At this time last season Stefen Romero found himself as a regular in the Seattle Mariners lineup. In a similarly timed late-May weekend series against the Houston Astros in 2014, he started all four games at designated hitter, picking up two singles and three walks in 16 plate appearances. Not a terrible performance, but perhaps indicative of how the season would end up going for him: not enough performance with the bat.
Prior to cracking the M’s Opening Day roster out of Spring Training last year, Romero’s bat was described as major league ready. The 26-year-old posted a .277/.331/.448 slash line in 411 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2013, his only action above Double-A. At the conclusion of that season the right-hander had amassed approximately 1500 minor league plate appearances so it’s fair to suggest that he was very close to being ready for the show, if not already so.
As we all have seen, Triple-A performance doesn’t always translate to MLB performance. Romero produced a dismal .192/.234/.299 slash line with a 51 wRC+ in 190 plate appearances at the major league level in 2014. The right-hander was clearly in over his head but wasn’t sent down to Triple-A until the end of June. This was largely because the Mariners simply didn’t have anyone else, sans Endy Chavez, to employ in right field with Michael Saunders on the disabled list.
Romero would be re-called for another stint but sent back down after Seattle acquired Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia at the trade deadline.
So far in 2015 the story hasn’t been negative for Romero, who started the season with the Tacoma Rainiers and has stayed there to this point. But it hasn’t exactly stood out, either.
The right-hander played in 36 games and had 163 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2014. Entering play on Saturday, Romero has played in 37 games, collecting 164 plate appearances. There are similarly sized samples that we can compare, and here is a look at the right-hander’s performance over those periods.
The positive here is that Romero has managed to increase his walk rate slightly. The downside is that his entire slash line has taken a major hit. The isolated power and slugging percentage numbers are down almost entirely because he’s hit a third fewer home runs in 2015 — he’s hit one more double this year compared to last and an equal number of triples.
Sure, the sample size is far too small to make a judgment about Romero’s 2015 season and future, but it would be far more encouraging to see him equal or better the numbers he was posting in Triple-A last season. So far he’s merely been good, and being good at Triple-A isn’t going to earn you a spot on the big league roster, particularly when there are far more options to select from.
This is not to be overly critical of Romero. At 26 he’s considered younger as opposed to young, and after a dismal first big league season the prospect tag has more or less disappeared — he eclipsed the 130 plate appearance plateau in 2014, using up his rookie status as well.
There are countless examples of late bloomers, however, and Romero could well have major league success in his future if he is given the opportunity. The problem is finding him that opportunity.
Between Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, Dustin Ackley, Willie Bloomquist, Rickie Weeks and Nelson Cruz there aren’t many outfield at bats available at the moment. Factor in that Brad Miller is starting his transition to the outfield and Austin Jackson nearing a return and there’s simply no room.
Barring a sequence of injuries, Romero’s quest for a return to the big leagues this year is simple: force the Mariners hand with performance. So far he hasn’t done that yet. There’s also too many guaranteed contracts in the way for Seattle to simply make a change for the sake of change.
Projecting a role for Romero on the 2016 club is probably as simple as assuming there won’t be one, though that may not be the case. Weeks, Jackson and Bloomquist are all free agents after this season and it could be the end of the line for Ackley, too. That leaves Cruz, who at most is a part-time outfielder, the platoon of Smith and Ruggiano and whatever becomes of Miller. There definitely could be room for another outfielder.
An interesting note regarding Romero is that this past week on Tuesday he made his first career start at first base. He’s primarily played the corner outfield spots but does have some experience at third base to his credit. Seattle has Logan Morrison under club control for 2016 before he’ll be eligible for free agency and realistically, Romero will have to find a way to provide more power than his skill set currently holds to make it as an average major league first baseman.
One scenario for Romero is that he finds himself with a different organization for next season, perhaps as an added piece in a significant trade for a premium bat or starting pitcher. At the end of the day, Romero has the tools to potentially become a fringy major leaguer who lives above replacement level. It’s just a matter of whether or not he will be able to do it with the Mariners or somewhere else.
There’s no reason for the Mariners to even think about giving up on Romero in 2015 seeing as he is playing quite well and offers depth with some major league experience. And as the usual, annoying caveat, it’s still only May. Talk to me in July and we’ll reassess Romero’s production and role in the organization. Right now, there isn’t enough reason to be concerned.
Romero hasn’t played well enough to earn a spot in the majors, but he hasn’t been struggling at Triple-A either. So for now and the foreseeable future, he’ll stay in Tacoma.