Larry Stone: Stefen Romero hopes to work his way into the Mariners’ everyday lineup after tasting some success last season, but that could be tough to do given a new crop of outfielders.
PEORIA, Ariz. – Stefen Romero has been something of an invisible man this spring for the Mariners. And contained therein lies a cautionary baseball tale.
Last year, you’ll recall, Romero was a focal point of attention at this time of year. He had whetted the appetite with some eye-popping minor-league numbers. After an 0-for-16 start to the Cactus League season, Romero relaxed and hit .425 the rest of the way to force his way onto the opening day roster.
But from that point on, the feel-good n ature of the story quickly soured. Unaccustomed to being a part-time player, Romero struggled, hit just .192 in 177 at-bats, and wound up sent back to Tacoma in late June. He was up and down two more times, but one spring later, his circumstance has changed dramatically.
Romero’s name has rarely been mentioned. His hopes of making the team out of camp are virtually nonexistent. That’s not to say the Mariners have given up on Romero. Far from it. They love his bat and still think he has major-league potential. At age 26, he’s still one of their better offensive prospects.
But having failed to seize the moment last year, Romero will again have to wait his turn. That’s just the reality of baseball. The Mariners have added new outfielders – Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano and Rickie Weeks. Romero’s job now is to force his way back into their plans, but he’ll more than likely have to do it in Tacoma.
Manager Lloyd McClendon sees Romero’s plight as a symbol of rising talent in the organization, not an indictment of Romero.
“I told all our players, when you get better, teams are harder to make,’’ McClendon said. “There’s only so many spots. “
It’s no wonder Romero quickly summons the word “bittersweet” when asked about last season. The “sweet” part is obvious. From the day McClendon called Romero into his office at the end of spring training, and said, “I’m happy to say that I’ll be your first big league manager,” to the thrilling ceremony of two Opening Days – first in Anaheim, then at Safeco Field — he was riding high.
“I feel that would have been way different if I was a September call-up, because you can’t experience all that ceremony, and I guess gratitude,’’ he said. “Just thinking about it leaves me speechless a little bit, because it was just one of those moments that hits you.”
What also hit him, in a bittersweet fashion, was the memory of his grandfather, who died in 2011 while Romero was in the minor leagues.
“He was like a father figure to me,’’ Romero said. “He introduced me to baseball. He was my first coach. He would take me out in the front yard and hit ground balls to me, play catch with me.
“That’s when it really hit me when Lloyd said that, that he’ll be my first big-league manager. I remember my grandfather saying he wished he could come see me play in Seattle. It was a whole spectrum of emotions, but good emotions.”
A few memorable firsts followed – first hit off the Angels’ Hector Santiago on April 2, first homer off Oakland’s Scott Kazmir on May 5. But like many young players, Romero struggled with sporadic use. After a two-hit game on April 2, for instance, Romero didn’t’ play again for six days. And so it went.
“”It’s hard to play at this level part time,’’ McClendon said. “Particularly when you’re young. But I think it was a good experience for him. He’s a better player as a result this year.”
Romero said he tried to learn from veterans how to handle what was essentially a platoon situation. But that’s easier said than done.
“They knew I was put in a tough situation,’’ Romero said. “They knew that, I knew that. Being my first year up in the big leagues, being a platoon or a role guy. On my end, that helps me later in my career, going from now on. I feel like it helped me in a big way.”
Down in Tacoma, Romero regained the stroke that had made him the Mariners’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2012. In 36 games, he hit .358 with a .669 slugging percentage. It’s no mystery what changed, Romero said.
“I was playing every day,’’ he said. “If I went 0 for 3, 0 for 4 one day, my mindset was, blank that out because I was playing the next day. And I was playing the next day and the next day. It wasn’t, ‘When am I going to get a chance again?’ It was more, ‘OK, flush that. I’m playing tomorrow.’ ”
This spring, Romero has seven at-bats through the first six games, with one hit. He says he’s not discouraged by the change in his circumstance.
“Really, it’s the same mindset,’’ he said. “Everybody is competing for a job. If I push some of the outfielders, it will push them to a higher potential, and push them to be better.
“That’s all it really is in camp, pushing each other. I’m not rooting against this guy, I’m not rooting against that guy. I want everyone to do well because we’re a team.”
Reflecting on last year, Romero said, “Obviously, I didn’t reach the goals I put forth at the beginning of the year. But at the same time, it was a valuable experience. Especially, I gained a lot of knowledge from the guys last year. We had a lot of veterans, and it was my first time in the big leagues. I felt it was a real experience for me to taste the big leagues.”
McClendon is sympathetic to the plight of youngsters fighting for playing time. He knows that when you’re not hitting, it becomes a mental struggle that can affect all aspects of your game.
“To double it is to sit on the bench and not play every day,’’ he said. “Now you have more time to think about it. It becomes even more difficult.”
But here’s the upside, the light at the end of what might seem at times like a tunnel with no visible exit.
“I think the biggest thing – and you can take Romero, you can take (Brad) Miller, guys like that – is they survived it,’’ McClendon said. “They know they’re going to be OK.”