The Nationals have not said when or whether Romero will return to camp, though they do expect him to stay on schedule for his development plan. He finished last year in short-season Class A ball, and no one has given word on where he will start this season. He is currently home in Texas.
The 21-year-old has a history of missteps, including failed drug tests and fighting with a teammate at the University of Houston. It was known that the Nationals were taking a risk when they selected him 25th overall in last year’s draft. That he was sent home from spring training didn’t surprise many people. The nature of his violation, however, led to widespread speculation.
Romero did not fail a drug test. He has undergone several this year and has passed them all, according to a person familiar with the Nationals’ handling of his situation. That person also said Romero did not have trouble with the law — just the day-to-day regulations set out by the Nationals, such as being on time and dictating camp conduct. Namely, curfew.
Romero did not violate any Major League Baseball rules. But the Nationals did not want to look the other way for a first-round pick, lest they indicate preferential treatment. While his violations were not, by some standards, egregious, they nevertheless impact the experience of other players in camp. As such, the Nationals chose to send him home indefinitely. The move is not unprecedented. The Nationals have sent several players home over the years, most notably former outfielder Steven Souza Jr., who overcame off-field habits to become an impact-making major leaguer and is now with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Nationals decision-makers still see Romero as a major league talent, a future left-handed relief stalwart who has the talent to be ready in the next few years. They also saw him as a project, at least off the field, and thus far the risk they took in drafting him has yielded only the results they hoped to avoid.
His development is crucial to their organizational pitching depth, as after trading away 20 or so pitchers in the last five years, they lack the big league ready depth they treasure. A.J. Cole, a former elite prospect who dropped from those ranks but slowly built himself into a big leaguer anyway, is currently in line to be their fifth starter. He allowed three runs on five hits in three innings in Tuesday’s 9-5 loss to the Houston Astros, battling his command and occasionally getting around his fastball, which would lose a few miles per hour and cut because of it. Cole has allowed five hits in five innings of work this spring, and is pitching to a 5.40 ERA. He also struck out Astros stars Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa twice each Tuesday, more evidence of the untrustworthy nature of early spring showings.
Multiple scouts who have seen Cole this season said they would consider right-hander Erick Fedde, another former first-round pick, even or ahead of him for that fifth starter’s job. Fedde looked promising last March before struggling through an inconsistent season between levels and between starting and relief roles.
One scout who saw Fedde through last season said he’s seen the better version of Fedde return this spring. The 25-year-old allowed a home run and two more hits in two innings Tuesday, but his sinking fastball sat at 95 with a slider in the high-80s — peak Fedde stuff. That he is lined up to take his turn on the same day as Cole will have to change as both pitchers require more work than one game can allow. That he is lined up on the same day as Cole, who started later, means he could easily slide into the fifth spot should the Nationals decide they want him there. No one with the team has indicated that yet.
But after Fedde, the depth drops off. The Nationals have yet to give Austin Voth a big league chance, and most within the organization and without consider him a back-end of the rotation type. Their second-round pick, Will Crowe, has impressed during his brief career, but finished last season in short-season ball, too. He is not near big league ready. So outside those who have already cracked the majors, the most promising, high-profile prospect they have is Romero, and he is currently at home.