Romero still standing as roster gets whittled down

Outfield prospect impressing with his bat and adding versatility defensively

Romero still standing as roster gets whittled down

PEORIA, Ariz. -- As Spring Training grinds toward a close, less than two weeks from Opening Day, young Mariners outfield prospect Stefen Romero looks around and sees signs of encouragement.

One is his Cactus League batting average, which has steadily climbed since a slow start this spring. But there are subtle signs as well, the way the club is working him now, taking ground balls in the infield to enhance his versatility as a potential backup player if he makes the final 25-man roster.

And the less-subtle signs as fellow outfield candidates like James Jones, Xavier Avery and Cole Gillespie have been shipped to Minor League camp in recent days as the roster continues getting whittled down.

Decision day is nearing for Romero and he can't help but feel the anticipation building.

"Definitely," the 25-year-old said, glancing around the Mariners' spacious new clubhouse in their Peoria complex. "You see empty lockers and the numbers are getting smaller. The outfield group is getting smaller. They're having me taking infield work to add versatility, so obviously they're trying to work something out. And I'm just along for the ride for the rest of the process."

Romero is one of six remaining outfielders, with the team likely to keep five. Given that Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, Corey Hart and Abraham Almonte seem certain locks given the way they've been used this spring, the final battle would appear to be down to young Romero versus the veteran Endy Chavez.

Of course, the Mariners could always add another contender off the waiver wire or through a deal as other teams make their own final cuts, so there are no guarantees. But several things work in Romero's favor. One, he's a potent right-handed hitter and the Mariners are painfully shy on offense from that side of the plate.

Secondly, he's already on the 40-man roster, so no one else would need to be removed from that list if he makes the final cut, as would be the case with Chavez. And the Mariners are already looking at adding several non-roster invitees, so there will be difficult decisions regarding the 40-man roster in the coming days.

The trick with Romero would be finding him adequate playing time if he does make the roster, as the Mariners -- like most teams -- hesitate to take budding young prospects and plant them on the bench for extended periods that might stunt their development.

But manager Lloyd McClendon said the Mariners have already sent down the outfielders he feels fall in that must-play-every-day developmental category. And Romero, as a converted infielder, offers some other options in a backup role.

"As we sit now and try to make up this club and see what fits and who complements who, we need guys that are versatile and are able to do more than one thing on the field," McClendon said. "We need to find out about this young man as well."

Which is why Romero started taking ground balls with infield coach Chris Woodward the past two days, harkening back to his time as a second baseman at Oregon State and his early days in the Mariners' farm system. If he can spell Kyle Seager at third or Robinson Cano at second on occasion, that provides another avenue for at-bats, along with designated hitter.

"Of course you're a little rusty at first, especially being out of there for about a year," Romero said. "Last Spring Training I was in the infield until I injured my oblique, so it's been about a year. In Triple-A I really didn't work at all in the infield. I made two spot starts at second base, and that was about it. But it feels pretty good. I just have to progress and take it in small strides."

Hitting has always been Romero's strength. He was the Mariners' Minor League Player of the Year in 2012 when he batted .352 with 23 homers and 101 RBIs in 116 games between Class A Advanced High Desert and Double-A Jackson.

He was limited to 93 games last year with Triple-A Tacoma, due to his early-season oblique issue, hitting .277 with 11 homers and 74 RBIs. The biggest issue with Romero has been where he fits in defensively, but his varied background now could help if he winds up in a bench role.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder has worked hard the past year at learning the outfield and has displayed a strong throwing arm this spring and an increasing comfort level under the tutelage of outfield coach Andy Van Slyke, but he has no problem with getting some time back in the infield now if that helps his case.

"It just adds more versatility and gives some better options for them in terms of matchups so they can switch around lineups better and, hopefully, that adds a little more versatility for me as well," he said.

Romero went 0-for-16 at the plate to start the Cactus League season, not exactly the first impression he wanted to cast with McClendon and his new staff. He says now he probably was pressing initially, trying to be too perfect.

Since stepping back and taking a breath, he's gone 9-for-21 with two doubles, two triples and two home runs to hike his spring average to .243. And the recent run has reinforced what the Mariners already believed, that the youngster has the potential to hit at the Major League level.

He said it's been a completely different experience for him this spring, knowing he really does have a chance to compete for a final spot on the club.

"Last spring I was a non-roster invite, so there were really no expectations, no pressure, just go in there and enjoy and take in as much knowledge as you can," Romero said. "This year I just wanted to transition what I learned last year and bring it into the clubhouse this spring. Just being around the guys last year like Ackley, Saunders and all those guys, just seeing familiar faces, you get a sense of familiarity and you feel a little more comfortable.

"And it's also a little easier on you when they add you to the 40-man roster," he said. "That really motivated me in the offseason to come in ready and come in as physically and mentally prepared as I could."

Now his goal is to crack the 25-man roster that opens the year in Anaheim. All he wants is a chance.

"I'm saying, whatever. Put me anywhere, I don't care, as long as I'm up here in the big leagues helping the team in any way," Romero said. "I'll catch bullpens if they want."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.