The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nationals typically pass on players with off-field issues. Seth Romero is an exception.

The Nationals are hoping that Seth Romero’s maturity issues are behind him. (Courtesy of University of Houston)

AUBURN, N.Y. — On a muggy August afternoon in Auburn, N.Y., home of the Washington Nationals’ New York-Penn League affiliate, their 2017 first-round pick, Seth Romero, demonstrated his method of shagging batting practice flyballs. The young pitcher stands as close to the sign-plastered wall as one can, then hopes the player nearby makes the play — a strategy employed at every professional level, most expertly in the big leagues.

Romero, who comes with more baggage than any high-profile draft pick in Nationals history, and with more questions about his maturity than any first-rounder in General Manager Mike Rizzo’s tenure, was not alone among his pitching teammates in avoiding pregame exertion.  When batting practice ended, he jogged dutifully off the field alongside them before a coach caught him and told him a reporter was in town.

Nothing about the tall, dark-haired left-hander with a subtle aversion to eye contact separated him from the other similarly built 18- to 22-year-olds around him. But because he was kicked off the University of Houston baseball team, falling out of the top 10 in this year’s draft and to the Nationals, he will always have more questions to answer.

Nationals select left-hander Seth Romero in the first round

Romero ambled back, tossed his glove on the ground and began to say hello. One of his teammates sprinted from the locker room and punted the 25th overall pick’s glove high into the air. Romero gave him a playful shove and laughed.

“Happens all the time,” the 21-year-old said, half-smiling, half-smirking, as if he had long since become immune to rookie-ball antics, but could have been plotting his revenge. This, the playful and humbling brotherhood of professional baseball, is what the Nationals hope Romero needs to move past the tendency for trouble that altered his path in college.

“We’re not scrutinizing him any differently. He’s going to be given a chance like any other player to come in here and let us know who he is,” said Doug Harris, the Nationals’ assistant general manager who oversees the movement of young players through the system. “. . . He understands what the parameters are. We expect that he’ll stay within them.”

Until Romero gives them a reason to treat him differently, the Nationals will look after him as they would any other pitcher, limiting him more only when it comes to innings and workload, like any top-tier pitching talent. But outside of Romero’s physique — which, at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, perfectly matches their preferred pitcher’s template — nothing about him fits the organization’s normal mold.

The Nationals’ ownership group is so wary of character-driven scandal it has passed on those with far fewer blemishes than Romero, and decided against those with far more — such as closer Aroldis Chapman, whom the Nationals’ front office pursued heavily when he arrived from Cuba, then decided not to chase last winter after a domestic assault accusation.

Choosing Romero represents a departure from their oft-declared norm, a choice in which the potential for on-field good outweighed the potential for off-field trouble. Nobody at the University of Houston will talk about him now. Things didn’t end well.

Head baseball Coach Todd Whitting politely refused questions through his sports information director. Romero’s pitching coach at Houston, Frank Anderson — now at the University of Tennessee — declined to speak about Romero, too. The university would not comment on the nature of Romero’s violations.

Whitting’s official statement on Romero’s May 11 dismissal said the school made the decision after an incident in early May and “previous conduct detrimental to the team.” Romero had just returned from his second suspension in two years at the time.

Nationals sign first-round pick Seth Romero for just over slot value

The Houston Chronicle reported that Romero was first suspended in 2016 for “a lack of effort regarding conditioning.” In April 2017, the Cougars suspended Romero for a violation of team rules, which the paper reported included failing a drug test due to marijuana use and appearing in a picture, in uniform, holding a bong.

After those reports, Whitting banned the Chronicle’s Joseph Duarte from covering the team and refused to let players speak to him. But Duarte’s information is consistent with the Nationals’ understanding of Romero’s missteps.

“Everything happens for a reason in my mind,” said Romero, dodging a question about exactly what happened at the end of his college tenure. “Like, I’m here. I’m just trying to put it past me and move on. As long as I produce up here, I’ll be fine.”

Draft-day surprise

The Nationals never called Romero before taking him 25th overall in the draft this June. He had talked to a few teams before the draft. He said he had even flown out to meet some. The Nationals were not one of them.

“I just saw my name pop up on the board and then my agent called me afterward and said, ‘Nats,’ ” Romero said. “I was like, ‘Sweet.’ ”

All the publications projected Romero as a top-10 talent at some point before the June draft. He was a freshman all-American in 2015 and made the national pitcher of the year watch list despite his suspension in 2016, when he held opponents to a .186 average against and struck out 113 batters in 94 1/3 innings. He was less consistent as a junior, though he struck out 10 or more batters in each of his first five starts and no fewer than six in all seven. The power lefty with the biting slider was, by all accounts, a first-round talent. Then came the dismissal, and doubts.

“Absolutely. I think anybody would,” Romero said, when asked whether he worried about the draft. “. . . I knew I was going to drop some. I didn’t know I was going to go as high as I did. So I was happy about that.”

The Nationals saw Romero in high school but hadn’t paid much attention to him then. But they weren’t the only ones to miss him: Romero only got one Division I offer out of Columbia High School in West Columbia, Tex.

Washington’s national cross-checker, Jimmy Gonzales, monitored Romero at Houston as his area scout, Tyler Wilt, got to know him better. Even after his dismissal, Gonzales said he and the other scouts who had observed him believed they “had been around him enough that we were comfortable with him.”

“I’ve learned to trust the person who sees that player the most, and that’s the area scout. That’s the most important link in the chain of how these guys are taken,” said Rizzo. “I have all the confidence in the world that Tyler Wilt and Jimmy Gonzales know him very, very well.”

Romero’s agent is Scott Boras, who represents more than a dozen Nationals. After things at Houston fell apart, Romero worked out at Boras’s facility in California, doing the same kind of professional workouts he would eventually do with the Nationals. That work was another reason the Nationals felt comfortable with their decision. They knew Romero had been preparing, at least physically, during that uncomfortable idle period.

Ultimately, the Nationals bet $2.8 million on him, less than he would have gotten had he gone in the top 10, but more than the $2.5 million assigned to his draft slot.

“Obviously, the more money we give a player, the higher you take them,” Rizzo said. “The more risk there is.”

Protecting their investment

Everyone in the organization, from Rizzo to Harris on down, explains the choice of Romero as a calculated risk. Auburn pitching coach and former Nationals pitcher Tim Redding wasn’t even asked about Romero’s past before he provided what is quickly becoming the company line.

“I don’t make any judgments or preconceived notions,” Redding said. ” … He was a 21-year-old kid. I was a kid one time before. I made mistakes.”

When Nationals’ draftees first report, all of them are presented — or perhaps more accurately, drilled repeatedly — with the club’s rules of conduct. Front-office officials speak proudly about the way their players conduct themselves and emphasize the organization’s track record of keeping its players out of failed drug reports and arrest logs. A front-office executive bristled when asked about one teenager in the organization’s Dominican academy testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs last season.

“Do you have any idea what our track record on this stuff is?” that executive asked. The answer, when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs, is excellent. Over the past five seasons, only one prominent minor leaguer has been suspended for performance-enhancing drugs (Jefry Rodriguez). More, however, have been suspended for what the league reported as drugs of abuse, most recently Emmanuel Burriss earlier this season.

“We have certain standards in regard to choices guys make off the field,” Harris said. “And our expectations are even a little more stringent even than Major League Baseball with regards to some of those things.”

While nobody wanted to name names, the Nationals have sent minor leaguers home for bad behavior, or quietly pulled them from the lineup for days at a time because of some misstep or another. The Nationals communicated to Romero, as they do to all their players, that they are willing to send him home should he step out of line. But in his first half-season of professional ball, Romero did not test the policy.

On the field, his results were mixed. Sometimes, he struggled. Other times, he impressed. He pitched to a 5.40 ERA in six Auburn appearances and struck out 32 batters in just 20 innings. While some speculated that the Nationals took Romero to help their ailing bullpen as soon as this season, the notion seems silly in hindsight. As they do with so many of their young players, the Nationals will wait until Romero builds a strong emotional and physical foundation at the lower levels before moving him within a step or two of the big leagues. He will go to instructional league this fall.

“Everybody is on a case-by-case basis,” Harris said of moving first-round picks such as Romero through the system. “Because there’s a lot of times where talent will be greater than maturity, and you have to be very careful that you don’t hit the gas pedal too quickly and that maturity becomes an issue.”

Harris said maturity was not a problem for Romero during his first few months, which he spent enduring long bus rides like everyone else, tossing knuckleballs instead of fastballs like any self-respecting pitcher caught in the routine. For a month and a half, Romero faded into the group along that outfield wall, stoking the Nationals’ hope that soon the only thing separating him from his teammates is his performance on the field, and nothing off it.

“Once it’s behind you, it’s behind you. I can’t be here and try to make excuses for what happened,” Romero said. “I really don’t talk about it. Nobody here asks me about it. I don’t worry about it. It’s behind me.”

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