By coincidence, Glen Perkins and Joe Nathan, owners of 380 Twins saves, sat nearby in leather chairs in the players’ TwinsFest clubhouse Saturday as Fernando Romero considered a question he never saw coming: How does he feel about being a candidate to inherit Perkins’ and Nathan’s old job?
“I haven’t heard anything about that. They haven’t said anything about it to me,” Romero said with some bewilderment. “But if I have to be in the bullpen, I’m going to go for it. Any spot they want me in, I’ll take it.”
That it might be in a relief role, and that it might eventually be in the most high-leverage role on the staff, has actually been discussed a lot — just not yet with the 24-year-old righthander, considered the Twins’ top pitching prospect at the upper levels.
That silence isn’t about keeping Romero in the dark about their plans, the Twins’ decisionmakers say, but a reflection of their own uncertainty about how the 2019 pitching staff will sort itself out, in training camp and beyond.
“It’s an ongoing debate internally,” Twins General Manager Thad Levine said. “Do you continue to let him develop and grow into a spot in the rotation, or is he better than any [relief] pitcher we could possibly acquire on the [free agent] market or in a trade? There is such a high appreciation and appetite for top-flight relievers right now, and his potential capability in critical situations is so conspicuous, it’s a real debate.”
He’s right about the talent; Romero has a fastball that can reach 97 miles per hour and a slider that sits around 90, and he’s averaged close to a strikeout per inning in six minor league seasons. He electrified the Twins’ fan base with five strong starts to open his major league career last May — he didn’t allow a run in his first 15 ⅔ big-league innings — and though he was eventually sent back to Class AAA Rochester in late June, Romero allowed more than four runs only once in 11 starts.
Romero will enter training camp next month as one of a half-dozen plausible candidates for a spot in the rotation. But with Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda and Martin Perez already occupying, to various degrees, all five rotation spots, there is no guarantee that the job is even available. In certain cases, however, failing to earn their preferred job might not come with an automatic demotion to Rochester.
“My view of camp is, we don’t know exactly what the pitching staff is going to look like. If guys step up and force our hand, we are open to making room for them,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer. He mentioned Stephen Gonsalves, Kohl Stewart, Zack Littell, Tyler Duffey and Adalberto Mejia as among the possibilities, “potential starting options who, if we stay healthy and the rotation remains intact, might have an opportunity to work out of the bullpen.”
Romero strikes the Twins as a particularly intriguing choice for that transition, Falvey said.
A bullpen role would accentuate the value of his velocity — might even increase it, Falvey mused — while decreasing his vulnerability to a changeup that isn’t as effective as his fastball. It might help keep him intact physically, too. Though Romero pronounced himself “100 percent healthy” at TwinsFest this weekend, he has missed almost two full seasons in his career, first after Tommy John elbow surgery in 2014, and because of a torn meniscus in 2015.
And that blazing fastball, which helps Romero get swing-and-misses on 10.6 percent of his pitches (a rate comparable to Berrios’ 11.1), has plenty of appeal to Falvey as a rally-killer.
“Fernando is someone who, when you watch him pitch, you see the first few innings and you think, ‘Wow, that could be pretty special in the bullpen,’ ” Falvey said. “He responds well when he’s challenged, and he’s got the ability to get important outs.”
Fewer outs than as a starter, though, which is a consideration that still gives the Twins pause. Romero pitched 145 innings at two levels last season, and 125 in 2017. No full-time reliever has pitched more than 75 innings for the Twins for the past four seasons. The Twins are considering whether more consistent results in more critical situations are a worthwhile trade-off for using him less.
And they’re willing to be creative, too.
“Maybe you piggyback Fernando with a lefthanded starter, somebody who gives you two very different looks. Is there evidence that that strategy would be particularly effective?” Levine said. “You need to have six-out, nine-out, 12-out guys in the pen, so maybe that’s a fit. Or if you tell him the closer job is up for grabs, how does that affect his approach? Does he pitch to make sure that job is his?”
Right now, Romero said, he’s pitching to win a starting job, pending further notifications from Falvey, Levine and manager Rocco Baldelli. That’s clearly his preference — but not if the choice is between Minnesota’s major league bullpen and Rochester’s Class AAA rotation.
“Any job they want to give me, I’ll take it. I can’t control this. I just want to be here,” Romero said. “I think it’ll be exciting, no matter what.”