The Nationals have a history of seeking players whose draft stock has dipped, but not for reasons like the ones that caused Romero to drop. In the past, the Nationals have leaned toward injured players to find top-five talent lower in the first round. This year, they chose a 21-year-old with elite stuff, despite the fact that he was being kicked off the University of Houston baseball team after being suspended twice in three years.
As a sophomore, he was suspended for what was officially called “conduct detrimental to the team.” The Houston Chronicle reported that suspension largely stemmed from “a lack of effort regarding conditioning,” a problem Romero seemed to have rectified when he arrived for his junior season 40 pounds lighter. He was named a preseason all-American and the Cougars’ Opening Day starter.
But Romero ran into trouble again this season, when he was suspended for most of the month of April for what was officially referred to as “a violation of team rules” while the Cougars were on a trip to the University of Central Florida. The Chronicle reported that he was suspended, in part, because of a failed drug test, in which he tested positive for marijuana. Just more than a week later, Houston dismissed him from the team, which Chronicle Cougars beat reporter Joseph Duarte reported was due to a fight with another player.
“He certainly needs to be accountable for his actions,” Rizzo said. “We are going to demand that he conduct himself like all our players do. Be proud of the name on the front of the jersey is something that we harp on here once we sign the player, and we feel that with our development system, he’s going to conduct himself as a professional and adhere to the rules and regulations we set forth for all of our minor league players.”
In dismissing Romero, the Cougars dealt a significant — but obviously not fatal — blow to the draft status of a player that climbed as high as 10th on the Baseball America Top 100 Draft Prospects before this season. He is currently rated as the fifth-best lefty in this draft, and the 27th-best prospect overall. Romero was averaging 15.87 strikeouts per nine innings this season, which would have led Division I if Romero had pitched all season.
He finished his Houston career with a 2.43 ERA in 226 1/3 innings pitched. Romero’s strikeout stuff consists of a mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider that come from a three-quarters arm slot. In other words, while Romero was a starter in college, his stuff profiles to the bullpen immediately, and pretty much anywhere the Nationals would want to use him long-term.
Rizzo said the Nationals took the best player available, and did not draft Romero with the intention of moving him to the majors by the end of this season, despite the fact that some draft gurus speculated he was among the more major league-ready pitchers available.
“I’ve never done anything like that, where a drafted player gets to the big leagues the year you draft him,” Rizzo said. “I don’t expect that in this scenario.”
But scouting director Kris Kline admitted Romero’s stuff “plays in the big leagues right now.”
“Big fastball, wipeout breaking ball, good feel for his change-up,” Kline said. “A very competitive kid.”
When and if the Nationals sign Romero, he will begin his career as a starter. But they have shown a willingness to shift promising starters to the bullpen before — see “Fedde, Erick” in the Nationals’ glossary. Washington is in need of help for its big league bullpen, this year and beyond, and chose a hard-throwing lefty with back-end-of-the-bullpen potential accordingly. They also chose to endure the inevitable questions about their first rounder’s character.
Whether Romero can help sooner than later remains to be seen, as does the amount of money the Nationals will pay him. He is unique in that he cannot return to Houston after being dismissed from the team and therefore does not have much leverage in negotiations.
If he does not play for the Nationals, he will not have a college team to fall back on, so perhaps Romero can represent a financial value, too. His slot carries a value of $2,530,400. Romero is represented by Scott Boras, and he has been working out at Boras’s California facility for the last few weeks.
The Nationals shipped away two of their top pitching prospects in last winter’s deal for Adam Eaton, one that left them with very little big league ready talent to call on as their bullpen struggled this season. The top-rated pitching prospect in their system, Fedde, moved to the bullpen in May, a decision the Nationals made hoping Fedde might be able to help later this season. Koda Glover raced to the big leagues within a year of being drafted and was closing within a year and a half. He is now on the disabled list, and the Nationals are hunting for help.
They drafted more of it in the second round, selecting South Carolina right-hander Wil Crowe with the 65th pick overall. Crowe, South Carolina’s Friday night starter, fell to the Nationals in the second round likely due to more traditional concerns. Crowe had Tommy John surgery after the 2015 season, his sophomore year with the Gamecocks. He was a freshman all-American in 2014 before pushing through elbow trouble in a disappointing 2015 season. He returned to pitch to a 3.41 ERA in 2017 and struck out 90 batters in 92 1/3 innings.
“The fact that he got to us where he picked, I’m extremely elated,” said Kline, who pointed to Crowe’s mid-90s fastball as a key asset for the 6-2 righty. ” … He’s an ultracompetitive kid. Good track record. Profiles as a mid-rotation starter with secondary stuff.”
The draft will continue with Rounds 3-10 on Tuesday and Rounds 11-40 on Wednesday.