Romero welcomes, embraces ace label

Romero welcomes, embraces ace label

TORONTO -- Ricky Romero is set to embark on just his fourth season in the big leagues, but he already has become the veteran leader of the Blue Jays' pitching staff.

Romero is coming off his first season as Toronto's ace, and his freshly anointed status coincided with another steady year of improvement en route to becoming one of the American League's best pitchers.

There might be more notoriety and pressure associated with being labeled as the ace of a big league pitching staff, but it's something that Romero appears to thrive on.

"I think it's a label that gets put on you, and I take full responsibility and I take it with everything I've got," Romero said recently. "You're viewed as a leader and making sure the staff goes in the right direction. They build off of you, so you go out there and just continue to work hard."

Romero was the lone Blue Jays starter from the Opening Day roster in 2011 to take a noticeable step forward in his overall development. The East Los Angeles native led Toronto's staff with a 15-11 record and a 2.92 ERA while earning his first All-Star selection.

Romero appeared in 15 more innings in 2011 compared to the year before, yet he surrendered 13 fewer hits and 14 fewer earned runs, while walking two less and striking out four more. It was an overall improvement for a promising left-hander who already appeared to be on the right track, and he'll be expected to produce just as much, if not more, this season.

The 27-year-old Romero has enjoyed relatively smooth sailing during the early stages of his career. He is 42-29 with a 3.60 ERA in 613 big league innings, but his Minor League career didn't exactly follow a linear path.

Romero is a former first-round pick who was selected before Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. The Cal State Fullerton product got off to a slow start in his professional career, and while Tulowitzki joined the Rockies for a run to the World Series in '07, Romero was still toiling in the Minors.

That prompted a lot of criticism directed at then-general manager J.P. Ricciardi, and Romero was unfairly labeled as a bust. A lot has changed since then, but Romero obviously hasn't forgotten all of the negative reviews, and perhaps that's why he can understand the current plight of fellow starters Brett Cecil and Kyle Drabek.

Both Cecil and Drabek were expected to be major contributors to the Blue Jays' starting rotation in 2011, but they suffered through subpar seasons that resulted in trips to the Minors. Romero hasn't experienced the same type of struggles in the big leagues, but he knows firsthand how some young players can be written off at too early of an age.

"The guys that I'm most excited about are Brett and Kyle," Romero said. "I feel like I've been in that situation -- not in the big leagues, but in the Minors -- where I struggled and the way that I was able to come back. I'm excited to see them. I know what they're capable of, because I've seen them at their best.

"They get it, they understand. Kyle has his father who was a very good pitcher, too, so not a bad source to talk to. I'm sure he is going to be fine."

Romero isn't disappointed with the Blue Jays' lack of moves this offseason. The reigning Toronto pitcher of the year said any transaction questions were best left to general manager Alex Anthopoulos, but the southpaw added he is confident in the current group of players assembled.

Romero pointed to the all of the returning young players who will be back in the fold in 2012 -- plus full seasons from the likes of third baseman Brett Lawrie and right-hander Henderson Alvarez -- as signs the club should be much better this coming year.

"I'm happy with our team, I'm happy with the guys we've got," Romero said. "I think we're capable of doing some special things. We have a lot of young guys.

"Those 'what if' questions will all be answered by the end of the season. When you look back at last season, if we win 10 more games, we're in the playoffs or we're in the playoff hunt. So we were that close as a team, and the guys that are here, I've never seen them so determined and excited for the season. It should hopefully be a good year for us."

Toronto's one major offseason move also could go a long way in helping turn the Blue Jays' year into a successful one. Anthopoulos pulled the trigger on a deal in December that brought closer Sergio Santos to Toronto in exchange for top prospect Nestor Molina.

It was a welcome addition for a team that tied for the AL lead in blown saves last year.

"I think the biggest thing is that we have an established closer now," Romero said. "Last year, I felt like one day we'd have one guy closing and the next day we'd have someone else closing.

"It was just because, I guess, [nobody] really took advantage of that situation when they were closing, but I feel like having Serge there is going to be good. He's already had two or three years in the big leagues, and he's proven that he can do the job."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.