Pitching change: Rockies have a plan to improve on the mound

Will things really be different for Jorge De La Rosa and the rest of the Rockies' pitchers this season?

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – No one would dare suggest that the Rockies have figured out how to pitch. Their 22-year history indicates that they may never figure it out, and parts of their spring already suggest, “Here we go again.”

Ace left-hander Jorge De La Rosa is down with a groin strain. Righty Kyle Kendrick will start Opening Day despite a career 4.42 ERA. Righty Jhoulys Chacin, a breakout performer two years ago, is a free agent after getting released.

Amid the usual chaos, the last thing Rockies fans will believe is that the team finally is improving its pitching methods, finally turning to the right people, finally getting out of its own way.

Well, it’s happening, and not a moment too soon. As difficult as it is for the Rockies to pitch at Coors Field, they were making things even worse with poor coaching, poor catching and poor communication — a veritable Triple Crown of dysfunction.

* Wilin Rosario, a strong hitter but weak defensive catcher, is out as the No. 1 receiver and probably is not even the No. 2 with the arrival of free agent Nick Hundley and return of Michael McKenry.

* Bill Geivett no longer maintains an office in the clubhouse, or a position of any kind with the club. Geivett, when he was senior vice president of baseball operations, butted heads with manager Walt Weiss and numerous others in the organization, according to major-league sources.

Dan O’Dowd resigned as general manager rather than accept a multi-year contract extension with the Rockies in part because he was not comfortable with the evolution of Geivett’s role, according to MLB.com. Geivett also resigned as part of the Rockies’ restructuring, and the team promoted Jeff Bridich to GM.

Rockies fans can be forgiven if they view the changes as a re-arranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. Still, people with the club say that the vibe around the pitching staff is noticeably better this spring. For what it’s worth, the team also is pitching fairly well, ranking fourth in the Cactus League with a 4.31 ERA.

AROUND THE HORN

The Rockies’ rotation could be awfully young at the start of the season, with three pitchers — lefty Tyler Matzek and righties Jordan Lyles and Jon Gray — who are 24 or under. The bullpen was the worst in the majors last season. But the improved pitching infrastructure should produce results, both short- and long-term.

Start with the de-emphasis on Rosario, who worked hard to improve his catching and dealt with injury and illness last season but was subpar by every measurable standard behind the plate – and some that are immeasurable as well.

Rosario had 12 passed balls in 96 games. Threw out only seven of 44 attempted base stealers (15.9 percent). Produced a 5.18 catcher’s ERA in 824 innings, as opposed to McKenry’s 4.19 ERA in 406 innings.

Team officials perceived Rosario’s game-calling as another shortcoming, and he also worked at a painfully slow pace, preventing the pitchers from getting into a rhythm.

The Rockies discussed trading Rosario during the offseason, but no deal materialized. Undaunted, they signed Hundley to a two-year, $6.25 million contract. The difference was immediately noticeable this spring.

“He’s a breath of fresh air back there, definitely something we needed,” closer LaTroy Hawkins said. “That’s not a knock on Rosario. He worked his butt off. But Hundley is going to be a plus for us.”

So will the new coaches, Foster and Holmes.

Weiss, reliever Boone Logan and Foster’s former boss, Royals general manager Dayton Moore, all describe Foster as a strong leader. Logan, in discussing the additions of both Foster and Holmes, pointedly notes the differences between the new coaches and old.

Now, assigning blame to previous regimes is a time-honored baseball tradition, and some with the Rockies believe that Geivett stifled any creativity that Wright and McLaughlin may have offered. Whatever the reasons, the previous duo was simply not effective; nor was the front-office structure. Just check the results.

“These guys, they want to coach and they really want to help us be the best we can be as pitchers,” Logan says, referring to Foster and Holmes. “It’s showing. It’s early on, but you can just tell, the attitude is a lot different in the clubhouse.

“Looking back, I think I can speak for everybody, it was leadership. We have leaders among ourselves, but those people need to have a coach, too. That’s the whole point of having coaches. You need to have that presence of a leader. Guidance would be the word I would use.”

Wiley says of Foster, “I can’t imagine anyone more qualified to get his first job as a pitching coach.” Moore, who employed Foster as a pitching coordinator and special assistant the past three seasons, is equally effusive.

“He did a terrific job when we had a lot of young bullpen guys come up, getting them to settle down, trust their ability. He breathed some confidence into them. He’ll bring some conviction to what they’re doing,” Moore says.

Coors Field?

“That’s going to be something he’ll thrive on,” Moore says. “He’s going to love the challenge. It’s something he will draw inspiration from.”

Says Foster, “There are challenges in life no matter where you are. For other pitching coaches in the big leagues, the guy in Cincinnati, the guy in Philadelphia, the guy in Texas, the guy at Camden Yards . . . it’s a challenge in many yards because of all the changes in baseball in the last 20 to 30 years – smaller yards, less foul ground, the balls getting harder. Everything seems to have favored offense.

“At Coors Field, is there altitude? Is there light air? You bet. No doubt about it. But I believe attitude is more important than altitude. The habits in the minds of players are more important than worrying about thin air.”

Holmes offers his own fighting words, saying of the Rockies’ pitchers, “We have to make them comfortable being uncomfortable.” He and Foster traveled around the country during the offseason, meeting their new pitchers, forming relationships, building trust. They possess different strengths – Foster excels at the mental side, Holmes the mechanical – and they form a unique tandem.

Holmes will not be a typical bullpen coach, hitting fungoes and answering the bullpen phone. He says he would not have taken the job without assurances from Bridich and Weiss that he would have meaningful input, and adds that Foster has told him, “You do what you need to do. You have freedom to teach, freedom to work with these players.”

The major-league club, though, is just one part of the equation. When it comes to pitching, scouting and player development is particularly important for the Rockies. Top free-agent pitchers want no part of Coors Field, so the Rockies must cultivate homegrown talent.

Here, too, the franchise was lacking, in part because some viewed Geivett as an obstacle to better communication.

Wiley does not mention Geivett by name, but says the organization is running more efficiently now.

“It took us two or three years to really get the minor-league system rolling, to figure out what we felt was really important, what we needed to track, what we needed to focus on,” Wiley says. “We’ve done a pretty good job with that the last couple of years. The pitching coaches, we’ve added in the minor leagues, everyone is kind of on the same page.

“The way we communicate now, all that has transitioned to the big-league team. The communication between me, Steve and Darren Holmes is the same as it is with our minor-league staff. Now, we’re really one unit. And we’ve got the minor leagues up to speed to where it transitions really well with the staff we have at the big-league level.

“The communication, I don’t think it can be much better than it is. It’s a really good flow.”

That flow might not translate to immediate major-league success, but at least now the Rockies are more cohesive, more functional.

They had to start somewhere. They had to start over. Otherwise, they would have stood no chance of figuring out the rest.