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Ringolsby: Invaluable Experience

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More than a few eyebrows were raised a year ago. The Baseball America Prospect Handbook had just been released when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training and the Rockies’ Top 10 Prospects ranking included six pitchers. At the time, pitchers, Rockies and Coors Field didn’t mix.

Now they do.

Colorado advanced to the National League wild card game last season, the fourth postseason appearance in the franchise’s 25-year existence, and it was a quartet of those young guns who provided the foundation for success.

The demons have been exorcised.

And scouting director Bill Schmidt has been vindicated.

Long considered one of the game’s best at identifying hitting talent, Schmidt has begun to see returns on pitchers drafted by the Rockies. This is in no small part because of a revamped organizational philosophy put into place by bullpen coach Darren Holmes—who pitched at Coors Field in the pre-humidor days with a curveball as his No. 1 pitch—pitching coach Steve Foster and director of pitching operations Mike Wiley. They instituted a plan that stresses that pitchers should use their best tools.

The pitching prospects in question were righthanders Jeff Hoffman (No. 3), German Marquez (No. 5) and Antonio Senzatela (No. 10) and lefthander Kyle Freeland (No. 8). That quartet was part of a big league rotation in which Chad Bettis, who turns 28 this season, was the old man of the group, and righty Jon Gray and lefty Tyler Anderson were in their second big league seasons.

To think the Rockies opened spring training a year ago believing they had room for one rookie in the rotation. But then Bettis had a recurrent of testicular cancer, which led to both Freeland and Senzatela opening the season in the rotation. And as injuries took a toll, sidelining both Gray and Anderson, the Rockies found Marquez and Hoffman taking regular turns, too.

And the Rockies did more than merely survive with the young guns, who manager Bud Black and his staff were careful not to overuse. They won. Now the Rockies will find out if that quartet can learn from what they faced a year ago and take a step forward in their sophomore seasons.

The rookies thrived despite the myths of Coors Field. They combined to make 93 starts, which is the 11th most in the 67 years of the Expansion Era. And the Rockies became just the 10th post-expansion team (out of 133) to advance to the postseason while having rookies start at least 50 games.

Now comes the second time around—a challenge the Rockies have not ignored.

“You hear talk all the time that the sophomore season can be a trap for guys,” Black said. “At the end of last year, there were exit meetings with the young pitchers to talk about things coming up, things they had to work on in the offseason and that there wasn’t time to rest on their laurels.

“They have to continue to grow, not accept the attitude ‘I did it last year, so I can do it this year.’ The know there is a lot of work to do as they take the next step.”

But that is why, as frustrated as the rookies may have been at times when they were moved to the bullpen or sent to the minors for a brief spell, they now look back and realize they needed that breather.

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This year they feel they are better prepared for the season-long grind without needing respites.

To start with, the winter was more a focus on getting in shape for spring training, rather than showing up the first day of camp in midseason form to earn a big league job.

“Part of their success (in 2017) was (because) when the season started they were truly at the top of their game,” Black said. “As the season wore on, you saw the effects of being ready in February. It’s very hard to maintain that level of physical performance.”

It was a big part of why Freeland and Senzatela finished in the bullpen.

This year the sophomore starters show up to camp knowing they have spring training to get ready for the regular season, not to make a big impression to force their way onto the Opening Day roster.

“It is all part of growth,” Black said. “It’s all part of, mentally, how you go through a season? When can you take  a little bit of a blow? It’s part of becoming a tenured player.”

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