Double-A Chattanooga already has qualified for the Southern League playoffs, and they won the league title two years ago. But they may have to navigate the postseason this year without two of their best pitchers.
The Twins promoted lefthander Stephen Gonsalves to Triple-A Rochester after the first week of August. And Fernando Romero, the righthander with three strikeout pitches? “We might have to make a tough call on him,” vice president for player personnel Mike Radcliff said. “We’re keeping a close eye on the numbers.”
One in particular: innings. Romero reached 90 innings, his 2016 cap (and career high), on July 11, and the Twins began limiting him to five innings per start. The 22-year-old Dominican has chafed at the restriction, but he’s just two years beyond Tommy John surgery that essentially sidelined him for two seasons.
“This season is about maintaining his health and keeping him on course as a starter,” Radcliff said. “Nobody wants him to wind up a reliever. That’s more important than winning a playoff game right now. Next year, we release the Kraken.”
In Romero’s case, that means unleashing his 97 mph fastball and high-80s slider, along with a changeup that plays in the mid-80s. It’s a combination that has allowed him to maintain his strikeout rate of 8.9 per nine innings throughout his career, which began in November 2011 as an international free agent.
“What gives you optimism is that he’s still learning how to use all his pitches, how to use one to set up the other,” Radcliff said. “But that’s the negative of the five-inning limit: He knows he’s coming out after five, so if he has a couple of quick innings, he doesn’t really have to use them. All of a sudden, you don’t have your development in.”
Still, Radcliff admits that’s quibbling, because Romero has gotten better as the summer wore on. Over a span of 13 starts from May 24 to Aug. 2, Romero never allowed more than two earned runs in a game. His 1.40 ERA during that span confirmed his spot near the top of the Twins’ prospect list.
“He could come to spring training and just start killing it,” Radcliff said. “He’s tied to all kinds of restraints now for his own good, but it will be interesting to see what he does when it’s just about getting guys out.”