In his first five starts last year, Fernando Romero owned a 1.88 ERA.
The Minnesota Twins appeared to have found a gem in the international draft, a 23-year-old righty from the Dominican Republic with a 100 mph fastball who struck out 29 hitters and only given up six earned runs in 28.2 innings pitched. Opposing players were hitting .194/.304/.265 against him.
Then, in his sixth start, he didn’t get out of the second inning against the Kansas City Royals.
Romero gave up eight earned runs that day, raising his ERA to 4.15. His 3.57 ERA in Triple-A that year, and his 3.53 ERA in Double-A the year before would have indicated he was going to regress to the mean, but his 5.33 ERA in five June starts resulted in a demotion to the minors.
Opposing players hit .308/.357/.481 against him during that stretch.
He didn’t get called up again in 2018, even when rosters expanded in September. This season began with him giving up five earned runs in his first two outings on April 20 and 24, but none in his next six before being sent down on May 10. He got the call up on Thursday despite owning a 5.47 ERA in 24.2 innings of relief.
“I think he’s locking in,” said manager Rocco Baldelli, referencing his 3.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors. “His release point and strike-throwing have certainly improved. I know it’s what they’ve been talking about with him and what he’s been focusing on.
“It’s not about placing the ball. We still want the good stuff to show up. We want him out there, attacking hitters. We know he has the stuff to do it.”
Romero was not locked in on Thursday, however. He walked Mac Williamson, the No. 9 hitter, gave up a single and a double to Mallex Smith and Kyle Seager before throwing a wild pitch and walking pinch-hitter Dylan Moore. He did not record an out before being replaced by Matt Magill.
“He’s just looking for his release point,” said Baldelli. “He’s throwing strikes at a good rate at the Triple-A level. And he’s done it. He’s done it at several different levels throughout the course of his career, and I think he’s looking to find it out there on the mound.”
While the Twins are wise to experiment with lower velocity relievers like Mike Morin and Ryne Harper in relief, good old-fashioned power pitching is a great supplement. Morin relies on change of speeds to get hitters out, and Harper has nasty movement on his breaking pitches, but both of them top out around 90 mph on their fastball.
The Kansas City Royals built a World Series-winning team in 2015, and other good teams in the mid-2010s, with a rotation full of five-and-dive starters and a hard-throwing bullpen. While conventional wisdom dictates that teams should typically build around great starting pitching — think the San Francisco Giants mini-dynasty which beat the Royals in 2014 — K.C. had starters who could get through five innings and a bullpen that shut it down from there.
This model could work for the current Twins team. While the offense is notoriously potent, the best pitchers in the American League will occasionally hold the Bombas at bay. And even during games when Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario and Co. sound the home run siren like the end is near, it’s vital that the bullpen can hold the lead.
Looking practically at the Twins starters, Minnesota is unlikely to become the even-year Giants in the near future. Those teams featured a starting rotation that included Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. And while Jose Berrios has looked like ace material at times, and Jake Odorizzi is one of the best pitchers in the AL this year, Berrios’ off-speed stuff flattens out occasionally and Odorizzi’s contract is up after this season.
Furthermore, it’s reasonable to think that guys like Kyle Gibson, Martin Perez, Michael Pineda — and potentially Triple-A prospects Stephen Gonsalves and Kohl Stewart, for that matter — could give the Twins five to six solid innings every outing and then turn it over to the bullpen.
The problem is that there are only a few established relievers right now. Taylor Rogers, Blake Parker and Trevor May have been reliable in high-leverage situations this season. Magill and Tyler Duffey could provide depth, and Morin and Harper are intriguing options but hardly proven. Trevor Hildenberger pitched well in April, but gave up 11 runs and had a 21.21 ERA in May and is currently in Triple-A.
But a few pitchers in the organization could help the bullpen this year or in the near future. Top prospect Brusdar Graterol throws over 100 mph and is in Double-A. Gabriel Moya has pitched in the majors and is on the 40-man roster. Lewis Thorpe is a 23-year-old rising prospect in Triple-A and is also on the 40-man. Jhoan Duran isn’t expected to arrive in the majors until 2021, but he’s a hard-thrower to keep an eye on in High-A.
The larger point here is that if players like Romero help bolster the big league bullpen, then the Twins don’t have to trade as many of their prospects to acquire major league relievers.
“It’s like any other rough stretch that a guy or subset of guys has had. Most rough stretches, they just work themselves out,” Baldelli said about his bullpen. “A lot of the time, I believe that. At the big league level, or really any level, it’s never going to be smooth.”
While that’s fair, it certainly would help if there were players in Triple-A ready to come get outs in the majors. Romero may never become the ace that he appeared to be in his first five starts, but he offers a lot to the Twins if he can become a reliable internal bullpen option.