VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals' search for left-handed relief help has taken them in a familiar direction. This morning, the club signed veteran J.C. Romero to a minor league deal with an invitation to the final days of big league spring training.
The Nationals scouted Romero during his recent stint with the Puerto Rican entry in the World Baseball Classic, where he worked to a 3.86 ERA in five games and demonstrated improved velocity.
"We're going to give J.C. an opportunity to see if he can help us," said general manager Mike Rizzo. "He's a veteran pitcher. We saw him in the WBC and (he) threw well. We'll see if he can help us at the major league level sometime."
Romero, however, won't be making the club out of spring training, Rizzo said.
"That's been conveyed to him," Rizzo said. "It's been conveyed to him that he'll go to the minor leagues and perform down there. If he can help us down the road, we'll go grab him."
That's basically the same script the Nationals followed when they signed veteran lefty Michael Gonzalez last May. Gonzalez eventually became an integral part of the late-inning relief corps before signing a free agent deal with Milwaukee in the offseason.
It's the classic low-risk, high-reward scenario, Rizzo said, and will help address an organizational need.
"We know him, he's been here before," Rizzo said. "Several guys have played with him in the past, so he fits the makeup aspect of it."
The 36-year-old Romero is a veteran of 14 major league seasons and has a lifetime 34-28 record, 4.16 ERA and seven saves in 680 games, all but 22 of them starts. He's pitched for a long list of teams - the Twins, Angels, Red Sox, Phillies, Rockies, Cardinals and Orioles. Last season, in 16 games between Baltimore and St. Louis, he struggled to a 9.00 ERA, yielding 21 hits in 16 innings.
For a brief time in 2011, he was property of the Nationals. They signed Romero on June 28, four days after he was released by the Phillies, and sent him to Syracuse, where he had a 1.29 ERA in five outings. But with no place for him on the major league roster, the Nationals released him on July 13 and he signed with the Yankees organization the next day.
When he's on, Romero can be an effective match-up left-hander out of the 'pen, but he can also work more than one batter at a time. He has held lefty batters to a .220 average, and right-handers to a .271 average in his career.
Last year, Romero bounced from the Cardinals to the Orioles to the Indians before being released Aug. 27. His velocity was diminished and he was hit hard, problems that Romero seemed to fix sufficiently enough to be chosen for Puerto Rico's WBC team, where the Nationals scouted him extensively.
"He threw well, his velocity was up and he pitched well for them," Rizzo said, adding, "We didn't change out scouting patterns (in the WBC), we didn't lock in on one person or one position. It wasn't like we were scouring for every left-handed reliever we could find."
Romero's arrival in camp - he's expected to join the team Saturday and could pitch against the Mets in Port St. Lucie - won't change the makeup of Davey Johnson's bullpen. The Nationals' relief corps will still probably include only one left-hander, long man Zach Duke, when the team heads north.
"We're comfortable with the bullpen we have right now," Rizzo said.
But not so comfortable that they can't afford to look at someone they think might be able to help them at some point this season.
"He's ready to pitch," Johnson said of Romero.
Romero will have competition for that left-handed relief role in Syracuse. Lefty Bill Bray, sent down in the Nationals' first cuts of the spring, continues to refine his mechanical problems in minor league camp and the Nats are hopeful he'll be able to contribute at the major league level down the road.