Rockies Spring: Looking for a Fifth; Three-Man Battle for Open Spot in Rotation

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Just how much the Rockies' pitching situation has evolved over the years, think back to the spring of 1996. As the Rockies prepared to close out the Arizona portion of spring training, manager Don Baylor handed the ball to Mark Thompson to start the final game against the Milwaukee Brewers in Chandler.

“Give me three strong innings and you are in the rotation,” said Baylor.

Thompson did, and he was on the mound, starting Game 5 that season.

Flash forward to the spring of 2019.

The Rockies are coming off a season in which their rotation was the key to a post-season appearance in 2018, leading the National League in innings pitched, and the biggest decision about the rotation – health permitting – is who is going to win the three-man battle for the fifth spot in the rotation.

There is:

* Chad Bettis, two full years removed from testicular cancer surgery, looking to build off a strong start that faded into a bullpen role a year ago;

* Antonio Senzatela, who made the move from the bullpen to the rotation when the fatigue set in on Bettis in mid-season last year;

* And Jeff Hoffman, the key to the Troy Tulowitzki trade to Toronto in late July of 2015, who found himself spending the bulk of the 2018 season at Triple-A Albuquerque. His big-league time a year ago was limited to one start and five relief appearances.

“You can make the case that four spots are pretty secure,” manager Bud Black said, in reference to Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson.

“What I find reassuring is the guys we have to chose from to make out our rotation.”

Let the competition begin.

Bettis had that fifth spot in the rotation at the start of last year and was 4-1 with a 3.27 ERA in seven starts before a recurring problem with blisters and a lack of production led to his move into the bullpen. In the 12 starts leading up to his change in assignments, Bettis was only 1-1, the club 5-7, and he compiled a 7.26 ERA.

Bettis took the challenge of pitching relief seriously, compiling a 2.38 ERA in the bullpen role. It also gave him time to work on adding a slider to his previous three-pitch array of a fastball, curveball and changeup.

Bettis looks at his full-season return from the cancer surgery, and admits it helped him come to spring training this year feeling good about his situation, whether he starts or relieves.

“I proved my myself that I was capable to do both successfully,” he said. “Whether I get one of those five spots (in the rotation) or am in the bullpen is irrelevant. I’m here to win. I want a ring.”

Senzatela has been the Rockies insurance policy in his two big-league seasons, moving from rotation to bullpen without out a hiccup. He has worked on improving his deception in his delivery to keep hitters from sitting on his fastball.

“I want every pitch to look like my fastball,” he said.

Black can endorse that idea.

“His fastball plays, and from his curveball, little slider and change, we’ve seen flashes of big-league quality pitches,” said Black. “It’s a matter of consistency.”

And then there is Hoffman, who has been an ongoing puzzle since joining the organization after being a first-round draft choice in 2014. He took the initiative in the off-season to spend time at X2 Athletic Training Center in Scottsdale, made a trip to Kent, Wash., to visit Driveline Baseball, which evaluates a pitcher’s biomechanics, and took a five-week course with Brian Cain on the mental side of pitching.

He said he is more prepared to pitch in relief.

“The first time I had ever thrown in the bullpen was in the big leagues, so it was a trial by fire kind of deal,” said Hoffman. “If I had some time to adjust, I don’t think it would be an issue. I could so whatever they ask me to do, but I view myself as a starter. That’s how I am going to attack my plan.”

The ninth player taken in that 2014 draft, Hoffman came out of college with a fastball that was consistent in the 93-to-96 mile per hour range, touching 98 at times. He, however, let himself get away from that. The off-season became a focus on regaining that power arm.

“For me, it’s getting back to who I am, and that’s being a power pitcher,” he said. “I don’t want to try and be something I’m not. I’m not going to go out and hit 10 out of 10 spots, but I’m going to blow you away with heat, and I’m going to put you away with a big breaking ball.”

That’s what the Rockies were hoping for when they made that deal with the Blue Jays.

And Black, preparing for his third year as the Rockies manager, buys into the idea.

“I’m in,” said Black. “He was a No. 1 pick for a reason.”

And the Rockies are waiting to see that reason turn into results at the big-league level.

The Rotation in 2018