DUNEDIN, Florida - For the first time this spring, Blue Jays' general manager Alex Anthopoulos didn't offer Ricky Romero an unconditional vote of confidence when asked if the struggling left-hander is guaranteed to be the club's fifth starter.
"I'll talk to (John Gibbons,) talk to Pete (Walker,) we'll talk to the player as well," said Anthopoulos. "We haven't had any change of plans, the plans are still the same but just like anything else you're constantly evaluating."
Romero, 28, struggled pitching three-plus innings in a Single-A game on Thursday. He threw 64 pitches of which 35 were strikes; Romero walked five, allowing four earned runs on five hits. The second inning was Romero's worst, when of his 19 pitches only five were strikes.
"It was a tough outing," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "I thought he started off well, a couple of seeing-eye groundballs which could have easily been groundball outs which would have been nice to start the day but it didn't go the way we anticipated."
"It's something that can be fixed," said Romero. "We did it before in two weeks and one day everything kind of clicks. It's about staying mentally strong, talking about it, and just letting certain stuff out."
Walker describes the state of the changes to Romero's delivery – centering Romero on the rubber and demanding a complete follow through – as a "work in progress."
"I think so, it's happened before," said Romero when asked if his two remaining spring starts was enough time to make the adjustments. "As much as I hate going to the past, three years ago I was really, really close to being sent down for the same reason, being inconsistent in the strike zone."
At times Romero has been his own worst enemy, mentally punishing himself for the slightest indiscretion; hanging on to previous failures. When he struggles, his body language emits a lack of confidence. On Thursday, the former ace acknowledged he pitched the minor league game with divided attention, focused so intently on mechanics he may have dug himself a deeper hole.
With the April 6 start against the Red Sox looming, the Romero-or-J.A. Happ debate is gaining steam by the day.
Happ, 30, has pitched well in five Grapefruit League appearances, four of which were starts. He's upset with the prospect of beginning the season at Triple-A Buffalo; equally as unhappy when presented with being a long reliever in Toronto. On merit, Happ has earned the fifth starter's spot by outpitching Romero.
"J.A. knows his circumstances," said Anthopoulos. "It's unfortunate that he doesn't really have a choice in it. He has options remaining; it's the way the rules work. Like I said before, the day J.A.'s happy to pitch out of the bullpen or pitch in the minor leagues something's wrong."
Happ is scheduled to start on Friday against the Red Sox in Dunedin. He spoke to Anthopoulos at the start of spring training and while it's not believed he's formally asked for a trade, he hasn't replied "no" to repeated inquiries about whether he will. The Blue Jays would not be forced to acquiesce to such a demand should one be made.
The Blue Jays want Romero to be their fifth starter. He's a homegrown talent, a former first round draft pick with three successful seasons in the big leagues. Not to mention the $23.1-million he's owed, at minimum, through to the end of his deal. But 2012 was disastrous, this spring has been no better. Clearly Romero and the Blue Jays are searching for the answer – or answers.
"I think the fact that he has done it three years in a row it can be back at any time," said Anthopoulos. "He can be back in the zone. Even last season, as rough of a year that it was, it was late in the year, the start in New York in July, he was great. That's what I would have thought, it's clicking, it's back, it was an outstanding outing for him and then obviously he reverted back. I think it's shown that at any time it can click."
Time will tell. Opening Day is 12 nights away.