LAS VEGAS – The Twins have been in contact with agents representing several free-agent relief pitchers — Joakim Soria, for instance — and more talks are expected this week during the annual winter meetings.
While they are doing their due diligence in their search for bullpen help, and have not yet made a serious push to sign a free agent, there’s also a chance they already have someone within their organization with the requisite talent.
Someone like Fernando Romero.
The Twins already have a handful of candidates to battle for the fifth spot in the rotation, from lefthanders Adalberto Mejia and Stephen Gonsalves, to righthanders Romero, Kohl Stewart, Aaron Slegers, Trevor May, Chase DeJong and Zack Littell. But Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine didn’t hide their fondness for Romero, who made his major league debut in 2018, because he has the stuff and shows the traits of a lockdown artist. And, as the game continues to evolve, someone like Romero could be used in different ways.
“His mentality fits,” Falvey said. “When people watch him pitch, they see him in the bullpen, they see clear ability there. So we’re open-minded to that.”
What does a “mentality” that fits look like?
“He has a thirst for competition, and it seems to be insatiable,” Levine said. “I think he is one of those guys who goes on the mound and toes the rubber and thinks he’s about 5 inches taller than he is and is prepared to do battle with anybody who is in the box.”
Romero, a Dominican who turns 24 on Christmas Eve, has risen through the Twins system while showing plenty of confidence. His first major league spring training camp was 2017, when he effortlessly threw fastballs at 97 miles per hour while mixing in a good slider. After one spring outing, he slipped on sunglasses to speak with reporters — and the interview was held inside the Twins clubhouse.
That spring, the Twins also pondered moving him to the bullpen, as some officials thought he could make the team that year as a reliever. But he was kept in the starting rotation because he missed 2015 after Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, then injured his knee while working out during his recovery. Romero threw only 90⅓ innings in 2016, so the Twins wanted him to face hitters and build his endurance.
He made his major league debut this year on May 2, pitching 5⅔ scoreless innings vs. Toronto. Even when he took his lumps with the Twins — going 3-3 with a 4.69 ERA in 55⅔ innings over 11 outings — he often vowed to fix his flaws and return a better pitcher.
For Romero to stick as a starter, he will have to develop his changeup. His fastball last season averaged 95.4 mph, according to Fangraphs. His changeup came in an average of 90.3 mph — so he needs to increase the difference in speed between the fastball and changeup. Even if he locks in on a good changeup, the Twins might still use him as a reliever.
“I don’t think anything fazes him,” Falvey said. “I don’t think he’s scared of [anything] whether he’s pitching the first or the ninth, doesn’t matter to him. I think that what stands out from a starter-reliever conversation for most guys is third pitch development. That’s a scenario where he hasn’t come quite as far as we hope he can come. If he develops that third pitch, maybe we’re having a different conversation around a starter.
“My view, mentality, is how guys go out there. I’ve seen some guys go from the bullpen to starting and really embrace the idea that they’re attacking like a closer from pitch one, and it actually works for five, six innings that way now. He can do either, in my mind.”
That’s the intriguing aspect of moving Romero into a relief role. Could he dominate the ninth? Could he be used to pitch the seventh, eighth or ninth innings? While the Twins could sign a veteran reliever this offseason, they are considering what Romero could bring to the role.
“He is a weapon,” Levine said. “I think he may be one of those guys who, as we ferry forward as a franchise and our view of pitching evolves, he may be one of the standard-bearers of that.
“Whether he’s pitching the seventh, eighth and ninth or the first, second or third or maybe even five or six innings at some point of the game yet to be determined. But what is pretty clear to us is that this guy wants the ball when the game is on the line. There will be plenty of opportunities to deliver that to him.”