Randy Romero has been mentioned here at Pirates Prospects a lot this off-season. That happens with our winter ball coverage, much like the Arizona Fall League, except the former runs much longer. If a guy goes to the AFL and plays every day, he’s going to get a lot of mentions, mostly because the lack of players to cover in the league. The same thing holds true in winter ball, especially this year with so few Pittsburgh Pirates seeing action.
Romero deserved much of that added attention because he’s had a strong winter in Mexico, where the league is still going on in the playoffs. I got a chance to talk to him about the difference in competition between what he saw in the Florida Complex League this summer, and the winter league in Mexico. In the process, he unknowingly brought up a question that is impossible to answer now, but it might be something to watch in the future.
Romero debuted in pro ball in the Dominican Summer League in 2018 at 18 years old and put up average stats. He had a .660 OPS in the pitcher-friendly league, with 12 steals in 53 games. We talked to him at the end of the season to get an idea about the level of play in the league and his experience during his first year in pro ball, which helped lead to the idea of this article.
He repeated the DSL level in 2019, but maybe he should have moved up to the Gulf Coast League instead. Romero hit .376/.418/.495 with 36 steals in 37 attempts, and 15 strikeouts in 245 plate appearances. He was an All-Star and he was named the league MVP. He also played winter ball in Mexico that year, which is an incredible jump in competition. He was 9.7 years younger than the average player in the league. It showed in the stats, as most of his playing time was as a defensive replacement and a pinch-runner. Romero’s three best tools, despite those big numbers in the DSL, are his speed, defense and arm, and his winter team in Mexico got the most out of his talents.
Like almost every other minor league player in 2020, Romero didn’t play during the regular season. He was able to make up for some lost at-bats in winter ball, but once again we are talking about someone facing competition well over his head. He was the best player in the DSL in 2019 and he really had no business being in the top winter league in Mexico, but his tools allowed him to play a little.
He batted .140/.229/.186 in 49 plate appearances over 32 games in Mexico in the 2020-21 off-season. Clearly nothing to write home about, yet it was a good experience for him to see how far he really was from the majors at that point. He’s playing in games against plenty of guys who have Triple-A experience, as well as the occasional big league player. His team this year had five guys with big league experience and they were one of the worst teams in the league. I wanted to know, what makes the league in Mexico so much better than what he was seeing before?
“The difference is the experience, many pitchers are older than you, with more years playing”, Romero said. “They know how to beat a batter, that is the big difference. This league you see a lot velocity, the pitchers have a good command of the strike zone and a good mentality. It is hard.”
That helps explain why it was difficult for him to hit in this league before this winter. Romero spent 2021 in the Florida Complex League, which is the new version of the Gulf Coast League, except it’s a higher level of competition. The guys who would go to Bristol or fill out rosters in Morgantown, were now staying in the league, raising the level of play. It’s not comparable to Low-A ball, but it’s not as far off as it used to be either. Romero received some praise whenever his name was brought up, but it didn’t exactly translate into the stats. Part of that is because his speed/defense/arm aren’t showing up in the box scores as much as his hitting line in a league that was a little less pitcher-friendly than before.
Romero batted .252/.307/.338 in 40 games, with 15 steals in 17 attempts this summer. With those type of stats in the FCL, there weren’t high expectations from me for this winter. He had other ideas though. Romero earned a starting spot during the short “Spring Training” before the Mexican league season, then started all but one regular season game. He finished with a .289/.331/.346 slash line in 67 games. He finished third in the league in hits (81), second in the league in steals (16). That’s right, playing in a league that is at least equal to strong Double-A competition, he put up better stats than he did in the FCL, which is 3-4 levels lower.
I asked Romero if his strong winter built confidence in his ability to compete in full-season ball next year.
“This league really helped me, I’m really ready [to move up in 2022]”, Romero said. “I have more confidence because I played more. I saw more pitchers, and that’s why I have more confidence.”
It was after I was done talking to him that I wondered about his response and how it relates to the new thinking for developing players at the lower levels — where the games are almost an afterthought and camp days where individualized training goes on is considered just as beneficial, or even more according to players I’ve spoken with. The Pirates scheduled plenty of games where their two FCL teams were playing each other, and then later in the year they were quick to cancel those games and hold camp days instead. They also shortened some games to seven innings. All of that was with a schedule that was already slightly shorter than normal. Using Romero as an example, he never played more than three days in a row, which he did just four times all season this summer. During the winter he was consistently playing six days in a row.
Romero’s comments about playing more, seeing more pitches and game action, and how he gained confidence from it, really got me thinking. Did he do better this winter in Mexico (compared to the summer) because they were playing six days a week and he was in the lineup every day? Or did the summer focus on improving the players through skill training help him improve, so that when he did get a chance to play every day, he was a better player? Were we seeing the results of the new front office techniques with Romero as the example? Maybe his summer stats suffered a bit because he wasn’t seeing consistent at-bats, but he was still developing skills that helped him this winter, and possibly in the future. That’s the whole idea of developing skills, so that it eventually translates into games, but is it just as important to play consistently to get better? They may go hand-in-hand, or may not, but we should eventually get a better idea once we actually see these younger players make the jump from FCL to Bradenton year after year because many of them won’t be playing winter ball. Romero is a rare case, but we do have another one to look at.
Another example could be seen in Tsung-Che Cheng, the young infielder who put up big stats in the FCL this year, and now he’s performing nearly as well against older/better competition in Colombia this winter. He’s not seeing the huge jump in competition that Romero saw this year, but it’s still a league with better players than the FCL and he’s doing well. He’s also playing six days a week too. He was sent there to get extra at-bats, which is a somewhat odd thing to be told after the league he was in was shortened by the team/league itself. He could have got those at-bats if they played the normal GCL schedule from not long ago, but I digress.
As for Romero, he had a focus at the plate throughout 2021 to make consistently harder contact, so the bat skills get closer to the other three tools. He’s never going to be a power hitter, but he can hit for more power, and that’s the main goal. He said he’s been working on only swinging at pitches in his strike zone and he’s looking to do more damage to those pitches. I mentioned that he didn’t strike out much, but he was more of a “put the bat on the ball” type hitter, who wasn’t taking walks either. It’s a bit of a different approach that his original approach at the plate when I first talked to him in 2019, which was basically, do whatever it takes to get on base. In essence he’s trying to go from a high contact spray hitter who swings at everything in the zone, to someone who drives the ball better when he gets good pitches, which with his speed would lead to more doubles and triples.
For now, Romero getting some extra experience against better competition in the playoffs, where he was drafted by another team to help fill out their roster. The practice gives the better players a chance to help a team win the league title without a trade going down (he still belongs to his old team), which makes the level of competition in the league even better. So now, Romero has been batting lead-off in the playoffs, which can only help him going into next spring when he tries to win a full-season job in an organization that has been focusing on young outfielders recently.