Rockies ready for serious spring work

Rockies ready for some serious spring work

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Colorado pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training on Friday morning, in preparation for Saturday afternoon's initial workout. Pitching coach Bob Apodaca is expecting his starters to be ready to work -- hard for now, and long when the season starts.

The starters will pitch every four days during the early portion of the Spring Training schedule instead of the usual once every five days. It's because the Rockies want to achieve a durability that's common elsewhere but unprecedented with this franchise, which operates in a demanding atmosphere.

In the 13-year history of the Rockies, just eight times has a pitcher surpassed 200 innings in a season. As a comparison, last season saw the world champion Chicago White Sox feature four that surpassed the 200 mark. Apocaca thinks something similar is doable in Colorado. Right-handers Aaron Cook and Jason Jennings, who are competing for the Opening Day start, and lefty Jeff Francis, who led the team with 183 2/3 innings last season as a rookie, have demonstrated durability traits.

Just three times have the Rockies had two pitchers surpass 200.

"I'd like to see at least three guys go 200 innings," said Apodaca, heading into his fourth year as the Rockies' pitching coach. "I think 'Cookie' can do it because he's a guy who likes to finish what he starts, and he gets ground balls with runners on base. That helps him get deep in games. Jeff Francis threw almost 190 last year.

"I know it would be a very, very bold statement to have five guys over 200 innings, but that should be a goal for us."

Four jobs are set, with Cook, Jennings, Francis and right-hander Byung-Hyun Kim. The fifth job is a competition among Sunny Kim, Zach Day, Josh Fogg and, possibly, non-roster right-hander Keiichi Yabu. Those who don't make the rotation could be up for bullpen jobs. Speaking of the bullpen, the Rockies will go with a seven-man bullpen again, with jobs expected to go to lefty closer Brian Fuentes, veteran lefty Ray King and righties Mike DeJean and Jose Mesa.

There could be plenty of opportunity to see the competitors for the final starting spot in camp. Francis will pitch for Canada in the World Baseball Classic, and the two Kims will pitch for Korea. That means plenty of innings for those who stay in camp.

The four-day schedule will most likely start with an intrasquad game on Feb. 27 (there will be another intrasquad game on March 3, a scheduled off-day). Apodaca will be flexible about the schedule, since many pitchers go through a dead-arm period during Spring Training.

The new schedule also is designed to get the staff off to a better start. None of the pitchers have been dominant in the season's first month. Jennings (6-11, 6.32 ERA) has been bad in April. He went 1-3 with a 4.55 ERA last April, struggled in May but had rebounded and was 6-9 with a 5.02 ERA in 20 starts before suffering a fractured finger on July 20 to end his season.

"Back when we went to the four-man rotation (in 2004), I said the more you do something, the better you get at it, whether you're pitching, swinging a golf club, whatever," Jennings said. "Maybe we can get stronger and get off to a better start."

Given the history of the franchise, 200 innings seems an accomplishment. But 2006 is about increasing standards. The Rockies believe better starting pitching can be a key to ending a streak of five losing seasons and becoming a factor in a National League West that has no clear favorite.

Francis, who led the team in wins last year while going 14-12 with a 5.68 ERA, isn't accepting 200 as the gold standard.

Francis reached 183 2/3 innings last year even though he went into the seventh inning just three times. A No. 1 draft pick in 2002, Francis comes with higher expectations.

"That's just a little more than a third of an inning more per start," Francis said. "My goal is to be more consistent, and I know I'm capable of that. There were a lot of games when I either had a lead or I fell behind early. I want to be the type of pitcher that can pitch for a long time and keep his team in a tight game."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.