The initial thought heading into this season was that Stefen Romero’s major-league fate was directly tied to how rookie Dae-Ho Lee performed in Seattle.
That still might be the case. But the slugger, and former most valuable player in the Korean Baseball Organization is hitting .281 as the right-handed platoon mate with Adam Lind at first base.
As he bides his time, Romero continues to expand his positional versatility in Triple-A Tacoma.
He came up as a second baseman. He’s played third base. He’s manned both corner outfield spots. And after seeing a handful of starts at first base this season, Rainiers manager Pat Listach mentioned last week that the 27-year-old could get time at third base.
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So which of those positions could bring Romero back to the big leagues sooner than later?
“Doesn’t matter,” Listach said. “If he goes to the big leagues, it will be because of his bat.”
Oh yeah — the right-handed thunder. After hitting over .400 for much of April, Romero stands at .384 going into Saturday’s game in Albuquerque. He just had a 15-game hitting streak end Tuesday against Salt Lake.
With only eight strikeouts in 100 plate appearances, Romero has apparently solved, as least for the time being, one of his primary weaknesses in the batter’s box.
“He is laying off the breaking ball below the (strike) zone,” Listach said. “It is promising to see him make progress and the necessary adjustments. That was one of the things that kept him in Triple-A last year.”
Give Romero credit, he is doing whatever he can to get back to the big club.
It started during the last offseason. Paying attention to the Mariners’ roster overhaul under first-year general manager Jerry Dipoto, Romero noticed a shortage of first basemen on the roster.
“I texted my agent to get me a first-base glove,” Romero said. “He sent it in two days through (United Parcel Service).”
Each day in the indoor facility at North Marion High School in Wilsonville, Oregon, he took grounder after grounder at first base.
Romero said it wasn’t until early in spring training that the organization asked him about coming back into the infield.
It didn’t take very long from those 8 a.m. workouts on the side field in Peoria, Arizona for infield coach Manny Acta, the former manager in Cleveland and Washington, to notice Romero’s smooth fielding and nifty footwork.
“Manny said, ‘This guy can play first base — I am really impressed with him,’ ” Listach said.
It’s also a good thing that Romero gets to hang out with Efren Navarro, considered one of the better defensive first basemen in the minor leagues, in Tacoma.
“He is very athletic, and that is what gives him an edge,” Navarro said. “First base is not an easy position, and being able to work with him from spring training until now, he has shown big improvement.”
Navarro has been handy on the little reminders: Where Romero should position himself with certain hitters, how far to play up on bunt defense, and the first baseman’s role in rundowns.
But there has also been one huge lesson to be learned under this new regime: Infield defensive shifting.
“We are having a lot of shift changes, and guys moving over to one side of the field,” Romero said. “So on a ball hit down the line (with three guys on the right side of the infield), for example, am I the cutoff guy, or am I by the mound and backing up the play? Those things are important to know in a game.”
Romero has still seen twice as much time in the outfield (15 games) than at first base (eight games).
Still, he has played 52 error-free innings at first base this season.
“The more versatility you have, the more value you add to yourself — especially if you can hit a little bit.” Romero said. “Your stock becomes a tremendous part of who you are.”