Rockies take deliberate approach on first day
Hoping to avoid injuries, Tracy eases pitchers into routines
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- For all the shining newness that surrounded them, the Rockies managed to be their traditionally understated selves Tuesday afternoon during their first workout for pitchers and catchers.
There are practical reasons behind the less-is-more philosophy. After seeing all their pitching plans come apart last spring because of injuries, all blamed to some degree on rushing progress, those who threw Tuesday were limited to 30 pitches.
In the past, the early Spring Training bullpen sessions were timed. If someone were trying to make the team, or prove he was healthy, or improve his stats/contract status/role/whatever, he could squeeze a lot of intense throwing in seven or eight minutes.
Before even taking the field, manager Jim Tracy's advice to the team was not necessarily go get 'em, but be ready to go get 'em when the regular season begins. The goal is not to be top notch in February, but to last through the postseason.
Last spring, closer Huston Street adopted an aggressive plan and ended up missing 11 weeks. Setup man Rafael Betancourt tried to do too much too soon after arriving at camp fighting off a virus. Add to that the setback left-hander Jeff Francis (now with the Royals) suffered late in camp while recovering from a shoulder injury, and one can see why the Rockies wanted to begin slowly.
The issues all led to a slow start, that was at least partly to blame for the Rockies fading in the season's final weeks and finishing third in the National League West.
On Tuesday, even Ubaldo Jimenez, who finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting last year, had the 30-pitch limit. So will veterans Street, Betancourt and Aaron Cook when they throw Wednesday.
The new plan not only protects veterans but also young players who want to turn heads. It's why Tracy made it a point to stay as far away from the bullpen area as possible when pitchers were throwing.
"We just want to come in here each and every day being very proactive in staying away from anything that may appear to be a silly injury," Tracy said.
For example, second-year right-hander Jhoulys Chacin said he was more relaxed than last year. Granted, his role has changed. After setting a Rockies rookie strikeout record with 138, Chacin is penciled in as the No. 4 starter. Last year, he was hoping to get someone to notice.
Chacin escaped injury last year, and he realizes the new plan is to try to keep him healthy this time.
"I'm trying to be easy the first few days to get the arm in shape," Chacin said. "I've been practicing in the Dominican Republic and I've been throwing bullpens of 40 or 50 pitches. To throw 30 is a normal bullpen. I feel good today.
"I want to get my arm in the best shape I can to throw as many innings as I can during the season."
Tracy told the club that no one is going to make the team based on the first throwing sessions.
That means someone like left-handed reliever Matt Reynolds -- who had an impressive spring last year before starting the year in Triple-A and wound up a big Major League contributor at season's end -- is not under extra pressure at this point.
Reynolds said most pitchers can handle either a time limit or a pitch limit, but the new plan is fine with him.
"I don't think it's too big of a deal for most guys," Reynolds said. "If you have a set time, you know what your limits are going to be. But there are some guys that sometimes on the first day they don't necessarily pace themselves the way they should, and they open themselves up for some fatigue.
"You know what your body can handle, but it is comforting to know you can come in and do your own thing and get your arm ready for the season at a slower pace."
But with pro athletes, the rules aren't always rigid.
In most cases, pitchers were limited in what they threw. Pitching coach Bob Apodaca's plan for the early sessions is of every 10 pitches, eight are fastballs and two are changeups. Right-handed reliever Matt Belisle, however, threw some breaking pitches to the lower part of the strike zone.
Belisle is constantly modifying his approach because of a career-long history of forearm strains. Part of it is aggressive strength work. The other is throwing all of his pitches, even early in the spring. He said he discussed his methods and reasoning with Apodaca.
On Tuesday, Belisle's curveballs stood out because he was flanked by pitchers not even thinking about breaking balls.
But the tighter pitch limit makes sense to him.
"They want us to understand that this is a marathon and they want to be ready for a World Series," Belisle said. "To do that, we have to be healthy. Just to get quality work out of a 30-pitch bullpen first is going to make us hone in on having good rhythm and making good pitches."
The Rockies' first workout occurred without left-hander Jorge De La Rosa, who was delayed by visa problems in Mexico. The Rockies announced that De La Rosa will arrive Wednesday afternoon, which means he'll most likely not be available until Thursday's workout.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.