FORT MYERS, FLA. – Starting pitchers were crossing paths in the Twins clubhouse at Hammond Stadium on Tuesday morning. The present and the future both had short trips to make.
Lance Lynn was headed a couple of doors south in the corridor to be formally introduced as the latest and last of a half-dozen significant acquisitions for 2018. Fernando Romero was headed a couple of hundred yards northwest to the minor league complex with four other pitchers.
Lynn will be a free agent again after this season and likely to be in another clubhouse in the spring of 2019. Romero will be in his third big-league training camp and likely to be Lynn’s replacement.
Romero, 23, pitched eight innings in four exhibitions, with eight strikeouts and one walk. The walk issued was followed by a double play, meaning Romero faced the minimum of 24 batters in his eight innings.
The pitchers optioned on Tuesday were all on the 40-player major league roster, with starters Stephen Gonsalves, Adalberto Mejia and Aaron Slegers, and reliever John Curtiss optioned to Class AAA Rochester, and Romero to Class AA Chattanooga.
Romero might be starting one rung lower when the minor league seasons open on April 5, but there’s no pitcher in the organization that currently seems more important to the Twins future.
The righthander from the Dominican Republic was seven weeks shy of his 17th birthday when signed on Nov. 4, 2011 by Fred Guerrero. He pitched a total of 76 innings in 2012 and 2013 in rookie leagues, then tore a ligament in his right elbow after making three starts for low-A Cedar Rapids in 2014.
He missed the rest of that season and all of 2015. He spent months at the Fort Myers complex, both rehabbing and taking advantage of the language program and other educational opportunities the Twins have available for young players.
The Twins have an interpreter when we old dudes with no Spanish skills want to interview a player from Latin America. He's not needed with Romero.
The murmurs over Romero as a pitching prospect to watch started in 2016. He had recovered from Tommy John surgery on the right elbow, and also surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The knee injury happened during his workouts to stay in physical condition during the elbow rehab.
Romero returned to Cedar Rapids for five starts in 2016, with a 4-1 record and a 1.93 ERA. He went to high-A Fort Myers for 11 starts and was 5-2 with a 1.88 ERA.
Combined, he pitched 90 1/3 innings, allowed 66 hits and had 90 strikeouts with 15 walks. The Twins placed him on the big-league roster and he was in camp last spring, impressing people.
Romero was upset when sent across the parking lot to the minors in the first cut last March 13. That was more unfamiliarity with the process than anything else.
This time, Romero knew that he was in big-league camp only to continue to impress, and was talking freely and accepting handshakes from older players and coaches after Tuesday’s demotion.
He figures to be the Opening Day starter on April 5 for manager Tommy Watkins with Chattanooga, but Romero said Tuesday:
“They didn't say if it will be Rochester or Chattanooga. They said to keep working on my changeup and to keep hitting my spots.’’
Romero’s last outing as an official part of the spring roster was three perfect innings vs. the Rays in Port Charlotte on Sunday. He was the model of efficiency on that afternoon.
“I felt so good,’’ he said. “First pitch strikes … when you do that, you can do what you want against hitters.’’
Romero throws in the high 90s when needed, can sink the fastball at 93/94, and has a put-away slider. And now, with his future as a starter, the Twins are pushing him to add a changeup.
“I started working on it more in February,’’ Romero said, and he did so with an outstanding new mentor a dozen lockers away in the big-league clubhouse.
The new closer, Fernando Rodney, is a fellow Dominican, first pitched in the big leagues in 2002 and will turn 41. Rodney sits at an even 300 saves as he enters his first season with the Twins, and his changeup has had a lot to do with that number.
“He helps me a lot with the changeup,’’ Romero said. “We have the same grip. He is a great pitcher and a great person. Being in the same clubhouse with him has been exciting.’’
There’s a chance the two Fernandos will be in the same clubhouse before this season is over. As Lynn arrived this week as the last piece for the Twins’ season-opening rotation, Romero was leaving as a starting pitcher more on the rise than any other in the Twins’ farm system.