FORT MYERS, FLA. – Teams have scouted teenagers for years before deciding to draft or sign them as prospects.
In Fernando Romero’s case, the Twins decided in less than a day.
But the decision to sign Romero looks to have been the right one, as the righthander is among their best starting pitching prospects — and might be the best.
He made his spring training debut Sunday against Washington, throwing a scoreless inning while striking out two. Romero initially threw changeups and sliders in the upper 80 miles-per-hour range before letting loose with fastballs, including two that hit 98 and two more that hit 97.
“He’s got a big arm,” pitching coach Neil Allen said. “Not scared, aggressive. Takes the ball. Pretty impressive.”
The Twins clubhouse has buzzed about Romero’s work in the bullpen and during live batting practices, leading to great anticipation before Sunday’s outing.
“I know a lot of people have been talking about him, the guys who have caught him,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “Neil, he definitely has caught his eye. So I was looking forward to seeing him out there. Obviously a very easy 97-98. He’s trying to get that slider a little more consistent.”
Romero, 22, wasn’t highly regarded as a teen. The July 2, 2011, international signing date came and went with him unable to find a home. The Twins learned about him from his agent, as Romero was on a team from the Dominican Republic participating in a showcase for scouting service Perfect Game USA in Jupiter, Fla., in October 2011. The event is held on more than a dozen fields, and teams rent golf carts to cover the ground.
The Twins had 14 scouts at the event, and 10 of them were in attendance when the 16-year-old Romero pitched.
“He was touching 91, a good loose arm and really good spin [on his curveball],’’ said Mike Radcliff, the Twins vice president of player personnel. “The kicker was the spin. He had a hard curveball, and that was before spin rate became the terminology. More spin means more [velocity] in there.”
Meanwhile, the Twins had Fred Guerrero, their Latin American scouting coordinator, drive from his place in Santo Domingo to the Romero family home in San Juan de la Maguana to get to know them and learn more about the pitcher. They outbid a handful of other teams and got Romero to agree to sign for $260,000.
“This all occurred the same day,” Radcliff said. “In a 12-hour period.”
Romero is listed at 6 feet tall and 215 pounds. Back then he was chubby, which might have scared off teams. But his physique changed after he went down because of an ulnar collateral ligament tear in 2014 and needed Tommy John surgery.
Romero decided to get in shape while rehabilitating, and dropped about 30 pounds. But he was two weeks away from getting back on the mound when he tore the meniscus in his left knee.
“I was working out in the gym,” Romero said. “I was trying to make a ‘box jump’ and just fell.”
He ended up missing all of 2015. He returned last season under an innings limit and went 12-7 with a 1.89 ERA in 16 starts between Class A Cedar Rapids and Class A Fort Myers. In 90⅓ innings, he walked only 15 batters while striking out 90. He has given up only two home runs in 178⅓ career minor league innings.
The plan is to have Romero start this season at Class AA Chattanooga. With a new Twins regime led by Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey — whose expertise is pitching — it will be interesting to watch how Romero develops. Will they be cautious because of his recent surgery? Will they be more aggressive? Toronto, for instance, had Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna in the majors a year after they had pitched in Class A.
At least Romero has worked his way into a major league camp — and is getting the Twins’ attention.
“It takes time, and God knows it’s not my decision,” Romero said. “But that’s what I’m doing here and I’m going to keep doing it, trying to show myself.”