DENVER -- The literal and physical growing pains of 2012 have Rockies left-handed pitcher Christian Friedrich eager for next year. Injuries and overall Rockies rotation struggles forced Friedrich into a starting role in May, and he went five or more innings in nine of his first 10 starts. It wasn't Rookie of the Year material, but Friedrich, Colorado's first-round pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, was a bright spot. But the improvement all but stopped when Friedrich had to pitch through extreme back pain for five starts in July. The Rockies ended up shutting Friedrich down when he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in the lower part of his back.
Friedrich, who finished 5-8 with a 6.17 ERA in 16 starts, reports that the injury has almost healed, and he is looking forward to competing for a rotation job in Spring Training. Before last season, inconsistency and injury delayed Friedrich's rise to the Majors. His goal is to show that he can apply what he learned last season -- and stay healthy doing it. "My goal is to definitely get over that hump," Friedrich said. "My innings totals have not been where I've wanted them. If I can get to the 160-, 180-, 200-innings mark, that would be great. Of course, you're not going to have 200 innings if you're not helping your team and you have a bad ERA. "I thought I was getting better last year, but I had the hamstring injury and I took a line drive off my calf, and maybe compensating for it led to my getting hurt. But I feel if I can stay healthy and focus, things will pretty much fall into place." Friedrich, 25, expects to be ready for what could be a heated competition for back-of-the-rotation spots this spring. The Rockies expect left-hander Jorge De La Rosa and right-hander Jhoulys Chacin to bounce back from injury-riddled 2012 seasons to lead the rotation. The club also is talking to free agents such as Jeff Francis and Kevin Correia to add experience to the rotation, and is listening for opportunities to add a dependable pitcher in a trade. Depending on the success of the attempts to acquire experience, a large group of young pitchers will compete for one or two spots. Right-hander Juan Nicasio earned a rotation spot last year, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in early June. Highly regarded lefty Drew Pomeranz and righty Alex White had successes and rough moments last season. Righty Tyler Chatwood bounced between the rotation and the bullpen -- and the Majors and Minors -- before turning in an encouraging finish. If he reports to Spring Training as healthy as he expects to be, Friedrich will be part of this competition. Friedrich said he has not fully healed, although he is close. He can do most of the offseason exercises, although he is limiting the amounts of weight he lifts. Still, Friedrich, listed at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, said that he has controlled his weight and is beginning to increase his activity. "In a normal year, I'd just about be throwing right now," the pitcher said. "Cardio-wise, I'm a little bit behind, but that's the easiest thing for me to gain. I was at home [in the Chicago area] during Thanksgiving, and I decided to go for a run. I made it about seven minutes and was on my knees. I got up to 20 minutes early this week, so I'm progressing. "I was talking to [Rockies head athletic trainer] Keith Dugger, and the plan is for me to go out to Arizona within the next week or two weeks. I'll make a stop in Denver and will probably have a final scan on my back. Then I can get out to Arizona and start building my arm." The Rockies are interested to see what a healthy Friedrich can do. "All the reports are real positive, so he's on schedule as far as health is concerned," said Bill Geivett, the Rockies' senior vice president of Major League operations. "People forget about him because of his back issues, but he was starting to put up some good numbers and was looking like a guy who was turning the corner." Before last season, Friedrich had not pitched above Double-A, and it wasn't clear whether he would develop into a Major Leaguer. Durability had been a concern. An elbow injury and an ill-advised conditioning plan that had him around 240 pounds led to an unsuccessful and shortened 2011 season at Double-A Tulsa, where he went 6-10 with a 5.00 ERA in 25 starts. But last winter, he changed his eating and conditioning, had throwing sessions with Phillies star Cliff Lee -- during which he found better mechanics for keeping the ball in the strike zone -- and spent much of Rockies Spring Training talking to longtime veteran Jamie Moyer about the mental side of the game. Friedrich began the season 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA in five starts for Triple-A Colorado Springs to earn his shot in Colorado. He won his Rockies debut, going six innings and striking out seven in a victory at San Diego. His other high moment might have been his last win, when he held the Phillies to one run and five hits in six innings of a 6-2 victory, with Lee opposing him. In and around that, Friedrich tried to take in as much education as he could, even as he battled through some difficult games. The studying has continued. Friedrich said Jerry Weinstein, the Rockies' catching instructor, has given him several books. One was Hall of Famer Bob Feller's memoir. Another, which he is still digesting, is Heads Up Baseball: Playing the Game One inning at a Time by Tom Hanson and Ken Ravizza, which discusses the game from the perspective of hitters and position players. "You want to learn as much as you can; guys who have been in the game for 40 years say they're still learning things every year," Friedrich said. "It was great to have someone like Jamie Moyer or [veteran first baseman Jason Giambi] around to help me with things, because it made me pick them up quicker. But by gaining experience yourself, you don't feel like you're studying. You have a better idea of what to do."
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.