DUNEDIN — Less than two calendar years ago, Ricky Romero was the long-shot darkhorse in a competition for a spot in a veteran-laden Blue Jays rotation.
He earned his place on the opening-day roster in his final start of the spring by pitching five shutout innings against the Astros in Kissimmee. Fast-forward now 23 months and Romero stands as a startling example of just how quickly things have changed on this Blue Jays staff. At the age of 26, he has made the most major-league starts (61) of anybody in the Jays’ rotation or any of the candidates to fill the two open spots in that rotation.
“That’s pretty crazy how it works,” marvelled Romero on Tuesday. “But you know, it’s a credit to the coaching staff. They’ve been able to guide me down the right path. I just continue to work hard, stay humble and never settle for what we did last year.
“That’s my mindset and the mindset of everybody on the staff. We can never get complacent because it’s obvious how quickly things can evolve.”
Brandon Morrow is also 26, but four months older than Romero. Brett Cecil is 24, Kyle Drabek is 23, Jesse Litsch, 25, Marc Rzepczynski, 25, Robert Ray, 27, Brad Mills, 25, and the old man in the competition is Scott Richmond, at 31.
“This is our group,” said manager John Farrell. “We are going to go with the pitchers who are in camp. We’re not going out to find a guy who has 150 starts and add to this group.
“We are fully aware there are going to be some growing pains along the way and we’re equipped to handle it.”
Romero, Cecil and Morrow each has displayed the mental makeup it takes to get established in the AL East. Other contenders to fill out the roster, such as Jesse Litsch, Kyle Drabek and Marc Rzepczynski, have also displayed the kind of mental toughness it takes.
“It’s amazing how young this staff has become, and how confident we are,” said Romero. “It’s something we started last year with Marcum here. We developed our own little swagger. Not in a bad way, but we took it on ourselves to go out there and do whatever it took to put the team in a position to win.
“It’s the same attitude this time around with Cec, Brandon and the rest of the guys. I think we have our heads on right. That’s going to be very important. We have a lot of work to do and nothing is going to be handed to us. Nobody has to say anything.
“It’s going to be the same as years past. People are going to count us out.”
In sharp contrast to the youth that populates the starting rotation is a bullpen full of battle-tested veterans, many of whom have closed games before. The value of having a rebuilt bullpen that has the potential to be better than the 2010 version is not lost on Romero.
“We now have three or four guys who can close games, quality arms,” said Romero. “It’s important for us as a young staff to have those veteran guys coming into tight games. We understand that when we hand the ball off to the bullpen we can do it with confidence.
“In these games, especially in our division, every out is important. Now we’ve got Dotel, Frasor, Francisco, Camp, Rauch, all of whom are used to pitching in tight situations.”
Last season, pitching coach Bruce Walton carefully monitored the innings buildup for Morrow and Cecil top protect their arms from dramatically increasing workload, year over year.
This year, there will be no such innings restrictions, though Drabek and perhaps Litsch, now 20 months removed from Tommy John surgery, will be monitored.
And as for an opening-day starter, that’s the furthest thing from Farrell’s mind right now.
“The guy that walks to the mound on a given night has as much responsibility as the guy before him or the guy the next night,” said Farrell. “We’re not at the point of even speculating on who might be our opening day starter but at the same time, each one is very important to us.”
One thing is certain. Whoever gets the honour opening day, will be 26 or younger.