BRADENTON, FLA. – In the fourth inning Saturday, a concessionaire trudging through the sun-baked stands here yelled, “Sushi! Get your sushi here! Two-for-one!”
It’s official: There is something more questionable in the Grapefruit League than turning Fernando Romero into a reliever.
Romero might have the best arm in the Twins system. He hit 98 on the radar gun last year while making his major league debut as a starter, before the usual rookie jitters sent him back to the minors.
Always in need of dynamic starters, this spring the Twins have added Romero to an unsettled-if-promising bullpen.
Is that ballpark-sushi-in-82-degree-temperature crazy?
Not if Martin Perez pitches in the regular season like he did Saturday.
Romero seemed a logical candidate for the fifth starter’s job before the Twins signed Perez as a free agent. Saturday, the former Rangers lefthander started against the Pirates and Romero pitched in relief.
Perez pitched four shutout innings, striking out three. Romero pitched two perfect innings, striking out one.
Even good Twins pitchers rarely throw this hard.
For decades, the Twins have relied on pitchers featuring changeups and splitters, forkballs and sliders, curves and other assorted junk.
Their best relied on pitches that dived toward the dirt, and radar-gun ratings that rarely rose above 94. Jack Morris won with guts and a splitter; Scott Erickson threw pitches that hissed like venomous snakes. Johan Santana’s fastball served to make his changeup look cartoonishly slow.
Brad Radke relied on the old “change of pace,” and the pitchers who did throw in the upper 90s didn’t do so for long. Francisco Liriano’s elbow injury in 2006 might have cost the Twins a chance at a championship, and a slew of prospects chosen for their velocity in the 2000s have failed to make an impact in the big leagues.
Saturday, in a 10-1 victory over Pittsburgh, Perez threw as hard as 97 and Romero, who pitched as fast as 98 or 99 last year, hit 96.
With star stuff, Romero should be expected to dominate this spring. Perez is the surprise. He looks more impressive in person than his career statistics would suggest, offering a power fastball, a cutter, a two-seamer and a changeup.
“It’s exciting,” Perez said.
New Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson has encouraged Perez to use his hips, which has improved both velocity and control, and Perez has worked on his mental approach with Santana, who is a guest coach for the Twins this spring.
“He always competed,” Perez said. “That’s why he’s got two Cy Youngs. He’s a lefty, Venezuela. It’s easy for me to learn from him.”
The current Venezuelan lefty and the righty from the Dominican Republic could dramatically improve the Twins’ chances to contend this season.
“He’s been this guy since he’s shown up to camp,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of Perez. “This is kind of what we believe that he is and he can be …
“We almost have to extend the outings a little bit because he’s done such a good job of throwing innings and not having to even use the number of pitches that you would normally allot for him.”
A rotation of Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Michael Pineda, Jake Odorizzi and Perez has upside the Twins haven’t experienced in years, with Pineda a third starter capable of pitching consistently at 95 or better.
If Perez outperforms the fifth starter’s role while Romero improves the vital end of the bullpen, the Twins will have, for once, added velocity and depth to their staff.
“It’s hard not to be excited about what we’ve seen from him,” Baldelli said of Romero. “He throws pitches that come up 95-96 on the radar gun but from the side, these pitches have a ton of action on them as well. Sometimes you’re not sure what you really saw until you check the velocity, because he can get that kind of movement on his fastball.”
That kind of movement could lead to upward mobility for the Twins.