The Colorado Rockies began spring training with four starters set in their rotation and several pitchers competing for the fifth spot.
But the shoulder injury to right-hander Jhoulys Chacin has created an additional opening in the rotation at the outset of the season.
Chacin has a strain and inflammation in his right shoulder, but an MRI on Feb. 24 revealed no structural damage. He began using resistance bands on Feb. 28, the first step toward light throwing. Chacin had not thrown a bullpen session before being shut down, and it is uncertain when he will be ready to do so.
Hence, Chacin, a candidate to pitch on Opening Day at the Miami Marlins on March 31 along with left-hander Jorge De La Rosa, will miss his first regular season start and likely more as he builds up arm strength. Barring a setback, mid-April seems a more realistic time for Chacin to launch his 2014 season.
"It's not like he has to be ready for Opening Day," manager Walt Weiss said. "We have six, seven months to go. We are thinking about the season in its entirety."
A major shortcoming in the Rockies' 2013 season when they finished with 74 victories was the back end of their rotation. Chacin, De La Rosa and Tyler Chatwood combined to go 38-21 with a 3.40; all other starters went a combined 16-39 with a 5.95 ERA.
The Rockies acquired left-hander Brett Anderson in December and planned to have Juan Nicasio, Jordan Lyles and Franklin Morales compete for the final spot in the rotation. Now it appears those three will compete for two rotation spots until Chacin is ready to pitch, and left-hander Christian Friedrich could force his way into that mix.
Morales, 28, who began his career in the Rockies organization, was acquired from the Boston Red Sox this offseason. He has mostly been a reliever during his career -- 195 games, 25 starts, including nine with the Boston Red Sox in 2012 and one last year -- and very much would like to start. As a reliever, Morales gives the Rockies a third left-hander in the bullpen -- a very valuable commodity -- to go along with Rex Brothers and Boone Logan. And Morales can pitch in any relief role, whether it is a multi-inning stint or to face a hitter or two.
Morales made his spring debut Friday in the Rockies' first Cactus League game. In two scoreless innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Morales threw 36 pitches, 21 strikes, and allowed two walks and a double. Morales will have to show more efficiency this spring to seriously contend for a starting role.
"I'm the same power pitcher -- my first pitch is my fastball -- but right now I have more control and more location with my other pitches," Morales said. "Now I've got a cutter, a split-finger and I can use them in any count.
"When you're young, you try to do too much. You put too many things in your head. Now what I try to do is put my thoughts in the game and let it go. It's different now mentally. Now I try to make my pitches. Before, I threw the ball hard and didn't know where it was going."
Lyles, 23, who was acquired in the trade that sent center fielder Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros, made his spring debut Saturday and gave up two runs, one earned, and three hits in two innings against the Cincinnati Reds. Lyles has been working extensively this spring with pitching coach Jim Wright on mechanics to improve command of his fastball, which registered 91-94 mph as he got five of his six outs on ground balls and the sixth on a strikeout.
After the outing, Lyles said, "This whole spring I've been working with Jim on slowing it down, keeping more upright, and really, I first implemented it just today. So that was a good sign to start with."
Nicasio came to camp as the favorite to be the fifth starter, and the Rockies are optimistic this will be a year of sizable growth for him. After injuries shortened seasons in 2011 and '12, Nicasio spent this offseason preparing for spring training and 2014 -- he made five starts in winter ball in the Dominican Republic -- rather than rehabilitating.
Friedrich, the 25th overall pick in the 2008 draft, is healthy and throwing all his pitches after lower back trouble limited him to four April starts in Triple-A last year and ended his 2012 season with the Rockies in late July. Given how long he has been out, the Rockies might decide that Friedrich, barring a jaw-dropping spring, is better served by opening the season at Triple-A.
But he certainly adds to the Rockies' starting pitching depth as do front-of-the-rotation prospects Jon Gray and Eddie Butler, both in their first big league camp. Gray and Butler are expected to begin at Class AA Tulsa and pitch in the big leagues at some point this season. The injury to Chacin will not affect their developmental timetables.
The Rockies begin the season with 10 games scheduled in 10 days and 23 games scheduled in the first 24 days. They believe this year they have far more starting pitching depth, something Chacin's absence will test right away.
--3B Nolan Arenado last year became the first National League rookie third baseman to win a Gold Glove Award. Improving his offense is a priority this season for Arenado, who last season hit .267 with a .301 on-base percentage, a .405 slugging percentage, 10 homers and 52 RBIs in 486 at-bats. Staying back and not reaching for breaking pitches will help Arenado and has been a point of offensive emphasis this spring.
"Nolan looks great," manager Walt Weiss said. "I think he's one of the guys that has stood out for me early in camp. His approach at the plate -- more than anything else, he just looks like he's got his legs underneath him, and he understands what he's trying to do. I really expect this guy to play in multiple All-Star Games. I think he's that type of player."
--RF Michael Cuddyer won the National League batting title with a .331 average last year after never hitting higher than .284 in any previous season and entering 2013 with a .271 career average. He said his mental approach, more than anything, contributed to his success last season when, among other things, Cuddyer set a franchise record with a 27-game hitting streak. And while the results for this year are unpredictable, Cuddyer thinks his mental approach from last year can be sustained.
"For the first time in my career, I wasn't worrying about my past and future at-bats," he said. "I stayed focused on the moment. It allowed me not to waste any at-bats. I think it will carry over into this year."
--OF Carlos Gonzalez was surprised when manager Walt Weiss made the decision to keep him in left field rather than move him to center so early in spring training, even before the start of Cactus League games. Weiss contemplated having Gonzalez shift to center field to replace Dexter Fowler, who was traded to the Houston Astros, but instead opted to not move Gonzalez, who has won three Gold Gloves in the past four years, two while playing in left.
While left field is bigger than right field at Coors Field, Weiss wants to do everything he can to preserve Gonzalez's legs and keep his bat in the lineup. And Weiss has capable players to man what might be a platoon in center if Drew Stubbs does not win the job outright.
Gonzalez said, "I know how important it is to the team to stay in the lineup every day and keep my legs fresh. I want to bring a lot of offense to the team, and I think that's more important than playing center field."
--OF Drew Stubbs was unable to play in an intrasquad game Feb. 27 and was not in the lineup for the first Cactus League game the following day but said he felt better following the flare-up of an esophagus condition known as eosinophilic esophagitis.
Symptoms include food being trapped in the back of the esophagus, making swallowing difficult. On the night of Feb. 26, Stubbs needed to be treated at a hospital because the trouble swallowing did not go away quickly as usual.
"This is the first time it's happened in several months," he said. "It's definitely not a common occurrence, but it's happened several times in the past. It happens at random times with random foods. I wish I knew how to pinpoint what caused it, but at this point, I don't."
Stubbs, who made his Cactus League debut March 2, was acquired from the Cleveland Indians in a December trade for reliever Josh Outman, and Weiss said the Rockies knew of Stubbs' esophageal condition at the time of the deal.
"It went to another level the other night," Weiss said. "He's dealt with it before, but I don't know if it's ever been that serious before. He got a little scared the other night."
--LHP Jayson Aquino escaped what could have been a serious injury. He was hit in the left side of the head by a line drive off the bat of Rafael Ynoa, the first hitter he faced in a Thursday intrasquad game. Aquino was able to walk off the field after being struck just above the ear in the fifth inning and was taken to a hospital. The following day, Aquino said he did not sustain a concussion.
Aquino, 21, was placed on the 40-man roster for the first time last fall and is in his first big league camp. Last season, he pitched at short-season Class A Tri-City and low Class A Asheville and went a combined 0-10 with a 4.34 ERA. Aquino has an average fastball that will touch 92 mph but has to throw it more and to both sides of the plate and rely less on his outstanding changeup. He also throws an effective curveball.
--RHP Wilton Lopez dealt with the illness and death of his father during his disappointing first season with the Rockies last year. Lopez said thoughts of his father, who died in September, did not cross his mind when he pitched and did not say his troubles on the mound had anything to do with his personal situation.
Lopez had a 2.17 ERA in 64 games for the Astros in 2012, including 10 saves in the final two months of the season when he stepped into the closer's role. With the Rockies in 2013, Lopez had a 4.06 ERA in 75 games. His walks per nine innings rose from 1.09 in 2012 to 2.15 in 2013 and his strikeouts per nine innings fell from 7.33 to 5.73.
"I just had a down year, because I was leaving a lot of my pitches up. I had never pitched much in Denver before, except for a few times with the Astros. This year I am going to focus on keeping the ball down. What killed me was leaving pitches up in the strike zone."
The Rockies were attracted to Lopez for his ability to induce ground balls and acquired him in a December 2012 deal that sent pitcher Alex White to the Astros. Lopez got off to a miserable start with the Rockies -- he had a 12.46 ERA after his first five appearances, giving up runs in three of them. Lopez had five blown saves, and in those games, Lopez allowed 14 hits in 4 1/3 innings and a 18.69 ERA. He went from setting up in the seventh or eighth inning to lower leverage situations, but the Rockies brought him back. Eligible for arbitration a second time, Lopez signed for $2.2 million.
"Good, bad or indifferent, he wanted the ball," said Weiss, who remained supportive of Lopez all last season. "That stuff is very valuable -- that type of mentality."
--SS Troy Tulowitzki honored his infant son with a bright purple T-shirt with "Taz" on the front. Tulowitzki and his wife, Danyll, welcomed their first child into the world Jan. 9. Tulowitzki said he liked the name Taz because, just like Troy, it fits with the family's long last name. And wanting to always keep a 'T' in the name, Taz's middle name is Tatum, said Tulowitzki, whose middle name is Trevor.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a pure hitter, and he plays with an edge that his teammates like and I know I like. He's a young kid, but he's one of those guys who is unflappable. The situation is never too big for him." -- Manager Walt Weiss, on OF Corey Dickerson, 24, who impressed the Rockies with his energy, work ethic and ability when he came up from Triple-A Colorado Springs in June.
LHP Jorge De La Rosa
RHP Jhoulys Chacin
LHP Brett Anderson
RHP Tyler Chatwood
RHP Juan Nicasio or LHP Franklin Morales or LHP Christian Friedrich or RHP Jordan Lyles
The Rockies went 49-32 when De La Rosa, Chacin or Chatwood started and 25-56 otherwise. Hence, the importance of Anderson, who was the Opening Day starter for the A's last year but has pitched just 163 innings the past three seasons as he dealt with Tommy John surgery, an oblique injury and last year, a stress fracture in his right foot. Anderson enters camp fully healthy. The Rockies see growth -- and maybe sizable growth -- for Nicasio, who spent the offseason following the 2011 and 2012 seasons rehabbing from a broken neck and microfracture knee surgery, respectively, but had a normal offseason that included five starts in winter ball. Morales made nine starts for the Boston Red Sox in 2012 and one last year but primarily has relieved since 2009. He'll get a chance to return to the rotation, but keeping him in relief gives Weiss a third left-hander in the bullpen, always a desirable option.
RHP LaTroy Hawkins (closer)
LHP Rex Brothers
RHP Matt Belisle
LHP Boone Logan
RHP Adam Ottavino
RHP Wilton Lopez
LHP Franklin Morales
RHP Tommy Kahnle or RHP Nick Masset or RHP Chad Bettis or RHP Manuel Corpas
Hawkins will enter spring training as the closer, but Brothers can be used in that role if Hawkins has pitched a couple nights in a row or the opposing lineup in the ninth is stacked with left-handed hitters.
Assuming Morales doesn't end up in the rotation, one bullpen spot appears open. Belisle and Lopez struggled last year but can be used in lower-leveraged situations because Ottavino went from a multi-inning reliever to a seventh-inning type in the second half of last year and the back end of the bullpen has been fortified by the additions of Hawkins and Logan. Masset, who had thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in August, could start the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs, but he can opt out of his contract June 30 if not on the big league roster. Kahnle, who pitched at Double-A Trenton last year, has a power arm and could be a weapon in middle relief provided his command is more consistent.
1. LF Drew Stubbs or Charlie Blackmon or Corey Dickerson
2. RF Michael Cuddyer
3. CF Carlos Gonzalez
4. SS Troy Tulowitzki
5. C Wilin Rosario
6. 1B Justin Morneau
7. 3B Nolan Arenado
8. 2B DJ LeMahieu
Weiss said he plans to bat reigning National League batting champion Cuddyer second rather than LeMahieu, who will drop to eighth. It is possible Weiss will flip-flop Gonzalez and Tulowitzki, hitting the former fourth and moving later to third. In the absence Fowler, who was traded to Houston, Gonzalez is scheduled to shift to center field from left field. However, if Blackmon or Stubbs emerge in the three-way battle for left field, either can play center field and Weiss might platoon them there and keep Gonzalez in left. One certainty is that Gonzalez will not move back and forth between left field and center, but will play one outfield position. Against tough left-handed pitchers, Morneau, a left-handed hitter, will likely be replaced at first base by either Cuddyer or Rosario, both right-handed hitters. Josh Rutledge, Charlie Culberson and Paul Janish will vie for two utility spots.
TOP ROOKIES: RHP Jonathan Gray, the third player taken in the 2013 amateur draft, and RHP Eddie Butler are expected to open the season at Double-A Tulsa, but both could be in the Rockies rotation by mid-season. Both are hard throwers with plus command, who project to be front-of-the-rotation starters. Gray went 4-0 with a 1.95 ERA in nine combined starts last year for Rookie Grand Junction and high Class A Modesto, allowing 25 hits in 37 innings with eight walks and 51 strikeouts. Butler pitched at low Class A Asheville, Modesto and Tulsa last year and went a combined 9-5 with a 1.80 ERA in 149 2/3 innings, allowing 96 hits and 52 walks with 143 strikeouts.
--RHP Jhoulys Chacin (right shoulder strain and inflammation) had not thrown a bullpen session as of March 2. He probably won't win pitch in the regular season before mid-April.
--OF Drew Stubbs (eosinophilic esophagitis) sat out a few days before making his Cactus League debut March 2.
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