Rockies counting on Jimenez, Morales
Young pitchers thrived last season, struggled this spring
ST. LOUIS -- When the games really counted last season, young Rockies pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales met the challenge. Their work after being promoted late last season helped the Rockies make it to their first World Series, and solidified their spots in the rotation for 2008.
But both have raised concerns over the way they've pitched in games that don't count, at least in the standings.
In five Cactus League games, Jimenez, 24, went 2-1 but with a 7.78 ERA. Morales, 22, finished 1-2 with a 6.65 ERA in six games. In 41 1/3 innings, they combined for 30 strikeouts, but 20 walks and a whopping 58 hits. During last year's 23 combined starts in the Majors, they posted a 4.23 ERA with 97 strikeouts to 54 walks and 104 hits in 121 1/3 innings -- and the team went 15-8.
So when Jimenez, a right-hander, starts on Thursday against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, and Morales, a lefty, opens his 2008 on April 6 at Coors Field against the Diamondbacks, will they pitch beyond their years -- the way they did last season -- or will the youthful inconsistency of Spring Training be the rule?
"They've pitched in some of the most emotional, meaningful games that they're probably ever going to pitch in their careers at the end of the year," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "It's not like they're going to be in awe.
"It's just a matter, with both Morales and Jimenez, if they can have enough aptitude to understand the adjustments that they need to make, in the course of the game, they need to make them."
Issues with their violent deliveries affected both pitchers' fastball command. Both were electric at times. But Morales' answer to trouble was to try to throw harder, which took away movement and command. Jimenez usually was good for longer periods than Morales, but was bitten by the inning in which he couldn't get the fastball down in the strike zone or correct the root problem.
But, oddly, both have track records that suggest that the tough-to-duplicate excitement and pressure of a real game could be what they need.
Before his callup in mid July, Jimenez had a 5.85 ERA at Triple-A Colorado Springs, and he needed three strong starts to drop his ERA from 6.00+. Morales had almost as many walks (13) as strikeouts (16) in his three Triple-A starts, but the Rockies had to summon him for an Aug. 18 start because of injuries.
Can the key to sound pitching be as simple as being in a real game?
"I don't know," Jimenez said with an easy laugh. "I just know I'm going to be ready whenever I start. I'm going to put everything together."
Pitching coach Bob Apodaca doesn't believe there's any such magic to it.
He certainly believes the adrenaline helps, but that alone doesn't make a pitcher. If Jimenez and Morales are able to reduce their pitch counts and increase their innings, which is paramount, it'll be mainly the result of preparation, practice and execution. Apodaca said he has seen progress during side sessions in the cases of both.
"I can see where the end of Spring Training can get very, very taxing and very Groundhog Day-ish, where every day the same routine," said Apodaca, who noted that the slow springs could be because both rested and didn't pitch winter ball, as they normally do. "I can see where that can become a drag. But I don't know anybody, just because it's Opening Day, that can all of a sudden flip a switch and eliminate the mistakes that you've been making for two or three starts.
"They're not satisfied with the results of Spring Training. But I think we've made inroads as far as what I see as progress [in side sessions]. Now we really have to get this progress into the game. That's always the first order of business."
Even though the Rockies won the National League pennant last year and made few changes, there is debate over whether they're the best team in their division going into this year.
Experts tend to go with teams with better-known pitchers or those that have made key acquisitions. For example, the Diamondbacks already had Brandon Webb and Randy Johnson, and then acquired Dan Haren. The Padres had Jake Peavy and Greg Maddux, and will soon have Mark Prior. The Dodgers and even the Giants have solid rotations and work in pitchers' parks.
However, it was revealed on Friday that Diamondbacks starter Doug Davis has thyroid cancer and will soon undergo surgery -- with a full recovery expected. The Dodgers' Jason Schmidt and the Padres' Prior are always dealing with injury issues. The Rockies, who have a consistent winner in Jeff Francis, need Aaron Cook to have a healthy and consistent season and lefty Mark Redman to pitch the way he did for them at the end of last season.
The Rockies will have pitchers to go to should the youngsters get in trouble in the form of Kip Wells and Josh Towers, as well as prospect Greg Reynolds at Triple-A Colorado Springs. The Rockies needed 13 different starters last year to survive and thrive. And the pitchers have the luxury of an offense that is considered the best in the division.
"We're going to score enough runs in certain games," O'Dowd said. "We're going to be facing pitching with the same kinds of question marks."
The Rockies will take chances on their young arms coming up with the right answers.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.