Sergio Romo garnered interest from a couple teams. At age 37, the side-slinging reliever has reinvented himself as a nice complementary piece for a contending bullpen.
But Romo had his eye on the A’s. So when they called with a one-year, $2.5 million offer, the decision was a no-brainer. Why?
“The opportunity to win now wasn’t necessarily with every organization that called me,” Romo said in a Zoom call with reporters on Saturday. “That’s why I was asking about the A’s. This organization has a chance to win.”
The A’s have some “underdog” in them, Romo said. A “Gritty, grind-y, dirty, let’s go get that dub anyway we can” ethos that drew the veteran reliever in. In simpler terms: despite projections that have the A’s finishing third behind the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels in the American League West, Romo saw the talent and pitching need in Oakland and figured he’d be best suited there. He saw the forest from the trees.
Plus, Romo lives nearby in San Francisco — a place he settled during his nine-year tenure with the Giants. His wife is 35 weeks pregnant with the couple’s fifth child. A homecoming made sense for a few reasons.
“This team wants to win and expects to win,” Romo said. “I wanted to be part of something like that. The style of play, (Bob) Melvin pulling the strings, telling us who, what, when, where and why. I wanted to be part of that. I feel I could thrive under his management and being under Emo (Scott Emerson) the pitching coach. They already have an idea of who I am and how to utilize me. They haven’t decided which way, but they have ideas and they sound fun.”
Romo’s seen a few roles in his 13-year MLB career. At his peak, he was closing World Series clinchers for the Giants. Younger A’s players know Romo as the guy who dared Triple Crown title holder Miguel Cabrera with a 89 mph fastball strike-three call right down the pike in a one-run, extra-inning game to seal San Francisco’s World Series sweep of the Detroit Tigers in 2012.
Romo hasn’t withered into post glory by any means. Instead, he took lessons he learned from left-handed sidearmer Javier Lopez and, through the years, remastered his sweeping slider to stay effective. In year 13 with the Minnesota Twins, Romo collected 23 strikeouts with 7 walks in 20 innings. He’s still missing barrels, generating weak contact and maintaining a 26.4% strikeout rate in 2020 — he’s averaging 27% in the Statcast era (since 2016).
Part of his continued success — against both right and left-handed hitters — has been by his ability to manipulate his slider and use it on both sides of the plate.
“I throw multiple variations of it,” Romo said. “You can sit slider, but at this point in my career, it’s choosing which one. I think being able to throw it on both sides of the plate and utilize my sinker as well as I can has helped me with the breaking ball, to keep hitters off it.”
Romo is a key piece to a diverse A’s bullpen that came to fruition late in the offseason. He and fellow side-armer Adam Kolarek and closer Trevor Rosenthal add a new set of looks and velocities from both sides of the mound that complement a now-deep A’s bullpen that might now have too much talent to all fit onto the active roster.
That wasn’t the case before news broke that Romo would come to Oakland — but he started a wave of moves that put an Oakland front office that was alarmingly stagnant square back into contention conversations.
How will Romo be used? At this point, that question seems almost irrelevant. The three-batter rule and the filled closer spot neutralizes the concept of bullpen roles, save for the closer. Romo, like most other relievers, will be used in matchups that best suit his strengths as a slider-dependent side-armer.
“It’s such an uncomfortable at bat, especially for righties,” Melvin said. “It’s the slider that plays. It’s not like guys going up there don’t know they won’t get a slider, but it’s his touch with it. How he sets it up. For a strike. Off the body.”
He’s a ball of energy still. And, yes, he plans to walk out to “El Mechón,” the song he walked out to with the Giants.
“I don’t get called Romo, or Sergio. I get called ‘El Mechón,'” Romo said. “In Mexico, it’s Mechón. That’s me, that’s my song. Music bangs at the Coliseum. So I’m excited for Mechón at the Coliseum.”
Burch Smith returns
Smith was untouchable in his first appearances as an Oakland Athletic, throwing 10 scoreless innings over five appearances with 10 strikeouts until a forearm strain against the Giants in August had him sidelined for the remainder of the short season.
“It’s probably as good a work he’s done at the big league level in the short time he’s had with us and enough to where we really felt it when he went down,” Melvin said. “We’ll be wary early on about making sure his health is there — it’s one thing throwing a bullpen, another in games. But he was a real weapon for us last year.”
Smith is back. He threw a side session Saturday. The hope is to have Smith back as the weapon he was in 2020.
What the A’s were able to extract from Smith’s high fastball spin rate was some consistency and confidence with it that they hope he can repeat in 2021. There was a time when a fastball up in the zone was chum for any big league hitter, so the A’s coached him into seeing the pitch’s deception.
“It was there, but I don’t think he knew how good it was,” Melvin said. “Some of the analytics show you spin rates, it’s easier to coach now about where you’re going to have success and where you aren’t. (His success) is probably about having faith in it.”
Daulton Jefferies’ role?
The bullpen is crowded. The rotation actually has some wiggle room with Jesús Luzardo, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt and possibly Mike Fiers and A.J. Puk — but Jefferies is in the mix, too.
“He’s a Cal Bear,” Melvin said. “He’ll probably get the Opening Day start.”
That was a light-hearted joke. But Jefferies is certainly in line to make the Opening Day rotation one day. The right-handed pitcher, 25, already had his big league reality check. He made his major league debut on Sept. 12 last season and allowed five runs in the first inning on two home runs.
His changeup was flat, almost looking like a fastball. And no pitcher can throw 90 mph down the pike in the big leagues and get away with it. He did get the second inning, though.
“I’m very grateful for BoMel and the coaching staff for putting me out there for the second inning,” Jefferies said. “That was great for my confidence and I think maybe they knew that.”
Jefferies spent most of last year at the alternate site in San Jose and is right on the cusp of more playing time with the big league squad.
“He’s definitely one of our top prospects that our organization is excited about,” Melvin said. “And at some point in time, he’ll settle in with us.”