03/19/2013 10:40 PM ET
Nicasio sees progress in changeup to offset heater
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rockies right-handed pitcher Juan Nicasio came to Spring Training with two initiatives. At the end of an interview, he asked for an assessment of one of them.
"How is my English?" Nicasio said, smiling.
That's progressing, and he'll need it if he can continue to develop his other project, which is more vital to his job. A hard thrower, Nicasio is developing confidence in a changeup that can offset his fastball and slider. On Tuesday, he used the changeup better than he has at any point in his career, while holding the Royals to one run and three hits in five innings of the Rockies' 7-2 victory.
Nicasio, 26, has been impressive at times in injury-shortened stints with the Rockies in 2011 and '12, but the lack of a third pitch has been an issue, especially when hitters have seen him in a game. He has managed a 6-7 record with a 4.65 ERA in 24 total starts. Showing supreme confidence that he will develop, the Rockies didn't throw his spot in the rotation open for competition in Spring Training.
Last year, Nicasio worked on his changeup in the bullpen, but barely used it in competition. On Tuesday, he enticed Royals leadoff man Alex Gordon to ground sharply to first base and fanned Gordon with a full count in the fifth, both times on changeups.
"Now I feel like I want to throw it," Nicasio said. "I feel the same as my fastball when I throw my changeup.
"I play in Coors Field. I need one pitch to help my fastball. It's hard because everybody is talking about the breaking ball, it can't break in Denver."
Nicasio is throwing a four-seam circle change. He had tried throwing with a two-seam grip like a sinker, but didn't feel it had the same downward bite as the circle change. He still has a fastball with upward movement. Two of his three strikeouts were on 97 mph fastballs to Eric Hosmer.
The change wasn't perfect. Mike Moustakas swatted one -- which was 87 mph, rather than the 84 mph that his best changeup travels, and hung in the middle of the plate -- beyond the right-field fence and almost over the grassy knoll behind it in the second inning. But he is learning the good and the bad. .
"We pitched him in the Triple-A game in his last outing, so he had more chances to throw his curveball and slider and get more confidence," Rockies pitching coach Jim Wright said. "Going five innings today was a step forward for him.
"He's working on the changeup in the bullpen. It doesn't show up quite as good in the game yet, but it's incrementally getting better each start. He hadn't pitched in seven months [because of a knee injury] and hasn't pitched much the last couple of years."
As a rookie in 2011, Nicasio suffered a broken neck when hit in the face by a ball hit by the Nationals' Ian Desmond, and last year he suffered the knee injury trying to field a hard-hit ball through the middle.
If Nicasio perfects his changeup, he can overcome the experience he missed.
"When you can throw 97 [mph] and have a changeup, it makes it tough for the hitter," manager Walt Weiss said. "That's the best I've seen his changeup."
Rockies evaluate Arenado after big performance
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rockies third-base prospect Nolan Arenado, who hit four home runs early in Cactus League play but had scuffled for hits recently, went 3-for-4 Tuesday as a designated hitter to lift his spring average to .314.
Incumbent third baseman Chris Nelson has a .238 average after steadily working his way up from a slow start.
Arenado, who turns 22 in April, is trying to make the leap from Double-A to the starting lineup.
"Nolan needs to keep a good pace, slow the game down," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "He's done a nice job this spring. It's good to see him get a few more hits."
One concern in evaluating Arenado is his spot in the batting order. With adequate power throughout the lineup, a lineup that includes Nelson would have him batting eighth. For a young power hitter, hitting ahead of the pitcher could be a challenge, because teams will entice him to chase pitches.
"It's a tough spot to hit in, so it would depend on who's in the lineup with him," Weiss said. "We're still a ways from that."
Close friends Torrealba, Hernandez fight for one spot
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Yorvit Torrealba and Ramon Hernandez visit one another's homes in Florida during the offseason. They played winter ball together in Venezuela, where they grew up. They've passed many hours talking baseball, sharing their passion for the catcher position, and competing at dominoes.
They were together again Tuesday afternoon, with Torrealba, 34, starting for the Rockies against the Royals and Hernandez, 36, serving as backup. But this strange spring they realize they won't be together long. With second-year slugger Wilin Rosario entrenched as starter, there is room for just one of them.
Hernandez is signed for $3.2 million this year to complete a two-year contract. Torrealba is under a Minor League deal. There has been talk of the Rockies trading Hernandez, but nothing has materialized. Torrealba, who was the starting catcher on Rockies teams that went to the postseason in 2007 and '09 and is back after spending time with the Padres, Rangers and Blue Jays, could ask out of his Minor League deal and find is own big league job.
"It is a weird situation that's hard," Torrealba said. "It would be nice if they could keep all three of us on the ballclub. All I do is wish him the best, and it's the same from him. We keep working hard."
Although Torrealba's situation is more tenuous because he doesn't have a Major League deal, the lack of catching depth industry-wide suggests there is room for both, somewhere.
"He'll be a Major Leaguer and I'll be a Major Leaguer, so we're here working hard and getting ready for the season," Hernandez said. "That's the way I see it. I realize they're trying to trade me, although I'd like to be here. I know Yorvit wants to be here. We'll see how it turns out. But to be honest with you, this doesn't feel like competition at all."
Torrealba was signed as protection in case Hernandez wasn't fully healthy after a 2012 season that was marred by a hand injury early and a ruptured hamstring at the end. But Hernandez reported to camp healthy at about 13 pounds lighter than last year to take some pressure off his legs. Both have been starters for much of their careers and are transitioning to backup roles, something Torrealba struggled with in Texas and Toronto last year.
Now they appear ready to help mentor a young catcher and offer their experience to pitchers trying to advance their thought processes.
"It's a little bit stressful, to be honest with you, because it is the first time I've been in a situation where I don't really know what to expect," Torrealba said. "But overall, I know I can help the team. So I'm having fun and doing my job. So far it's working. I'm having a really good spring, I feel healthy, way better than I did last year.
"In Texas, Mike Napoli had an unbelievable year the year before and in the postseason, so they decided to go with him and I wasn't playing much. Napoli deserved to play and I knew that, but it was tough because I was playing one every five or six games, but I learned."
Herrera in continuous battle to make roster
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rockies infielder Jonathan Herrera seems to be energized by the annual pressure to make the team.
Herrera doubled twice in Monday night's 4-3 loss to the Reds. The doubles lifted his batting average from .188 to .278.
But in his previous game against the Giants on Sunday, Herrera illustrated a big part of his argument to be included. With runners at first and third in a tie game, Herrera, in the game at shortstop to spell Troy Tulowitzki, ranged behind second base to grab a Brandon Crawford grounder, made a slick throw to first base, then celebrated his play by breaking into a stylish backpedal.
Herrera made the Opening Day roster for the first time in his career in 2011, and beat back several challengers for his spot last season. He has hit .259 with seven home runs and 50 RBIs in 294 career Major League games. But his ability to play second and third solidly and shortstop if pressed into it, as well as his handling of fundamentals -- a .323 on-base percentage and the ability to move runners -- have made him hard to supplant.
And he does it all with flair.
"Every year for me is the same -- I never feel comfortable, never take it for granted, work hard and do everything they ask me to do," said Herrera, who has gotten a charge from having his father, Jesus, in town from Venezuela this week. "Field the groundballs, do the little things. I don't have any shame to move that guy over, get that bunt down, and don't worry about numbers and batting average. I don't know what my average is. Anytime I do one of the little things, that's a hit for me.
"I'm so happy. I have fun."
Manager Walt Weiss understands Herrera's value.
"He can move the ball around the field," Weiss said. "You can hit-and-run with him. He can bunt. He's got a nice approach in those situational at-bats. And of course, he's a professional ball-catcher. You can put him anywhere in the infield and you've got a plus defender."
Herrera is in a group of infielders who are battling for roster spots. Jordan Pacheco, who hit .309 last season, plays third, first and catcher and appears to be safe for a spot. There is also Reid Brignac, a left-handed hitting shortstop, DJ LeMahieu, who started at second base the latter part of last season and Charlie Culberson, a former Giants prospect who has impressed the Rockies with his physical abilities. All but Brignac have Minor League options. Depending on how the roster shakes out, there likely is room for Pacheco and one other.
The bench spots, the fifth starter in the pitching rotation, the three middle relief spots and the backup catcher are decisions the Rockies must shake out the remaining days of camp.
• Tuesday's game was under American League rules, so Weiss experimented with usual No. 3 hitter Carlos Gonzalez hitting second and cleanup man Troy Tulowitzki hitting third.
"We were just messing around -- maybe sometimes in Interleague Play," Weiss said. "I look at that nine hitter sometimes as another leadoff guy. So it's like hitting third, still, and we can possibly get him another at-bat."
• Infielder DJ LeMahieu, battling for a backup infield spot, went 2-for-4 with an RBI single Tuesday. He played third base and had an error.
Last season, LeMahieu made the most of the starts he received at second base in the final months and finished with a .297 average in 81 games.
• Righty reliever Edgmer Escalona, returning to Cactus League play after missing a week because a ground ball he deflected hit him in the face, pitched a scoreless inning with a strikeout. Escalona, who is out of Minor League options, has a 1.50 ERA in five Cactus League appearances.
Weiss said the Rockies haven't decided whether to go with seven relievers or eight when the regular season starts. Even though the Rockies are off the fourth day of the season, Weiss said the team will begin with five starters rather than four.
• Veteran right fielder Michael Cuddyer had two standout defensive plays -- a running catch of a Lorenzo Cain fly ball, after which he doubled Salvador Perez off first base; and a laser throw to third to retire Billy Butler, who was trying to go from first to third on a single. Cuddyer, who also plays first base, is seen as a leader in the Rockies' initiative to improve a defense that led the Majors in errors last season.
• Outfield prospect Corey Dickerson doubled in both of his at-bats and has a .400 average this spring. Dickerson hit a combined .304 with 22 home runs, 40 doubles and 88 RBIs at Class A Modesto and Double-A Tulsa last season.
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.