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Francis still sees potential in team and himself

Francis still sees potential in team and himself

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies left-hander Jeff Francis doesn't claim to be the pitcher he was in 2007, when he won 17 regular-season games, two postseason contests and started the opener of the World Series.

But read that carefully.

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Yes, a shoulder surgery before the 2009 season cost him some of the life on his fastball and, at 32, it is unlikely to come back. But his acknowledgement is not the same as him believing he can't be as good as he was when he and the Rockies were at their best.

Francis is out to reclaim something more important than velocity. He believes he can revisit success.

"No doubt," Francis said. "I don't think I could be here if I expected myself to go 6-7 with a five and a half ERA. There's not a day that goes by when I don't work to be the best I can be.

"I'm not what I was back then," Francis said. "But that doesn't mean I can't get people out. I know I can. I know I can win games for this team and be a leader for some of the younger pitchers. That's what we're here to do."

Francis never was right in 2008, when he went 4-10 with a 5.01 ERA. He missed 2009, which was the final year of his first tour with the Rockies, who selected him in the first round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft and watched him and others prove that good pitching was possible from a team that plays home games at a mile-high altitude.

With a couple of detours, he has spent three years working his way back to a leadership position in the Rockies' rotation.

Francis landed with the Royals in 2011 and went 6-16 with a 4.82 ERA in 31 starts. He didn't re-establish himself as a dominant lefty, but he sent himself a more important signal -- that he was finally healthy.

All he could find last winter was a Minor League contract from the Reds. He pitched well for 12 starts at Triple-A Indianapolis, but there simply wasn't room in the rotation of Cincinnati's contending club. However, the Rockies wanted him back home.

For the Rockies, picking him up in June was a way of correcting a mistake. Just to have a veteran in the rotation, they had to begin the year with 49-year-old Jamie Moyer making starts and trying to squeeze what he could out of an arm that had been working in the Majors for over twenty seasons. Moyer gave the young staff some leadership, but they needed dependability during his starts. Francis gave the Rockies mostly decent work while going 6-7 with a 5.58 ERA in 24 starts.

Almost as important, Francis provided a measure of glue to a team that fell apart to the tune of a 64-98 record -- the worst in franchise history. Management decided to test a theory of a four-man rotation with tight pitch counts not long after Francis arrived.

Having been part of a staff that succeeded with a more conventional system, Francis could easily have voiced opposition. Instead, he followed the edict and was the most consistent of Rockies starters until the plan was abandoned in September.

"I wouldn't say it was difficult," Francis said. "It's a situation where you need guys to get together and buy in to what we were trying to do. Whatever you were doing off the field, you're still doing the same things on the field, trying to win baseball games."

The Rockies went into this offseason knowing they'd need a vet to help some of the same young starters continue their growth curve. They made sure they returned Francis' loyalty by signing him to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Francis can double his salary by meeting several incentives.

Francis' allegiance to the Rockies isn't blind. In fact, he insists he sees what many can't -- a team much closer to winning than last year's record would indicate.

"We expected more of ourselves last year," Francis said. "Even being here two-thirds of the season, you could see it out there. You could see guys weren't performing up to the level they expected to. We're here. We're excited. We feel we can compete in this division regardless what other teams have done.

"We can be very good. Look at our team as a whole. We can score a heck of a lot of runs. If we can keep ourselves in games more -- last year we would be down quite a few runs early in the game and it was too much for our offense to overcome -- if we can keep games closer and score runs late in games, we could be tying or winning those games."

To do his part, Francis must compensate for a fastball that at its best was not much above 90 mph and now runs in the not-so-intimidating mid-to-upper 80s. But Francis knows that if he can place his fastball where he wants it, he can employ a changeup that is still difficult to hit squarely.

"I need a little better execution when I throw inside to right-handers," Francis said. "That was something I worked on every time I threw a ball this winter, something that can open up the outside part of the plate for me."

New Rockies manager Walt Weiss, who worked for the front office during Francis' developmental years and his best years, has confidence.

"He relied on deception and command," Weiss said. "That's still there. Now to get in on righties, he cuts the ball a little bit. There is some wisdom that comes along with some of the things he's done. The guy has pitched in the World Series. We don't have a lot of those guys in camp here. There's some respect for what he did and what he's done."

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.

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