Romero pitches back into contention
Rookie's strong start places him in mix for spot in Jays rotation
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston plans on sitting down with his staff on Monday evening to discuss the direction the club should take with its starting rotation. Ricky Romero's name is one that will undoubtedly occupy a large part of the conversation.
Romero has pulled himself back into the competition for one of Toronto's two starting vacancies, and he made a strong case for being considered for a job on Monday afternoon against the Reds. The left-handed prospect turned in five solid innings, showing off improved mechanics after weeks of working diligently with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg.
"He's moving forward. He's not moving backwards now," Gaston said. "Give some credit to our pitching coach here. He held him back and worked with him and got him to where he is now. He certainly got his mechanics working properly."
That being the case, Romero is now one of three remaining candidates for the two available roles, joining Scott Richmond and fellow left-handed prospect Brad Mills. Casey Janssen is no longer an option to make the Opening Day roster after feeling tightness in his right shoulder on Thursday, and Matt Clement's bid likely came to an end with his seven-walk showing on Sunday.
Now that Toronto's pitchers have reached the stage in Spring Training where they are logging five-plus innings in each start, the club needs to begin handing the starts to the players with the most realistic chance at cracking the roster. The only pitchers with presumed jobs are ace Roy Halladay, right-hander Jesse Litsch and lefty David Purcey.
The Jays will likely be one step closer to setting its rotation after meeting on Monday night.
"That's going to be probably talked about tonight," Gaston said. "We'll probably work it out and have a little bit more for you tomorrow on those things."
One thing is for certain: Romero made an impression on Gaston.
In five innings, the 24-year-old Romero -- the first pitcher selected (sixth overall) in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft -- was charged with two runs on seven hits -- all singles -- with five strikeouts and two walks. He finished with 85 pitches, including 51 for strikes, and registered first-pitch strikes to 13 of the first 14 batters he faced.
It was definitely an improvement over Romero's showing earlier this spring. In his three previous Grapefruit League outings -- the last coming on March 7 -- the left-hander posted a 7.50 ERA and issued nine walks in six innings. Gaston said Romero worked on slowing down his pace, and the pitcher added that he and Arnsberg worked on the alignment of his delivery.
"It's just mainly been mechanics -- just staying in a straight line," Romero explained. "I have a tendency to sometimes throw across my body, and we've been working hard at it every day. ... They've been keeping an eye on me, which is good. I'm just trying right now to stay on a straight line -- a good line to home plate -- and make quality pitches."
Romero, who has been working in Minor League games for the past two weeks, said that he was a little too "excited" out on the mound in the first two innings against the Reds. In the first, he allowed one run on two hits -- helped by a pair of stolen bases by Cincinnati's runners -- but he managed to limit the damage.
The Reds put at least one runner on base in each of Romero's innings, but he escaped without allowed any big offensive outbursts.
"I felt like I battled out there," Romero said. "I got into some tough situations at times and was able to pitch out of it, making good pitches. I was just a little excited in the first couple innings. [Catcher Raul] Chavez was trying to calm me down, and it worked. I was happy with it. I wish I wouldn't have thrown as many pitches, but I got out of some tough situations and some jams."
Romero might have a decent enough shot at earning a job, considering that no pitchers in the competition have run away with one at this point. Richmond -- a rookie at 29 years old -- has a 5.00 ERA through three outings and missed time playing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic. Mills, 24, has impressed Gaston with his composure, but has a 4.91 ERA over four appearances.
Should Toronto opt to go with both of its left-handed prospects -- Romero and Mills -- over Richmond, the rotation would include three lefties. In that scenario, Gaston said the Blue Jays might consider breaking the southpaws up by sliding Litsch into the No. 3 hole.
"We might," Gaston said. "But if that happens, we'd be sure to let Jesse know that he's not the third guy."
Gaston also noted that the fact that Mills, who finished last season with Double-A New Hampshire, has no career innings at the Triple-A level won't create any hesitation on Toronto's part to potentially hand him a job.
The Jays haven't decided whether Clement, who hasn't pitched in the Majors since 2006 due to right shoulder issues, will receive another Grapefruit League audition. On Sunday, the veteran right-hander was charged with nine runs, and he issued seven free passes over 4 1/3 innings, hurting his chances at being handed another start.
"We haven't talked about it yet," Gaston said. "He had a tough time out there yesterday, and it's really getting down to the time where we really need to get all our guys the innings -- the guys who are going to go with us. If he's not one of the guys who goes with us, I'd almost say, 'No.'"
As for Romero, he's trying not to get too caught up in the competition.
"I'm just like everyone else," he said. "I'm just cheering everyone on, everyone that's battling for a spot. They're going to make the decision. We just have to go out there and do our job and pitch and give our team a chance to win, and I think we'll be in good shape."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.