The hype train is in full gear for the Minnesota Twins 2020 relief corps. Last Thursday night at the Diamond Awards, manager Rocco Baldelli opined that it's the best bullpen in baseball right now – a perfectly defensible claim.
Bolstered by Brusdar Graterol's now-confirmed inclusion, this unit is loaded with emerging high-powered arms and proven veteran performers. One major wild-card, however, tends to get left out of the conversation.
Fernando Romero's 2019 season was a disaster by any measure. It wasn't just his horrific 7.07 ERA in major-league 14 innings. Even more so, it was the totally uninspiring results he put forth while spending a majority of his campaign at Triple-A: 57.2 IP, 4.37 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 4.5 BB/9, 12 wild pitches.
The lasting memory in the minds of most fans is likely Romero's lone MLB appearance in June, when he was briefly recalled following a May demotion. With the Twins leading the Mariners 10-1 at Target Field, Romero was called upon to pitch the eighth inning in basically the lowest-stress situation imaginable.
His sequence: walk, single, double, run-scoring wild pitch, walk. Romero was removed, sent back down, and didn't see the major-league mound again until September, when he served in essentially a mop-up role for the Twins.
Now that we've got all that unpleasantness out of the way, let's circle back to the positives attached to the big right-hander, which are hardly erased by one bad season, no matter how discouraging:
He's still only 25. Younger than – say – Corey Kluber was before he even joined the Cleveland rotation. Kluber seems a noteworthy comp because he was also struggling with his control around the same age.
Romero's fastball is in a rare class. He averaged 97 MPH last year, which ranked 35th out of 646 MLB pitchers to throw 10+ innings, or in the 95th percentile. Among Twins pitchers, only Graterol can bring it harder.
He can dominate with the slider. Buzzing in at 87 MPH, it's a very good pitch. Despite his struggles with the Twins in 2019, opponents batted just .154 and slugged .269 against the slide-piece, with an astounding 64.7% whiff rate (per Baseball Savant).
He keeps the ball in the park. This aspect of his game curiously went amiss at the beginning of last season, as he gave up five home runs in his first six appearances between Triple-A and the majors, but the rest of the way he surrendered just two homers in 59 1/3 frames. This aligns with his broader track record – in 450 minor-league innings, Romero allowed only 18 long balls.
He is a specimen. At 6-feet and 215 lbs, Romero is an intimidating force on the mound with the attitude to match. The qualities that gave him appeal as a late-inning weapon when the Twins switched his role last spring are still there.
Now, Romero of course has some things working against him, the main one being command. As good as his stuff is, he rarely had any idea where it was going last year and that really cost him. But incumbent pitching coach Wes Johnson and newcomer Bob McClure have plenty to work with here.
Will he be able to sync up with them from the start of the season? Or will he open back in Triple-A? Will the Twins continue to try making it work in the bullpen, or will they give him another shot at starting, with their bullpen depth so much stronger now than it was a year ago?
In the late stages of last season, I expressed concern over the right-hander's status for 2020, noting that he'd burned three options and the Twins could be looking ahead to a tough decision this spring. But it was brought to my attention, via Jeremy Nygaard, that Romero likely qualifies for a fourth option.
With this being the case, I'm thinking the best course of action might be to transition him back into a starting role at Rochester. The Twins' needs have shifted back in that direction, and in all the clamor to find an ace for the rotation, the team would be remiss to overlook an internal candidate with so many of the requisite attributes.
If he can emerge again as a starting option, that would be a potentially huge boost. And if the move doesn't take, a relief fallback remains in place.
Should Romero look good in spring training, perhaps the Twins will strike a happy medium by bringing him north out of camp, and using him in a long-relief or piggybacking type of capacity, while finding ways to fill innings until Michael Pineda is available. He could stay stretched without needing to be thrust back into a starter's regimen after pitching exclusively as a reliever in 2019. Perhaps more importantly, this plan would allow Romero to work closely with Johnson and McClure from the jump.
Questions and decisions like these will rise to the forefront as Romero and the rest of the team's pitchers get ready to report to Fort Myers in two weeks. How would you prefer to see the team handle him moving forward?
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