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Monday, March 10, 2014

Mulliniks’ Moustache #7 – Ricky Romero & The Yips

No, that’s not a band…although, it’s a pretty awesome name for one! I CALL DRUMS!!

Anyway, to the task at hand: Blue Jays’ fans sixth-favourite* left-handed pitcher – Ricky Romero. We've all had a front-row seat to watch the fall and rise and fall of Ricky Romero, from first round draft pick, to near-bust, to All-Star on the cusp of ace-dom, all the way back down to (barely) a AAA pitcher.

Personally, it’s been difficult to watch. Romero was a lefty bulldog, taking the ball every fifth day without fail. Even when he was struggling, he never made excuses. Despite reported arm and knee issues, which were/are so bad that John Lott from the National Post reported recently that Romero had stem cells inserted into his knee to help alleviate the pain. Romero simply went to the mount and pitched – poorly at times – every fifth day and was always accountable, which is refreshing from a professional athlete.

From all accounts, the root cause of Romero’s problems are all mental – a kind of/sort of mild case of The Yips (see also: Sax, Steve; Knoblauch, Chuck; and Ankiel, Rick for more dramatic examples of The Yips). For the uninitiated, TheYips is baseball nomenclature for rare situations where players simply lose the ability to perform seemingly mundane, “Baseball 101”-type tasks – like throwing a ball from second base to first, or from the mound to home. It’s not easy to watch players suffer through The Yips. Case in point: Rick Ankiel, a 20-year-old lefty phenom who, in part, led the St. Louis Cardinals to the 2000 NLDS. In his first career post season start, he literally and figuratively fell apart. He threw six wild pitches in the third inning alone and had five walks overall. Incredibly, the Cardinals won the game, despite Ankiel’s struggles. He made a couple of subsequent appearances, but for all intents and purposes. Ankiel was done as a Major League pitcher.**

As the Blue Jays and GM JP Ricciardi’s first pick, sixth overall, in the 2005 amateur draft, the start of Romero’s career didn’t instil a mountain of confidence in the Blue Jays always-hypercritical fan base, due to his initial struggles and subsequent languishing in the minor leagues for four years. Muddying the water for Romero is the fact that he will be forever linked with Troy Tulowitzki, at least in the minds of Blue Jay fans. Tulowitzki who was taken with the pick immediately following Romero and made it to the majors for the first time in 2006 – three seasons before Romero – and was a mainstay by 2007. Sure, he’s been slowed by a couple of injuries, but he’s still an absolute stud – Rookie of the Year, three-time All-star, two-time Gold Glove winner, two-time Silver Slugger, five seasons with MVP votes. And he’s still only 28. Sorry, I have and will always have Troy-envy. In 2009, the Blue Jays hedged their bets and gave Romero a chance on the major league roster, where he broke through and established himself as a legit American League East starter for three years.

Though Romero always had trouble getting lefties out (odd for a left-handed pitcher), but through sheer luck or guile, or a combination of the two, he was able to put together three very promising seasons where all major stats improved year over year, culminating in an all-star appearance in 2011. Romero was even mentioned as a potential Cy Young award winner in a few sportswriters 2012 pre-season “Awards Prediction” columns.

Rima Fakih
Despite starting the season 8-1, Romero’s 2012 quickly and decisively went downhill and ended as a disaster (9-14, 5.77 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, -1.4 WAR). His 2013 was worse. He showed up to Spring Training as a lock for the rotation, only to pitch bad enough to be sent to the minors and finished with only two Major League starts (plus two relief appearances), and a grand total of 7.1 Major League innings pitched.

There have been many rumours floating around theorizing what was the cause of Romero’s issues. The most prevalent, and the one with the most merit (in my mind at least) is that he was heartbroken after his relationship with his girlfriend crumbled. In Romero’s defence, that relationship was with Miss USA 2010, RimaFakih. Watching her walk out the door would cause issues for anyone trying to throw pitches over the plate.

Regardless of the actual reason, there’s been virtually nothing in the recent past to instil confidence that Romero will be making a near-miraculous recovery from what ails him and return to the majors for good. It’s folly to believe a single solid spring training or minor league start is an indication that he’s on the right path. Talk to me when he pitches well, consistently, for a month or more.

What should happen?

The long and the short of it is that I'm not optimistic about the future for Ricky Romero. The Blue Jays have done what seems like everything to put the pieces of Humpty Romero back together again, including putting him on waivers (in which case any MLB team could have had him for nothing, but would have been on the hook for his remaining salary) and messing around with his delivery – trying the fabled “lower arm slot” (ala JA Happ this year) which seemed to do nothing more than annoy Romero. All tinkering has, unfortunately, resulted in the same disappointing results. If he continues to pitch as he has in the past two years, then I don’t think Romero will have a sniff at the majors this year. In all honesty, methinks he’d be best served by the oft-mentioned “fresh start” in a new organization, which unfortunately won’t come until his contract expires after next season.
Why don’t they just trade him or release him? Good question! Making matters extra-dicey, though, is the fact that the Blue Jays signed him to a (lauded at the time) long-term 5-year contract in 2010, worth just north of $30 million. Romero is set to make $7.5- this year and next. All of which makes him, in essence, unmovable - no team will trade for or submit a waiver claim on a struggling minor league pitcher making that much money.

This is a marriage both the Blue Jays and Ricky Romero will have to accept for the time-being.

*Unofficial list:
Brett Cecil
Aaron Loup
Jimmy Key
Mike Flanagan
Ted Lilly
Ricky Romero

**Incredibly, Ankiel came back as an outfielder and enjoyed a seven-year career as a major league outfielder.

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