DENVER -- The Rockies' potential Opening Day rotation is full of mysteries and questions, thanks to an exciting -- if unproven -- set of hurlers either obtained in recent trades or developed by the farm system. Then, there is right-hander Jason Hammel, who is heading into his fourth season with the club at age 29 but is still a mysterious figure, especially after his confounding performance in 2011. After a strong first month, Hammel was so inconsistent over the next four months that he pitched his way out of the rotation. But in his final seven appearances -- five relief outings and two starts -- Hammel displayed a greater efficiency and consistency than at any point since joining the club in early 2009.
Hammel pitched well enough in 2009 and '10 to go 20-17 with a 4.57 ERA and earned a two-year, $7.75 million contract. Despite the positive finish, Hammel ended 2011 with a 7-13 record and a 4.59 ERA. The Rockies need better from him in 2012. Unless Colorado finds a veteran pitcher before Opening Day, Hammel could go into the season as the oldest and most experienced pitcher in the starting rotation. The Rockies exiled Hammel to the bullpen after he gave up five or more runs in six of his 12 starts from June 17 to Aug. 19. Then, the fastball location mysteriously reappeared. In his five relief appearances, Hammel earned a save, held opponents to a .162 batting average, struck out eight and walked three in 10 1/3 relief innings. Hammel's last two starts -- a spot appearance against the D-backs on Sept. 6 and a reward start against the Astros on Sept. 24 -- resulted in no-decisions, but that was because of the Rockies' injury-compromised offense. He went seven innings in each of those, giving up three total earned runs and fanned nine against one walk. "I'm very pleased with my September," Hammel said. "I'm very grateful for the work [Rockies bullpen coach] Jimmy Wright has put in with me. It's really opened up my mind and my eyes on how to pitch. Before, I was pitching with talent, just kind of throwing it. "Now, something I can work on in the offseason is going about learning how to pitch. I'm on the doorstep of becoming really good. I've just got to keep working harder and get to that next step." It would be nice to have dependability out of Hammel. Veteran Jorge De La Rosa is expected to miss the early months while recovering from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. The Rockies have been trying to re-sign righty Kevin Millwood, who pitched well at the end of last season, but the sides haven't found a meeting of the minds in contract talks. If a veteran isn't signed, the Rockies could go into the season with two starters who have one full season in a starting rotation (possible No. 1 Jhoulys Chacin and newly acquired Tyler Chatwood), three who made their Major League debuts last year (lefty Drew Pomeranz, righty Alex White and righty Juan Nicasio, who is facing hitters in the Dominican Republic as part of a speedy recovery from a broken vertebrae he suffered last year), and at least one (Esmil Rogers) who has been an on-and-off rotation member for the last couple of seasons. The Rockies went a lackluster 9-16 in September, but if Hammel's return to form holds, that could be a month the club can remember more fondly. "I felt like what the message he was sending to us suggested that we needed to send another positive one back to him, and say, 'Now we want you to start,'" said Rockies manager Jim Tracy. "It was as good as I've seen him pitch since we acquired him in 2009 [from the Rays for Minor League reliever Aneury Rodriguez just before Opening Day]. His tempo, his stuff, his aggression, what is that going to translate into as we go forward? There are a lot of things to be very, very excited about, because of the unknown." Hammel understood that his struggles forced the Rockies to remove him from the rotation. "It was basically them saying we can't go out there every night thinking we're going to get either great stuff or we're going to get batting practice," Hammel said. "It's not easy for a manager to send a guy out when he doesn't know what he's going to get." One odd incident told the story of Hammel's 2011 struggles. With two outs and the Indians' Grady Sizemore at third base in the third inning of a June 22 game at Cleveland, Hammel went into his pitching motion and forgot what pitch he was throwing. He compounded the mistake by not releasing the ball. The balk proved pivotal in a 4-3 loss. That error was the extreme, but periodic losses of concentration were a season-long pattern. The late-season time in the bullpen, during which Wright offered advice and challenged him to produce at his talent level, seemed to help Hammel focus. "The time down in the 'pen really helped me out, working with Jimmy Wright down there," Hammel said. "He's got a grip on the mental part of the game. It was somewhere that I needed to make more strides. Making some changes down there and making some changes between the ears has helped out a lot. "I was focused pre-pitch on exactly what I wanted to do. And then somehow or someway, as I was getting ready to deliver the pitch, my mind was wondering, a lot of what-ifs, instead of just making the pitch and staying with the glove. "I wish I would've figured it out a lot earlier. The season would have gone a lot different for me. Making some changes between the ears has helped out a lot."
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.