Coaching Rockies pitchers takes toll

After nine seasons and 72 more games into a 10th, Bob Apodaca had enough.

The job of being a pitching coach is challenging at any level. Toss in the wild and wacky world of Coors Field, and, well, Apodaca decided, enough was enough.

"I’m fried," he said.

Apodaca asked to be reassigned within the Colorado Rockies organization and was moved into the role of special assistant to general manager Dan O’Dowd. Initially, the assignment will be to step away from the game, clear his mind and get recharged.

"He said for a lack of a better word that he was tired and needed a break," O’Dowd said. "I will have him do some special-assignment work that I have been kicking around. And this will give him a chance to catch his breath."

Never an easy job, the role of Rockies pitching coach has become even more challenging in the past 18 months. It reached a point this season that the Rockies have decided to take a radical approach to mastering the mound at a mile high.

They announced last week they were going to alter their rotation, initially reported as a move to a four-man rotation with a 75-pitch limit for starters. It has since been described as what will be at least a seven-man rotation, which will provide the chance to move the seven designated pitchers interchangeable between the role of starting and long relief with an outline of pitching every fourth game.

It’s a definite case of thinking outside the box. But then nothing’s been normal since Coors Field opened in 1995.

The Rockies did attempt to make it manageable in 2002 by storing baseballs in a humidor, but even that hasn’t helped this season. The Rockies went into Thursday with an ERA of 5.38, highest in the major leagues. But that doesn’t tell the real story.

An overall skyrocketing ERA is nothing new for a franchise in its 20th year of existence. The highest ERA in franchise history was 6.01 in 1999. The 1996 Rockies had a 5.59 ERA, the 2004 team a 5.54 ERA. It goes back to the start; the 1993 expansion team compiled a 5.41 ERA while playing at since-razed Mile High Stadium.

What underscores the struggles this year is a rotation that hasn’t stopped rotating since the start of spring training.

On Wednesday night, Edwar Cabrera is set to become the 11th pitcher to start a game for the Rockies this season. A year ago, he was pitching in the low Single-A South Atlantic League. He was called up from Double-A Tulsa, where he turned a top-of-the-line changeup into an 8-4 record and 2.94 ERA, but also served up a Texas League-leading 15 home runs in 98 innings.

Cabrera is joined in his arrival by Bo McLaughlin, the longtime minor-league pitching coordinator who this year was reassigned to be pitching coach at Triple-A Colorado Springs. Now, McLaughlin will handle the starting pitchers at Coors Field while bullpen coach Jim Wright handles the relievers.

The next 89 games will go a long way in determining whether the Rockies will maintain a split pitching coach job or go outside the organization for a fresh approach for 2013.

With the decision to think outside the lines, Rick Peterson, currently the minor-league coordinator for the Baltimore Orioles, could be an interesting possibility if a coach is brought in from outside.

Jim Colborn, currently involved in international scouting with the Texas Rangers, is a longtime ally of manager Jim Tracy. And Bob McClure, now the pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox, was a Rockies organizational favorite when he worked in the minor leagues but was blocked during those days from a big-league promotion by the presence of Apodaca.

The only thing for certain is Apodaca won’t return in a Rockies uniform, but his impact could be felt. He will fill a front office void created by the resignation last fall of Marcel Lachemann, a former big-league manager and pitching coach, as a special assistant to O’Dowd. Lachemann has special insight to pitching, as does Apodaca.

To put Apodaca’s tenure in perspective, consider that the Rockies are in their 18th season at Coors Field. Apodaca was on the job longer than five predecessors combined.

Larry Bearnarth, who oversaw the 1993-94 seasons at Mile High Stadium, spent 1995 at Coors Field. Frank Funk was on the job from 1996-98, Milt May in 1999, Lachemann from 2000-01 and Wright in 2002. Then-manager Clint Hurdle brought in longtime ally Apodaca for the 2003 season.

During his tenure, Apodaca worked with 139 different pitchers, trying to solve baseball’s version of Rubik’s Cube.

There were moments of hope — the 2007 season that ended with the team’s only World Series appearance and 2009, when the Rockies reached the postseason for the third time. (They also were the National League wild card in 1995.)

But the unraveling of the rotation this year was a new challenge.

The Rockies hoped Jorge De La Rosa could return from Tommy John surgery by the start of June, but now he is questionable for this season. Jeremy Guthrie, who was projected to be the veteran stability to the rotation, was moved into the bullpen ahead of the move to a four-man rotation, and he’s the only member of the season-opening starting five still on the active roster.

Drew Pomeranz is at Triple-A Colorado Springs, dispatched to refine his mechanics and most likely a call-up before long. Juan Nicasio and Jhoulys Chacin are on the disabled list. And Jamie Moyer was released.

"In no way, shape or form was he asked to leave or pushed out," Tracy said. "It’s fair to say, based on our conversation, that he had hit a wall."