DUNEDIN, Florida - What a difference a year makes.
After two consecutive Opening Day starts for the Blue Jays, Ricky Romero will begin a new season in Single-A, attempting to reclaim his career.
"He's not there yet and ultimately, the more we thought about it, could we have started with him, sure," said general manager Alex Anthopoulos. "If he's not ready and he's not as sharp as he needs to be, we need more time. We thought about where we would send him, what we would do and we ultimately decided with the other affiliates, it's cold, rainouts. (We) want to make sure he gets his work in."
Romero, 28, hasn't been right this spring, posting a 6.23 ERA and 10 walks in 13 innings. The numbers are more alarming, considering Romero is coming off the worst season of his four-year career. He went 9-14 with a 5.77 ERA in 2012.
J.A. Happ will begin the season as the Blue Jays' fifth starter, a role he earned with a terrific spring.
"Happ's pitched too good not to be on the team," said manager John Gibbons before the formal announcement of Romero's demotion. "We just want him on the team because he's good, because he's going to help us."
Romero's working through a series of adjustments to his pitching delivery. He's centered on the rubber – he'd been toeing the first-base side before – and he's adjusted the landing spot for his right foot, trying to better follow through on his pitches and prevent throwing across his body. The aim is twofold: first, throwing more strikes and cutting down on walks; second, a pitching motion which better ensures long-term health.
"We did this a few springs ago with him and we got it going in time for him to make the team right at the end," said Anthopoulos, referring to 2009 when Romero first broke in to the big leagues. "That was the hope again that he was going to get right back at the end and we weren't going to have to look back. Ultimately, the more we talked about it, we saw a lot of good things and he was fine, but it's not the Ricky we know he can be. We can try to just keep going and, when you're at the big league level, it's hard to continue to work on things or take a little more time to get him back to where he can be."
The Blue Jays aren't setting a timeline for Romero's return to the big leagues, nor is Anthopoulos sure whether a return to form in Dunedin would suffice. The decision to keep Romero in Florida is weather related; it's warmer and there are fewer early-season rainouts than with the higher affiliates in Buffalo and New Hampshire. He could be asked to pitch in Double-A and/or Triple-A before returning to Toronto.
Asked whether Romero would have a spot in the rotation once the club deems him "right," Anthopoulos was noncommittal.
"I have no idea where we're going to be at," said Anthopoulos. "Obviously we have to move forward but I have no idea what the roster is going to look like, what's going to happen. Obviously, if he's back to where he can be, he's one of the better starters in the game and I think he ends up being on anyone's team at that point. Certainly ours."
Romero's fall has been precipitous and confounding. He struggled on Tuesday against the Pirates, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits while walking three in 4 1/3 innings. He threw 75 pitches, only 44 of which were for strikes.
"I think at times I fight myself," said Romero after his start but before learning of his demotion. "Instead of being the attacker, you become the protector."
Still, Tuesday was an improvement over last Thursday's disastrous start in a minor league game, his low point. Anthopoulos, assistant general manager Tony LaCava and pitching coach Pete Walker attended that game and it was those three, along with Gibbons, who determined sending Romero away from the Toronto fishbowl was best for the moment.
The Blue Jays' new-found depth allows for this move. There's comfort in knowing the National League Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey, is pitching Opening Day. He'll be followed by the hard-throwing Brandon Morrow, reliable Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, who, if he can ride his spring wave into the season, would receive plenty of AL Cy Young votes.
Romero is owed at least $23.1 million over the next three seasons. He'll earn $7.5 million each year through 2015 and can be bought out for $600,000 if the club declines a $13.1-million option for 2016.
Wednesday: The Blue Jays play their penultimate game in Florida, paying a visit to the AL East rival Rays in Port Charlotte. Game time is 1:05 et. J.A. Happ (1-1, 1.89) will make his final Grapefruit League start.