TD Top Prospects: #1 Fernando Romero
Age: 22 (DOB: 12/24/94)
2016 Stats (A/A+): 90.1 IP, 1.89 ERA, 90/15 K/BB, 0.90 WHIP
2016 Ranking: NA
National Top 100 Rankings
BA: NR | MLB: NR | ESPN: 65 | BP: NR
Fernando Romero presents, I think, a unique situation in my time writing about the Twins. The process of creating our TD rankings involves congregating national perspectives, factoring in our personal preferences, and making adjustments based on what we've seen or heard directly. We found more variance across all those facets this year than I can ever recall.
There was no obvious pick for the top billing on this list, and if there was, it certainly wouldn't be Romero. He does not appear in three of the four national Top-100 rankings that we lean on for outside context. Even Keith Law of ESPN, who favors him, had the right-hander outside his top fifty. In the 2017 Prospect Handbook, each of the three collaborators (Seth, Jeremy and Cody) had different picks for No. 1 in the system – none chose Romero.
Yet, when the time came for our editorial group to settle on the official Twins Daily rankings, he felt like the natural choice despite being completely absent from last year's Top 20 (and even Aaron Gleeman's Top 40).
So just what is it about this 22-year-old with fewer than 200 pro innings that earns him our nod as best Minnesota Twins prospect?
At the end of the day, the buzz is just too loud to ignore.
What's To Like
In late 2011, the Twins signed Romero as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic when he was 16. They outbid at least two other teams who were deeply interested, locking him up for a reported $260,000. That's a fairly hefty sum and Romero made good on it with some promising early returns in rookie ball.
Minnesota put him on the fast track by sending him to Class-A Cedar Rapids as a 19-year-old in 2014, but the righty lasted only three starts before succumbing to a barking elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery in June and went on to miss the entire 2015 season.
For a long time, Romero was simply out of sight. Even if you consider yourself a well-informed Twins fan, there's a decent chance you've never heard his name before. But his return to the scene in 2016 was so impressive, and such a vivid reminder of his immense potential, that there's now no ignoring his huge presence (both figuratively and literally) in Minnesota's pitching pipeline.
In November, when the time came to shield minor-leaguers from Rule 5 eligibility, Romero was among the prospects elevated to a precious 40-man roster spot. For many unfamiliar onlookers, it was a curious move. For anyone who followed his resurgent campaign, it was the opposite of a surprise.
After opening the year in extended spring, Romero was unleashed upon the Midwest League in late May, and needed only a month there to convince the front office he was ready for the next step. At Fort Myers, he put together a brilliant 11-start stretch, allowing just one home run over 62 innings with a 65-to-10 K/BB ratio. His best work came at the end of the summer, when he rattled off three consecutive scoreless starts with 28 strikeouts and two walks before hitting a predetermined inning limit.
These are extraordinarily encouraging signs from a kid who is coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery and almost a two-year absence. He exhibited zero rust, bypassing the initial control issues that often plague Tommy John survivors. And the stuff? It caught everyone's attention.
"He's an extremely special talent," said Jeff Smith, manager of the Miracle. "Talent like he has doesn't come along very often."
"He's probably got some of the best stuff in our organization," opined Henry Bonilla, the pitching coach for Fort Myers.
Brice Zimmerman, who recently moved on from the Miracle's media department, took his praise a step further, calling Romero the "best arm I've seen in six years" with the team.
The positive reviews are contagious, and why wouldn't they be? Even over long outings, Romero can maintain mid-90s velocity with the heater and he's been known to dial it up to 100 MPH. He adds a hard cutter, and locates a power slider that consistently puts hitters away with two strikes. Even his changeup is more advanced than most at his age.
Romero delivers from a large sturdy frame, which presents a cautionary factor in the eyes of some. At 6-feet-even, he surely weighs a good bit more than his listed 215. He's a big boy. I've heard exaggerated physique comparisons to Bartolo Colon and I don't think they were intended to be flattering. But then again, Colon is still pitching effectively in the majors at age 43 and continues to pile up huge inning totals year after year.
This isn't to say Romero should be content to let himself balloon, but as long as he stays on top of his conditioning I don't see his build as a mark against him; quite the contrary in fact. Big pitchers with tree trunk legs who generate power from the lower half tend to hold up better against the punishing workload demands of starting in the majors.
Romero combines the stuff, command, intuition, poise and physical foundation to project as a workhorse at the front of the rotation. That can't be said about anyone else in the organization, and arguably there hasn't been a Twins prospect to embody all those qualities in many years.
This is why we feel confident in labeling Romero as the cream of the system's prospect crop heading into the 2017 season.
What's Left To Work On
All that remains is for Romero stay healthy and do his thing. His arsenal will play at any level and any mild concerns over his control evaporated over the course of the season (he walked six of 170 batters in his final eight starts).
Obviously, any guy who hasn't yet totaled 100 innings in a season has much to prove in the durability department, but Romero gives little reason for concern. He handled everything thrown at him in his first year back and got stronger as the summer wore on.
I will note there has been some apprehension expressed over his delivery. Said Law: "Romero over-rotates in his delivery and lands wide open, which often causes a pitcher to yank pitches to his glove side. Romero hasn’t had that problem yet, but for command’s sake and the health of his elbow, he should be landing online to the plate."
This is an area where where the developmental impact of Derek Falvey, a noted student of pitching mechanics, could be particularly beneficial.
Where the Twins choose to start Romero could prove quite telling with regard to their plans for him. No one would blame the organization for sending him back to High-A, with an eye on repeating the strong start, then earning a midseason promotion to Double-A and maybe a late trip to Rochester or even a September call-up.
But his 11 starts with the Miracle last year made it pretty clear he's ready for the next challenge. If he starts in Chattanooga, a fast start immediately puts him on the big-league radar, since he's already on the 40-man roster. He'd potentially be ahead of guys like Tyler Jay and Kohl Stewart – who already have experience in Double-A – in line for an MLB debut.
Read up on our previous installments in the Twins Daily top prospects series:
TD Top Prospects: #20-16
TD Top Prospects: #15-11
TD Top Prospects: #10 Lewin Diaz
TD Top Prospects: #9 Travis Blankenhorn
TD Top Prospects: #8 Kohl Stewart
TD Top Prospects: #7 Adalberto Mejia
TD Top Prospects: #6 Wander Javier
TD Top Prospects: #5 Tyler Jay
TD Top Prospects: #4 Nick Gordon
TD Top Prospects: #3 Alex Kirilloff
TD Top Prospects: #2 Stephen Gonsalves
TD Top Prospects: #1 Fernando Romero