Will demotion help Jays' Romero?

March 26, 2013

He could be Roy Halladay. He could be Dontrelle Willis. His organization, his teammates and his family will do all they can to support him. But Ricky Romero’s future is in the hands of Ricky Romero.

The Toronto Blue Jays sent Romero to Class A Dunedin Tuesday, which was both utterly shocking and not surprising at all; shocking because Romero made the All-Star team in 2011, not surprising in light of his 5.77 ERA last year and continued control problems this spring.

Romero underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery during the offseason, so the Blue Jays probably could have placed him on the disabled list under the guise that Romero’s issues are physical in nature. They didn’t. And they deserve credit for that. To send Romero all the way to the Florida State League is to suggest he is mired in mechanical/mental limbo — the place that demands a holistic, painstaking escape plan.

It can be done.

Halladay, like Romero, was a first-round pick who achieved early success in the major leagues — and a multiyear contract extension — before an inexplicable loss of control. The Blue Jays sent him all the way to Class A Dunedin — sound familiar? — in 2001.

Halladay wasn’t injured. He had to work on his mental approach. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote in his seminal profile of Halladay in 2010, Halladay relied on “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching,” by Harvey Dorfman, and later worked with Dorfman personally.

“The first part was trying to rebuild that confidence, having a positive mentality,” Halladay told Verducci. “The second part was to simplify things. Sometimes you get caught up in the big picture — the seven innings, the three runs or less, who you’re facing — and you get away from what makes you successful, which is executing pitches.”

Halladay made it back to the majors later in that 2001 season. He’s 186-86 since the demotion to Dunedin, with eight All-Star appearances, two Cy Young Awards, a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter.

But the Florida State League Plan doesn’t work for everyone.

The Detroit Tigers sent Willis there in 2008, and, despite months — years, eventually — of earnest work by Willis and the team, he never returned to being the pitcher he was. Willis was placed on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder at the start of the 2009 season, but never completely acknowledged the diagnosis was correct. If you asked him — as I did, in my days covering the Tigers for the Detroit Free Press — he would say he simply wasn’t locating his pitches.

As with Romero and Halladay, Willis’ control problems surfaced only after signing a long-term contract extension — and inheriting the pressure that goes along with that status.

When Willis rejoined the Tigers’ rotation later in 2009, his agent, Matt Sosnick, told me: “He’s pretty confident that — whatever this issue was — he is back and his stuff is good enough to have success in the big leagues. He has been convinced that he was having a hard time relaxing when it came time to pitch, and it got progressively worse. Now he’s figured out a way to relax his mind. He’s done absolutely everything he could to get back ... We have every expectation that he’s going to be successful."

But Willis went 1-4 with a 7.49 ERA in the major leagues that year, followed by 1-2 with a 4.98 ERA the next season, and then the Tigers released him. Willis hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2011. He tried to come back with the Chicago Cubs this spring but made only one appearance.

In all, Willis went 4-15 with a 6.15 ERA in 43 major-league games after signing a three-year, $29 million contract extension with the Tigers in December 2007.

Willis tried determinedly to make it back, just as Halladay did. For one pitcher, the process worked. For the other, it didn’t. While his Toronto teammates open a season with the franchise’s highest expectations in two decades — with J.A. Happ in the rotation instead of him — Romero, too, must begin the humbling work of learning how to pitch again.

He can do it. But it won’t be easy. Work begins Wednesday.