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02/10/10 3:42 PM EST

Romero learning from Doc's example

Young Blue Jays lefty may develop into club's new ace

TORONTO -- Ricky Romero could only laugh at his friends' suggestion. He was only a rookie a year ago with the Blue Jays, and his first tour of the big leagues included plenty of the highs and lows that most young pitchers experience.

Toronto's ace? Yeah, right.

"Do I consider myself an ace?" Romero said during a phone conversation this week. "Obviously not."

Midway through December, though, Romero and a large group of his friends met up for lunch at a restaurant near his home in California. While they swapped stories and dined, the TVs in the bar began airing a news conference from Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

Roy Halladay -- the longtime ace of the Blue Jays -- had been traded to the Phillies. Romero and his buddies watched Halladay hold up his new white home jersey with red pinstripes. They saw Doc smiling as he tried on a bright red hat and listened as Romero's former teammate talked about his new opportunity with Philadelphia.

It did not take long for Romero's friends to connect the dots.

"They all kind of looked at me and said, 'Well, it looks like you're going to be the new ace,'" Romero recalled. "I just started laughing."

Maybe "ace" is not the right title for Romero -- not yet, anyway. The reality, though, is that the Halladay trade threw Toronto's rotation into a state of flux. Without Doc to lead the way, the Blue Jays are left with a long list of young and, for the most part, relatively inexperienced arms to compete for five vacancies.

After a solid rookie campaign, Romero is bidding to be the No. 1 starter, though he does have plenty of competition for that role.

Shaun Marcum is also a viable candidate for the rotation's top slot, but he missed all of last season with a right elbow injury. The Jays added Brandon Morrow over the offseason, but his career has been spent mainly as a reliever. Starting candidate Brian Tallet made 25 starts for the Jays last season, but he too has more experience as a reliever.

In all, Toronto will bring 17 starting candidates into camp, excluding Shawn Hill and Jesse Litsch, who are expected to be sidelined until at least June with right elbow issues. Among all the pitchers vying for a spot within the Opening Day rotation, Romero has the most wins (13) and innings (178) in a single season.

That is due to the year Romero spent as the No. 2 starter behind Halladay in 2009.

"Wherever I end up in the rotation doesn't matter to me," Romero said. "I just consider myself as one piece of five guys that make up the rotation, and the five guys that end up making the team are going to be the five guys we go to battle with. I just want to be a leader. I want to be a guy that leads by example.

"I don't think anyone in the game prepares better than he does. I feel like, even as a guy that's been so successful in the big leagues, he still comes with a purpose every day to the stadium, wanting to learn something. Whether it's something small or something big, you can tell he wants to learn. That's the biggest thing I'll take from him."
-- Ricky Romero, on Roy Halladay

"You look at a guy like Halladay. When he was there, he led by example. He didn't have to say much. That's how I've always been."

Romero is quick to add that he is not saying he hopes to replace Halladay.

"You can never replace a Roy Halladay," he said. What Romero is trying to do is to take what he learned from Halladay during their one season together and use it to his advantage.

The most important thing Romero said he took from being around Halladay was the ace's unwavering dedication to preparation and learning. No matter how many games Halladay won, or how many accolades he received, Romero saw a pitcher always trying to learn and adapt. That is something Romero admired, and a character trait he hopes to show as well.

"I don't think anyone in the game prepares better than he does," Romero said. "I feel like, even as a guy that's been so successful in the big leagues, he still comes with a purpose every day to the stadium, wanting to learn something. Whether it's something small or something big, you can tell he wants to learn. That's the biggest thing I'll take from him.

"Coming in with that attitude, wanting to learn and wanting to prepare myself and just continue that work ethic that I built last year from watching him and admiring everything he did. I'm not saying I want to follow in his footsteps, because obviously I've got to be my own person, but I want to somewhat do some of the things he was able to do here in Toronto."

For Romero, that means having a purpose to each and every one of his workouts and study sessions -- no matter how large or small. If he's doing something as simple as playing catch, Romero wants to make sure he is concentrating on his mechanics. As the season rolls along, he wants to make sure he is adapting to the hitters as they adapt to him.

This offseason, the 25-year-old Romero put a heavier emphasis on conditioning to once again prepare him for the grind of a full season in the Majors. He made 29 starts a year ago, but Romero wants to build on that and believes logging 200 innings -- something Halladay seemingly did with ease -- is a realistic goal.

Romero knows he needs to cut down his walks in order for that to happen, though.

The young lefty says fatigue was not an issue last year -- it was unnecessary free passes that cost him in the second half. Over his first 12 starts, Romero walked 27 hitters across 79 innings, helping him go 7-2 with a 2.96 ERA. Over his final 17 outings, Romero walked 52 in 99 frames, and he went 6-6 with a 5.36 ERA over that span.

"This whole offseason, I kind of just cleared my head about all that," said Romero, who said he got away from attacking hitters aggressively in the second half. "I made it a point that I was going to forget about it. I'm going to start out fresh."

This spring, Romero is looking forward to working with new pitching coach Bruce Walton and plans on maybe trying out the cut fastball that Halladay began teaching him last year. Losing Halladay is a big blow for Toronto, but Romero is excited about the young talent that general manager Alex Anthopoulos has been assembling all offseason.

Romero said that is something he and 22-year-old Jays outfielder Travis Snider talked a lot about over the winter.

"We kind of want to make it that atmosphere where you bring in the young guys and make them feel comfortable and make them feel like they're at home," Romero said. "Obviously, we're two young guys talking to younger guys. But at the same time, we're both still learning and hopefully this young core can do something special in the future."

Halladay may not be with the Jays anymore, but his approach to the game is sure to have a lasting impact on the young players who were around him in Toronto. That is evident in the way pitchers like Romero recall stories of Halladay's legendary work ethic -- something they strive to emulate.

Thinking back to Toronto's final days of the 2009 season, Romero chuckles.

"I remember after his last start, Doc said, 'That's it. I'm not working out. I'm done,'" Romero said. "The next day, he's in the weight room and I was like, 'What are you doing? You're not pitching anymore.' He said, 'I got bored.'"

Romero paused and laughed.

"That's just the type of guy he is. He's always been like that, and that's why he's so successful in my opinion. He's going to be a guy that's going to be missed. ... Any time you lose a player of Halladay's caliber, it's always going to be tough. He was the face of the franchise.

"It's going to be an interesting challenge for our team now."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.