revealed another slight flaw — a tendency to get slightly under the ball as he delivers, which causes his fastball to fade. The idea is to be more over-the-top, producing a higher spin rate through the zone instead of pushing the ball.

It’s these minor tweaks, like the slider grip he corrected last month, that Romano hopes will give him an edge the next time he gets the opportunity to face major-leaguers. It’ll be tough to make a significant jump up Toronto’s rotation depth chart without both consistently strong performance and trades or injuries to pitchers currently ahead of him. But the club could do a lot worse out of its bullpen than a guy who throws upwards of 95 with a power slider.

If the Blue Jays move veterans at the trade deadline, as is expected, Romano could fill a vacated 40-man roster spot and join the club as a September call-up, if not sooner. He’s more than willing to pitch out of the bullpen if he’s wearing a Blue Jays uniform while doing it. After all, it’s what he spent six weeks working on this spring.

"Over there, I really learned how to pitch out of the bullpen. Everything’s got to be high intent. You have to throw every pitch like it’s your last one," Romano says. "It was a really valuable experience. Now, if they call me to pitch in the bullpen, I know how to pitch as a reliever to big-league hitters. I’ve done it. I’m ready for that role if it’s available. Sign me up."

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