It was a challenging climb to the top for Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Romero.
Expectations were high for the first-round draft pick, who toiled in the minors for years before breaking through at the major-league level in 2009. He cracked the starting rotation the following spring and has now established himself as a franchise cornerstone.
The team was patient with the 27-year-old left-hander and it paid off.
“Now that I look back at it, I'm thankful that I went through those times,” Romero said Wednesday. “Being in double-A for two and a half years, I learned a lot about myself as a person.
“I matured a lot and I was able to learn to deal with failure.”
There were plenty of trying times after the Los Angeles native was taken with the sixth overall pick of the 2005 amateur draft. He struggled with a 16-23 record in Toronto's minor-league system.
The Blue Jays felt he was ready for a look in 2009. He made 29 starts in his rookie year and posted a solid 13-9 mark and 4.30 earned-run average.
“When I got to the big leagues, I wasn't going to let one bad start get to me or get to my head,” Romero said. “It was just move on to the next one.”
Manager John Farrell said it's not uncommon for first-round picks to have a challenging time in the minors.
“Everyone assumes they're going to get to the big leagues as a first-rounder so when they finally get there, they somewhat relax and say, ‘OK, I've made it to where my draft number has said I should be,“’ he said.
“And then things come out.”
Romero continued to make strides in 2010, going 14-9 and trimming his ERA to 3.73. He was signed to a long-term contract that summer and was rewarded with the opening day starting assignment last year.
His ascent to staff ace was complete.
“You're looked at as a tone-setter to get things going,” Romero said.
His 2011 campaign was his best yet. Romero was 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA and got the call as a late replacement on the American League all-star team.
Farrell, who previously spent four years as Boston's pitching coach, credits Romero's strong work ethic for his consistent growth.
“When you look at his ability to maintain his stuff from start to finish last year — it was one of the more impressive years I've seen from a given pitcher,” said Farrell. “We never saw a visible dropoff in either action to his secondary stuff or velocity to his fastball.
“That to me was probably one of the most impressive things about a very good year for him.”
Romero wears his hat pulled down tight so you can't see the beads of sweat on his forehead on another warm, sunny day at spring training. Like many players on the team, he's serious when he needs to be yet still keeps the mood rather light.
The six-foot, 215-pound left-hander often jokes around with teammates and management types alike, spitting sunflower seeds with abandon wherever he goes.
Romero has had great action on his pitches even though it's early in camp. He's proud of the solid repertoire he has developed on the mound.
“You don't need to go out there and try to overpower anyone,” he said. “If you go out there and pitch and let your defence work, it gets you deep in games. I think I learned a lot about myself (last season) and that's what this game's all about.”
Romero anchors a starting rotation that is still very much unsettled. Brandon Morrow will likely be the No. 2 starter with Brett Cecil, Henderson Alvarez and Dustin McGowan the early favourites for the next three slots.
“We have players that underperformed a lot last year,” said general manager Alex Anthopoulos. “We don't need anybody to have a career year. We just need everybody to be solid and to play to the ability that they have, and I think we're going to be a great team.”
Romero is ready to soak up the innings as the staff's workhorse. A big grin spreads across his face when asked about the upcoming season.
“You see the determination and the work that we're putting in,” he said. “We're ready to take it to the next level.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos Alex Anthopoulos as saying the Blue Jays "need everybody to have a career year." This online version has been corrected.