DUNEDIN, Florida - The timeline for Ricky Romero's return to the Blue Jays depends on how quickly the former staff ace masters the consistency of his new delivery.
Hindsight is 20-20 and pitching coach Pete Walker is using it, wishing he'd begun Romero's process sooner.
"When I look at it, I wish I'd started it, we'd started it a little earlier," admitted Walker. "But he was also in a position, coming off the (tendinitis) with the knees, you want to see how he feels and if that had something to do with the way things went last year. But we saw the same inconsistencies after a few weeks that we were seeing last year so I think at that point, it was definitely time to do it. Had I started it earlier, there's a possibility he could have been ready to break."
Romero was optioned to Single-A on Tuesday; he'll begin the season in Dunedin, under the watchful eyes of roving pitching instructor Dane Johnson and minor league rehab and pitching coach Rick Langford, while his teammates head north.
Echoing general manager Alex Anthopoulos' comments, Walker can't provide a timeline for Romero's return to the Blue Jays but he knows what he'll need to hear from Johnson and Langford before the decision is made.
"We'll be talking daily and it will be on direction and consistency," said Walker. "Obviously, when he gets more consistent with his delivery, when he starts facing hitters, when he starts doing it on a consistent basis for consecutive hitters and then consecutive innings, then we'll build him up like a normal spring training."
Romero is owed $7.5 million each season through 2015. The Blue Jays hold a $13.1 million option on Romero for 2016; if the option is declined, they can buy him out for $600,000. Do the math and it's a $23.1 million minimum commitment. The organization needs the rebuilding of its one-time future star to work out. The effort begins thousands of kilometres from the Rogers Centre, away from the major league spotlight.
"I think it is easier for him to do it off a major league field," said Walker. "When you're making adjustments like that and you're not getting the consistency you want, it's very difficult to do it facing major league hitters and it can be frustrating. But I think if we take a step back and work without big league hitters and work in a relaxed environment, he'll be able to do those things and become more consistent at it."
Romero has changed the spot on which his plant foot – his right foot – lands. He's centered himself on the rubber, previously he'd been on the first base side, and the aim is to get him to better follow through on his pitches. He's taken to throwing across his body, his pitches either catching too much of the plate or wildly missing the strike zone.
These are habits Romero struggled with and corrected in 2009. They crept back into his game in 2011 when he won 15 games and had a 2.92 ERA. Walker wants them corrected not only for Romero's long-term success but also for his health. He knew after Tuesday's start Romero needed more time.
"I think it just came to the point where, watching the outing and knowing how the spring had gone, that he wasn't ready to leave with the team and perform to the level that we're used to seeing with him," said Walker. "It's always a difficult decision but I think it's the best decision right now for him long-term, for him to get his mind right, to get his body right, to get the adjustments that he's working on so when he does get to Toronto, he's confident in where he is and confident in his mechanics and his pitchability."
Romero has until Friday to report to minor league camp. It's not believed he will report on Wednesday. Romero took the news hard.
"He certainly had a difficult time with it," said Walker. "It was not easy. He certainly wants to be in Toronto and be with the guys. He was a little disappointed that he wasn't going to be there, that's for sure. I think he doesn't want to disappoint his teammates and the fans and I think part of him feels like he did, which is the furthest thing from the truth. He's working on something, he's making some adjustments."