The Rockies kept Matzek, 20, in extended spring training for the first month of the season to prepare him for the rigors of pro ball. Turns out opposing hitters needed the protection. In his debut for Class A Asheville, Matzek held Greensboro to one hit in five innings and went on to go 5-1 with a 2.92 ERA in 18 starts.
The performance was good enough for Matzek to take the No. 33 spot on MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects list, which was unveiled Tuesday night. Matzek was joined by two other Rockies -- catcher Wilin Rosario, listed at No. 41, and left-handed pitcher Christian Friedrich, who ranked 50th.
Rosario, who turns 22 on Feb. 23, and Friedrich, 23, the team's top pick in 2008, were invited to the 2010 Futures Game during the All-Star weekend in Anaheim. Both had their seasons shortened by injuries -- Rosario's by a torn right ACL that needed surgery, and Friedrich's by a lat strain in his throwing arm, after a couple of injuries to the throwing elbow. However, both were at Coors Field last week for the team's medical minicamp, and are expected to be healthy in 2011.
The careful pace the Rockies used with Matzek helped him bridge from hard-throwing high-schooler to a prospect who has shown early signs of being a pitcher, rather than a thrower.
The extra time in Spring Training allowed Matzek to learn how to handle the professional pace and workload without the pressure of pitching in games. The Rockies also helped Matzek tweak his delivery so it could produce consistency over a long season, rather than eye-popping velocity over a short high school season.
"We worked on just his load and balance, since it's important to get a downhill plane and a repeatable delivery," Rockies player development director Marc Gustafson said. "It was not a major overhaul, just some adjustments to keep him on line so he's not throwing across his body.
"He can get up to 97 mph on his fastball, but his comfort zone is 92-93. With the slider, curve and changeup that he has, those can complement his fastball. He doesn't need all that velocity, but he can go get it if he needs it."
The Rockies will continue bringing Matzek along at a controlled pace. He will not be invited to Major League camp. That means he'll have more preparation time, and won't be tempted to overthrow in the presence of big league players and staff.
"Our first priority was to finish his first full season healthy," Gustafson said. "And when he went to Asheville, he showed his ability to take over a game. Now it's a matter of control, but his stuff is really good."
Rosario has attracted the notice of those who rank prospects since hitting .316 at rookie level Casper in 2008. The Rockies made Rosario a non-roster invitee to the last two Spring Trainings. A strong year at Double-A Tulsa, where he not only grew into his power but showed development in handling pitches, earned him a spot on the 40-man Major League roster.
Rosario was hitting .285 with 19 home runs when he was injured in August. Rosario was able to catch bullpen sessions last week in Denver and his progress will be monitored when he reports to the Rockies' camp.
"We always knew about the set of baseball tools Wilin had, but it was great to see him reach Double-A and have the season that he did," Gustafson said. "We started to see power, then you throw in a .285 average and that's a good year. He just relaxed and played, and that's what we're telling him to do now -- have a relaxed mind and pick up where you left off."
Friedrich's 2010 was an odd one. He began the year 0-6 with a 5.59 ERA before the All-Star break. The numbers were more positive in the second half -- 3-1, 3.99 ERA in seven starts. For the season, he was 3-6 with a 5.05 ERA in 18 starts.
But along the way, Friedrich missed starts because of a left elbow strain, a bruised elbow when he has hit by a batted ball and, finally, a lat strain beneath his left arm. Just being on the mound was a struggle. However, the invitation to the Futures Game shows just how highly his raw ability was regarded.
Friedrich went to Major League camp last year, and many considered him to be on the big league radar. Now the Rockies are consciously dialing back any big league hype.
"We just want to keep him healthy so he can start every fifth day," Gustafson said. "If he's able to repeat his delivery, his stuff is good enough to dominate a game. We've seen flashes of that. Part of the reason for the inconsistency is just being inconsistently healthy enough to be out there. We're going to let him compete and let all that other stuff take care of itself."
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.Less