Three Pitchers, Three Mounds, Three Paths

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 05: Pitcher Franklin Morales #56 of the Colorado Rockies pitches in the 9th inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at the Miller Park on April 05, 2010 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Rockies defeated the Brewers 5-3.(Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales have each taken different paths during their careers, but in 2011 all they are concerned with is helping their respective teams.

Three men took the mound on Wednesday afternoon. They were all fated to the same destiny, but baseball has a funny way of rerouting men like these to different fates.

 

They could hardly be more different, these three men. Two are left-handed, one a righty. None of them are from the United States – two are from lands to the south, the third from the Great White North. Two were blessed with lightning in their arms, the third relied on the art of deception. But all of them were supposed to be standing on the mound on April 1 in Denver. That was Opening Day, and that's the day you give the ball to your ace.

 

On April 6, they were all handed a ball. Three different pitchers. Three different mounds.

 

 

I picture the first man standing atop his mound – for this day, a bullpen mound. Wanting nothing more than to throw the ball but understanding why his bosses are discouraging it. Everything we know about this man suggests you've got to pry the ball from his fingers, even if one of them – his right thumb – is disfigured with an ugly cut on the cuticle. But the Rockies are right not to let this man throw from his mound on this day.

 

That's because Ubaldo Jimenez is the one of our three men who lived up to the standard. He IS the ace, the arm so blessed that it has been entrusted with the front end of a rotation with World Series aspirations. And rather than take chances with that thumb problem becoming an arm problem becoming a bigger arm problem, the Rockies shut down their ace for two weeks, placing him on the disabled list, causing expletives to fly across the Denver metro area as though it were the stage at a Katt Williams concert.

 

The lesson you learn right away about sure-thing pitching prospects is that they don't exist. The fastball may dart across the plate at dizzying speeds, the breaking stuff might commit multiple crimes against the law of gravity, and the body type might be perfectly constructed to withstand the rigors of season after season of 200-plus innings. But until that pitcher is standing tall on a big league mound, delivering the results that managers and general managers and scouts dream about from the first time they see him, there's no telling if it will ever come to fruition. The arm is a fickle instrument. So, too, is the mind. Either one, or both, may break down. You just never know.

 

There were those moments with Ubaldo Jimenez, too, moments of uncertainty in the rearing of the talented Dominican. The broken shoulder blade he suffered in 2004 set him back, as did struggles with control and command of his wonderful fastball. Jimenez was by no means fully formed when he arrived on the scene late in 2007, called upon to fill a rotation void. So we watched, and hoped, and saw Jimenez improve down the stretch and make one memorably dominant playoff start (Game 3 of the NLDS), and then post solid numbers after a slow start in 2008, and then get even better in 2009... and then...

 

The dreams for Ubaldo came true. He's harnessed that heat, pairing it with a deep arsenal of pitches that move like Whiffle balls. He's got a no-hitter to his credit, along with the single-season record for wins in Rockies history. At age 27, he's in his prime. I've compared Jimenez's starts with getting to take a Ferrari out of the garage and drive it around. He's a delight to watch.

 

It may be a couple of weeks until Jimenez takes the mound again. Rockies fans can hardly wait.

 

 

The second man took the mound in a different city, wearing an odd color. Powder blue instead of purple. He gave up a fair share of hits, struck out a few, gave up a big fly, but left the game having done his job: giving his team a chance to win.

 

Everybody who follows the minor leagues can remember their first favorite prospect. Mine was Jeff Francis. A potential future ace blowing through the high-A and double-A levels one strikeout at a time? And he was left-handed? AND he was a physics major, Canadian, and looked like Napoleon Dynamite? I couldn't help but to root for the guy. Francis' eye-popping minor league numbers – he fanned 196 batters in 155 innings in 2004 – made him one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. As the Rockies entered their first real rebuilding period that year, and Rockies fans began to hang their hopes on gifted tyros from the farm system, Francis was the man who stood out as the potential front-man on the next – the first – great Rockies rotation.

 

He came up to stay in late 2004, and posted winning records in both 05 and 06, but if this lanky southpaw was to be an ace, it was clear he'd have a small margin for error. The strikeout numbers never approached their lofty minor-league heights, and his home run rate jumped. His high-80s velocity meant he relied on deceit, not pure power – and it takes something truly special to be ace material with that arsenal.

 

And then came 2007. No, the rates are not ace-like – a 4.22 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, and less than seven Ks per nine innings. But if Jeff Francis wasn't an ace last year, then he did an awfully good job impersonating one. He won 17 games, was nearly unbeatable in the second half, and started the opening game in all three postseason series. In a literal sense, Francis became what we dreamed he would: the best pitcher on a pennant-winning team.

 

And just like that, the moment was gone. He pitched hurt in 2008, then had surgery on his shoulder and missed all of 2009 and a good piece of 2010. With a log-jam developing in the rotation, the Rockies bid Francis goodbye this winter, and he signed with Kansas City, where he took the second spot in their rotation.

 

He'll never front another rotation in his career. He may never have another moment like he enjoyed in 2007, standing on the Fenway Park mound, throwing the first pitch of the World Series. And, OK, maybe he never was a true ace. But damn if I won't miss Jeff Francis. Not every future ace gets to live up to that advance billing, but Francis was proof that not every one needs to.

 

 

The third man took the mound in an entirely different role than what we imagined when he swaggered to the mound, hat off-kilter, in the heat of a pennant race in 2007. Back then he might have even been a surer bet than the first two men, as left-handers who throw in the mid-90s and possess knee-buckling curveballs are easy to envision as future aces.

 

But, again, baseball's a funny game. And something tells me Franklin Morales hasn't spent a great deal of the last four years laughing.

 

Call it a lack of mental toughness, call it discomfort in a constantly changing role, or call it just a simple incapability to display consistent control. Either way, you're right about what has kept Morales from reaching the heights projected for him. Given a rotation spot in 2008 after his impressive cameo the season prior, Morales pitched his way out of the big leagues that year and didn't do much to regain any lost confidence in him with his minor league performance. But there he was in the rotation again to start the 2009 season – where, after two strong starts, he hit the disabled list. When he came back it was as a reliever, and without his seven saves in August while Huston Street was on the DL, the Rocktober sequel never would have happened. But once removed from the closer role, Franklin struggled late in the season, and those woes continued into the start of the 2010 season, a lost year all the way around.

 

With ERA's over six in two of the last three seasons, and a career walk rate of over five per nine innings, Franklin Morales career now walks that fine line between fulfilled and unfulfilled potential. His career as a starter seems over now, with the Rockies committed to him as a reliever. Had he not been out of minor league options, he may have faced a more serious challenge to his 25-man roster spot. Lefties with his kind of stuff get lots of chances, but Franklin has almost exhausted all of his.

 

Yet there he was on Wednesday, summoned in the sixth inning of a three-run ballgame and throwing darts for two innings, mixing his fastball, curve and change for two pivotal shutout frames in what ended up being a Rockies victory. Facing more doubts about his place in the bigs than ever before, Morales began his 2011 campaign by offering a tantalizing glimpse of what made him so highly touted to begin with.

 

 

Three men. They couldn't be more different. But in this game, there's a place for all three of them. A comfort zone for them to seize. For Morales, perhaps, short relief. For Francis, the middle of the pack. And for Jimenez, the spotlight.

 

Three men take the mound. They rock, and kick and fire, hoping their best pitch is good enough.

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