Don’t count out Rainiers’ Romero

Stefen Romero, the Mariners’ Minor League Player of the Year last season, has made a career of defying expectations

tj.cotterill@thenewstribune.comMay 6, 2013 

It’s not hard to find Stefen Romero’s name in the statistics from Oregon State’s 2010 baseball season. It’s at or near the top in multiple categories.

He led the Beavers in home runs (13) and RBI (41), and went on to become a first-team all-Pacific-10 Conference pick as an infielder.

So imagine Romero’s surprise as he watched the 2010 draft in the Oregon State clubhouse and six of his teammates were selected ahead of him.

Romero’s name didn’t show up on a computer screen until the 12th round, after 371 other players. He had hoped to be picked in the fourth round — 10th at the latest.

“After the 10th round, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m slipping pretty far,’ ” Romero said. “But just being drafted is an accomplishment itself, especially considering where I came from.

“It definitely drives me, though. If that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what else will.”

Fortunately for the Seattle Mariners, they were able to get Romero in a late round. He responded by torching pitchers at Class-A High Desert and Double-A Jackson last year for a combined .352 batting average with 23 homers and 101 RBI to earn the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year award.

Among the prospects vying for the honor were pitcher Danny Hultzen and catcher Mike Zunino, both top-five picks.

Romero knows he has plenty of work ahead of him, especially because none of the past five players to earn the Mariners’ top minor league award currently play in Seattle.

“At the end of the year, you take a moment to think on the season you had, and it’s a great rewarding feeling when it comes with accolades,” Romero said. “But you also have to know that the upcoming season you’re going to have to work that much harder to stay consistent.”

Romero made a big impression on Mariners brass in spring training before suffering an oblique injury. His performance earned a promotion to Triple-A Tacoma.

“He had a couple of four-hit games in spring training, and you could see he can really hit,” Mariners third-base coach and former Rainiers manager Daren Brown said. “They weren’t soft, either. Every ball was smoked. The ball comes off his bat pretty good.”

Oregon State hitting coach Pat Bailey hasn’t forgotten Romero’s stroke or his good nature. He’s one of several ex-Beavers he routinely follows.

“You get rid of the baseball, get rid of all the other stuff, he is a great teammate and a great human being,” Bailey said. “He is a wonderful young guy. I’d take him as my own son in a heartbeat.”

Romero’s transition from an underestimated college player to a reliable minor leaguer was born from years of trying to prove his worth.

The lack of appreciation started at Sunnyside High School in Tucson, Ariz. Despite being a first-team all-league player, Romero got no scholarships offers, so he walked on at a local community college.

Romero hit .412 his first year at Pima Community College with four home runs and 19 RBI, but that didn’t generate an offer to play at a four-year college.

After signing a letter of intent to return to Pima, he finally got his chance with Oregon State, the only school to offer him a scholarship.

Romero had a decent sophomore season for the Beavers, but he really came on as a junior when he batted .326 and helped guide Oregon State on one of its several recent postseason runs.

“He sets no limits for himself,” Bailey said. “He’s a guy who has an ‘it’ factor. He’s got that kind of personality that lights the room on fire, and then when he’s on a baseball field, he is there to work. That really separates him from a lot of guys.”

The athleticism in Romero, an all-league basketball player in high school, shows in his hitting. What he lacked were solid baseball fundamentals.

“He came to us as a great athlete and an above-average baseball player,” Bailey said. “That great athleticism got him to where he is now, and now he is a great baseball player.

“That doesn’t happen unless you are a hard worker.”

Romero put a different spin on hard work this past Mariners offseason.

Plenty of players make time to go to the batting cage and weight room sessions, but how many spend time reading inspiring, self-improvement books like “Failing Forward” or “Way of the Peaceful Warrior”?

Romero was known to frequently carry a pen and notepad during spring training so he could write down thoughts and observations.

When the Mariners faced the Texas Rangers, he studied Gold Glove third baseman Adrian Beltre because he is being considered for third-base duty with the Rainiers.

“He definitely made that a routine of his,” said Alex Liddi, who was the 2009 Mariners Minor League Player of the Year.

Twelfth-round picks have to get whatever edge they can if they are going to someday make an impact in the big leagues. Romero figured honing his mental game could be one advantage.

“ ‘Just don’t be afraid to ask questions; you are going to learn something new every day.’ Raul (Ibañez) told me that,” Romero said. “I feel if you aren’t learning, you aren’t getting better. So I just try to continue to learn every single day.”

Now Romero needs to rise above expectations once again to get a chance to be promoted to the Mariners.

He played first base and second base at Oregon State, but he’s playing left field with the Rainiers. He’s batting .294 with two home runs and eight RBI.

To advance, he plans to keep doing what he’s been doing – believing in himself, even if others don’t.

“Being in Tacoma, Seattle is just a phone call away,” Romero said. “It could happen today. It could happen in a couple months. I just have to be consistent every day. You have to make them call you up. You just have to keep doing what you’ve been doing every single day, and whenever the time comes, I won’t feel like it’s rushed.

“But no matter what level you are at, it’s just a game of baseball. Nothing changes when you get to the big leagues. It’s just going to be that much funner and exciting.”

tj.cotterill@thenewstribune.com @Cotterill44

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