As spring training crawls to an end, teams are finally naming winners in positional battles. On Tuesday, several teams made roster decisions, with Rick Porcello, Luis Mendoza, Blake Beavan, and Brandon Maurer all securing rotation spots. The most remarkable move of the day, though, was the Blue Jays decision to send Ricky Romero to the minors and name lefty J.A. Happ their fifth starter. The move was a shock to say the least, as Romero was the Jays opening day starter for the last two seasons:
A year ago, left-hander Ricky Romero was preparing for his second consecutive opening-day start for the Toronto Blue Jays. Before him, only legends Roy Halladay, Jack Morris, Jimmy Key and Dave Stieb had started consecutive openers for the Jays.
On Tuesday, after getting mixed results from Romero in his fifth spring outing of the season, the Blue Jays announced they were optioning him to Class A Dunedin.
Along with being the opening day starter, just two years ago Romero finished tenth in the American League Cy Young award voting after finishing with 15 wins and a shiny 2.92 ERA. Those of us paying attention saw Romero's .242 BABIP, 79.2 LOB%, and 4.20 FIP as a better reflection of his 2011 season, stating that he would regress some in 2012. He went right past normal regression though, ranking dead last among qualified starters in ERA (5.77). His results this spring have not been any better, with a 6.23 ERA over 13 innings pitched. Still, we are talking about a pitcher who has racked up 10.4 fWAR over the last three seasons and is owed $7.75 million in each of the next three seasons. This could not have been an easy decision, but ultimately it seems like the right one for two reasons.
First, the Jays have a viable in house option to take his spot in the rotation in J.A. Happ. In fact, before the Blue Jays acquired most of the Miami Marlins in November, I pegged Happ as a sleeper in fantasy baseball leagues this year. The 30-year old has steadily improved in almost every conceivable way over the past few years, resulting in a 4.01 FIP and an above average K%-BB% of 14.1% in 2012. The best part is I believe that all of the improvements are sustainable. The increase in strikeout rate, 23% from 19.2%, was tied directly to an increase in how frequently he threw his breaking pitches, leading to a jump in SwSt%. Plus I don't think a full year in AL will have much of an impact on his numbers because Minute Maid Park and the Rogers Centre have very similar park factors, and although it was a small sample, Happy actually pitched better once he arrived in Toronto last season. Add in a strong spring (1.90 ERA in 23.2 IP) and it seems apparent that Happ makes Toronto the better team right now.
More importantly, the demotion is the best thing for Romero's future. He simply is not capable of getting major league hitters out at an acceptable rate right now. Not only was his ERA up last year, but his strikeouts and walk rates moved in the wrong direction as well. And he actually got worse as the season wore on, walking more batters than he struck out and allowing the opposition to post an OPS of .910 over his final 17 starts. Even scarier still is that the Jays and Manager John Gibbons seem to think his problems go just past the physicals parts of his game:
"It's a tough game to play to begin with," Gibbons said before Tuesday's game. "When you get to this level, everybody's got talent, and what separates guys - the really good ones - is the mental toughness a lot of times."
We can dissect number after number and go through Romero's PITCHf/x as much as we'd like, but if his problems begin with confidence then the Jays have absolutely made the right choice in sending him to the minors. It seems unlikely that Romero will ever regain his 2010 form, but the Jays can look no farther than Roy Halladay's 2001 demotion when searching for a reason to believe.
What strikes me as the most interesting part of all this, is that Toronto made this move despite having some heavy pressure to win now. Toronto is currently the favorite to win the World Series at 7/1 in Las Vegas. Yes, the point can (and should) be made that the move has winning at heart, yet many will question how the Jays can expect to win without Romero. I applaud the Jays for not giving in to popular opinion and making a decision that looks to be in the best interest of the organization as a whole.
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