February 2009

Francis offers variety during bullpen session

Tidbits from a cool and overcast Tuesday at Hi Corbett Field:

— Rockies left-hander Jeff Francis threw a 25-pitch bullpen session, using curveballs and breaking pitches as well as fastballs. Francis is looking to determine whether to go season-ending surgery on his sore left shoulder.

Here’s the latest.

— Cross two players off the list for the World Baseball Classic. Left-handed pitcher Jorge De La Rosa told Mexico no, saying he wanted to stay in the Rockies’ camp. The Rockies are counting on him being part of their season-opening rotation. Also, catcher Sal Fasano will not play for Team Italy at the behest of the Rockies. Chris Iannetta is set to play for Team USA, so the club needs catching depth in camp.

— Left-handed reliever Randy Flores finished last season with shoulder problems while with the Cardinals, but has been surprisingly healthy in camp. Flores threw a bullpen session on Monday. The Rockies have him on a modified schedule, so his next session is Thursday.

Early-spring lineup thoughts

Manager Clint Hurdle hasn’t revealed his lineup yet, but he gave some thoughts.

— The game-changer, Matt Holliday, is gone, having been traded to the Athletics, but Hurdle believes he has “the personnel to have a very challenging lineup, 1-through-8, maybe as challenging as we’ve had on some time.” He measures this is “the quality of at-bats, the number of pitches seen, the ability to hit a ball in the gap and score a couple runs.”

— On Todd Helton: “The only thing we’ve talked about over the winter is him finding a way, with good health, to be the toughest out in the National League.” Hurdle said if that happens, his customary No. 3 spot could be the place for him. But he recalled the 2007 lineup functioning nicely with him hitting cleanup.

— Can left-handed hitting Brad Hawpe bat cleanup? Hurdle says it’s worth exploring, because Hawpe proved last year he could hit lefties consistently. Before then, the question was whether Hawpe was a platoon palyer. Regardless where Hawpe hits in the order, Hurdle sad he has earned the lineup to stay in the lineup against tough lefties.

— Center fielder Ryan Spilborghs’ .374 on-base percentage means he’ll have first shot at the leadoff role. The power Spilborghs has shown in part-time duty over the last two years leads Hurdle to believe Spilborghs can be a different type of leadoff hitter. “Those of us who’ve got a little age on us can remember when Brian Downing led off with the Angels,” Hurdle said. “Of course, he was a DH, but he went to the top of the order. Eerybody said, ‘What?’ But it turned out to be a very nice play, and a very nice dynamic they had.”

The leadoff man as an RBI guy? Don’t scoff. “You look at how many times last year we had our leadoff hitter up wiht a man in scoring position, and we really didn’t fare in a real good way.”

— Catcher Chris Iannetta produced runs and reached base at rates that are good for those who bat in the top or middle of the lineup. Hurdle said Iannetta could hit in the foruth or fifth spots against left-handed pitching. In 80 at-bats against lefties, Iannetta hit .275 with six home runs and 19 RBIs last season.

— An interesting question will be where shortstop Troy Tulowitzki will hit. In 2007, Tulowitzki hit .297 in the second spot and .294 in the seven hole. In 2008, Tulowitzki fared much better at No. 7 (.306) than No. 2 (.222).

Go forth and exercise: In recent season, many of the Rockies stayed in Denver and worked out at Coors Field because they clicked with strength and conditioning coach Brad Andress. But the club replaced him after last season ended, and hadn’t promoted Brian Jordan from within, so many players ended up training in their hometowns. General manager Dan O’Dowd said, “I think training has evolved in a lot of different directions. Some of the agencies and training institutes are on the cutting edge. In some cases it’s great, in orhter cases it may be not so. But where our guys went really helped them.”

On the way: Catcher Yorvit Torrealba was hoping to arrive in Tucson on Monday night, and right-hander Jason Grilli was hoping to arrive Tuesday and be available for Wednesday’s workout. Both were mourning deaths in their families.

The first day of 2009

Here are some thoughts from the Rockies’ first workout at Hi Corbett Field.

— Left-handed pitcher Jeff Francis was not nearly as upbeat as he was a couple of days ago when discussing the health of his shoulder, which bothered him all last season. Francis must either prove to be healthy or undergo surgery. Last week went so well that Francis was smiling and marveling. Sunday afternoon, the shoulder didn’t feel as good.

So does this mean surgery is imminent? Not necessarily.

Rockies head trainer Keith Dugger warned Francis that he wasn’t out of the woods because his shoulder felt good for a few days. He still hopes to throw off the mound soon. Francis had limited involvement in the first workout. For example, he was limited to practicing bunts in a drill in which other pitchers faked a bunt and swung in an attempt to hit a ground ball through the infield.

— Rockies club president Keli McGregor said Sunday that there have been no recent talks with Tucson, Ariz., officials about the club’s future plans. With just two teams in Tucson — the Rox and the D-Backs, now that the White Sox have left for the Phoenix area — all kinds of possibilities exist, although the Rockies playing alone at Hi Corbett and the D-Backs alone at Tucson Electric Park is a situation that won’t last long. Even if the D-Backs are joined by a Japanese team, which was proposed recently, there is still the issue of the Rockies playing at an aging park.

There has been talk of a complex in Marana, Ariz., which is northwest of Tucson, and some news stories have mentioned the possibility of a complex in Casa Grande, which is between Tucson and Phoenix on I-10. And the Phoenix area has been raised as an option.

McGregor said he’ll have discussions with offcials from Tucson and surrounding areas over the next few weeks.


The Rockies' Paul Phillips demonstrates that a dummy designed to help pitchers is of use to catchers.jpg— Part of of the workout for the catchers featured “The Ultimate Pitcher’s Tool,” which looked much like a crash test dummy. I shot it with the camera on my phone. It is designed to place in a batter’s box to teach pitchers to throw inside without fear. But in the catcher workout, it was placed on the basepath to simulate a runner. Catchers would field balls in front of the plate and throw to first base. Sometimes, the catchers had to adjust the throwing angle so they didn’t hit the dummy.

At least there was no danger of the runner beating the throw.

Folks love Josh Fogg

Pitchers and catchers were due to report to Tucson, Ariz., today, and many of them worked out on a day that was every bit as nice as Denver was nasty. Well, I hear Denver was nasty. Sorry about that.

Anyhow, one of the nicest developments is the presence of right-hander Josh Fogg. Admittedly, it might be hard for him to make the team. But as he noted, he wasn’t going to make the team in 2006 until Byung-Hyun Kim and Sun-Woo Kim suffered injuries late in camp. Fogg stayed in the rotation for two years, went 21-18 and became a fan favorite.

Many folks filled my e-mail box with protests when the Rockies didn’t re-sign him last year. He signed with the Reds, but after a bad year during which he lost his spot in the rotation, was hit in the face with a line drive at one point and generally didn’t succeed.

Now he’s back, under a Minor League contract. Most of the competitors for a spot on the roster are younger and have livelier arms.

But no doubt folks will be pulling for Fogg. He also feels the love of the fans.

“I think I can relate to the fans a little bit,” Fogg said. “I’m not one of those guys that goes out there and lights up the radar gun. I’m a little closer to the guys that played in high school. They see me out there and say, I used to throw 86 mph. I used to throw 85. They know I’m gutting it out a little bit more, not dominating with my stuff.”


… More Brian Fuentes

Tom posed an interesting question in the comments from my last posting. Fuentes had a penchant for letting runners on base — a practice that led a great friend of mine, a loyal Rocies fan, to always say, “Brian is playing with his food.” You asked if it was the light air or big spaces at Coors that led to runners always seeming to be on base. I don’t think that was the case.

I don’t know why there were always runners on base, but I do know this: Fuentes is a better pitcher in traffic. In his career, Fuentes has yielded a lower average with runners on (.220) than with bases empty (.224). The numbers tilted even more in that direction before last season, when Fuentes actually held hitters to .193 with the bases empty, to .226 with runners on base.

I don’t have a scientific reason for this. It could simply be a focus issue. Good closers pitch well under pressure, and many of them seem to create pressure for themselves. Fuentes already has a high strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate, and I expect that to continue with the Angels. I also expect many of the strikeouts to come with runners on base.

And, bloggers, thanks for all the warm welcomes. Honk or yell out my name if you see me around Hi Corbett.

Greetings … and some Chris Iannetta talk

I’m settled into my housing. I’ve hung up all my clothes. Somewhere, my mom and dad are smiling.

Just outside of my window are two dogs, and adult and a pup. The pup is leaping and dashing and otherwise trying to impress the big dog. Every now and then, the pup wants to wrestle but ends up getting a big, stay-in-your-place bite on the ear. Somewhere in there is an analogy about Spring Training and position battles, but I’ll leave that to the poets.

Anyhow, thanks for the comments on the last blog. Remember, the people you usually read blogs from are the experts at this. I’m just a puppy at this forum. So pet me or hit me with the rolled up newspaper.

On to a question, from Scott T. Myers:

There is a lot of uncertainty with the heart of our lineup. Why is catcher Chris Iannetta not ever spoken about being consistently in the 3-5 range in the linuep? I know he has not proven his power for a long time, but neither has anyone else in our lineup. His 18 bombs last year should not be overlooked. Thoughts?

Iannetta’s 2008 was one of the best in Rockies history for a catcher. A couple of stats stuck out — the 65 RBIs and .390 on-base percentage were club records. The big one might have been the number of games he played, 104. There’s a theory that 100 games is optimal for a catcher with the Rockies, since playing at Coors Field can be taxing because the number of games that are a combination of lengthy and intense is higher than at other parks. So, the key is having a strong No. 2 catcher to make sure that the main guy doesn’t wear himself out late in the season.

That being the case, 62 games or something around that seems to be a large number of games not to have a heart-of-the-order guy in the lineup by design. For me, that would be an effective argument against putting Iannetta or any other Rockies catcher in those key spots. They have Yorvit Torrealba and are paying him $4 million, so he’ll play some.

For me, also, it’s a philosophical question. For a catcher, defense is the No. 1 job and trying to work a pitching staff through a season in such a difficult park makes it even more so. Putting the catcher in the heart of the order sends a contrary message in my way of thinking.

If Iannetta continues to reach base consistently and drive in runs, putting him low in the order could satisfy one of the philosophies general manager Dan O’Dowd wanted to put in place when he got the job — at a time when the Blake Street Bombers had just broken up. He felt long, productive innings were as important as home runs in putting pressure on the opposition. Having such a dependable guy lower in the order helps keep innings going, as long as someone makes up for the loss of Matt Holliday in the middle of the order.

Once more, keep those comments and questions coming.