DUNEDIN, Florida – His left elbow healed from off-season surgery and his lingering knee problems seemingly under control, Ricky Romero is ready to leave his disastrous 2012 season behind and take his spot in a starting rotation that is expected to be one of the American League's best.
Romero understands there are questions, about whether he can return to the form that saw him post at least 13 wins in each of his first three seasons (2009-2011.), it comes with the territory. The decision to have surgery, conducted two weeks after the season ended, was made when the pain reached the point where he had trouble rotating the elbow joint in between starts.
"I was able to take the ball. If I'd have seen a drastic change in my velocity, I'd have said something (earlier,)" said the 28-year-old. "I'm not going to make excuses. I had a bad year and that's all there is to it. I'm not going to be the last pitcher to struggle, I'm sure there's going to be plenty more so you just move on."
If the grind of a 14-loss season was taxing mentally, what followed wore on Romero just as much.
"I rehabbed pretty much all off-season. It's one of those things when one week you're feeling good and then the next week you're like, 'wow, this doesn't feel good again.' It's up and down and I'd never dealt with that kind of stuff. It tested my patience."
While confident his elbow is near full strength - the Los Angeles native says it feels "100 times better" - Romero and the Blue Jays' training staff is also keeping tabs on his knees. Bouts of tendinitis affected him late last season and Romero underwent a series of Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injections, a process he feels did little to help.
Once tasked with leading a young rotation, Romero now finds himself part of a veteran-laden pitching staff, a guy asking questions more than giving answers. Mark Buehrle will become a go-to guy for Romero and it makes sense, given their obvious similiarities. The fifth-year big leaguer plans to play the student, tapping into the knowledge of a teammate who has won more than 10 games and thrown more than 200 innings in each season since 2001.
"Mark's been getting on me for the walks," said Romero, whose 105 base on balls last season tied him with San Diego's Edinson Volquez for most in the majors. "I'm going to pick his brain, obviously with him being left-handed and the way he works, I'm looking forward to learning from him."
Like in life, the dawn of spring on the baseball field brings with it new hope, new expectations. All Romero wants is a clean slate. He's got it, in part because the calendar flipped but also because he'll be pitching for second-time Jays' manager John Gibbons, a catcher in his playing days who has no preconceived notions about 2012.
"I wasn't here to witness it," said Gibbons "It's a tough game to play at this level, year after year and night after night. That's why so few guys hang around like Mark Buehrle and have those kinds of careers. You're going to get knocked down. It's just how do you respond?"
The debate over the usefulness of ranking pitchers will remain as long as baseball endures. Who gets the opening day start? Does the perception of a reduced role mean a guy's value has dropped? Don't expect Romero to get caught up in this numbers game.
"It feels good to have those guys in the rotation. Whether you're 1 or 5 (in the rotation,) you have to go out there and pitch and perform. If you don't perform, people are going to be quick to criticize you, no matter what number in the rotation you are. Those five guys we're throwing out there are pretty unbelievable."