Rockies left out when it comes to lefty pitching prospects

March 10, 2009 | 7:04 am  

Consider the left-handed starters in the Rockies organization who are prospects. This won’t take long.

Peer strictly at the minor leagues, leaving out Franklin Morales and Greg Smith, because both have pitched in the big leagues. To be sure, neither has settled in there. Morales, 23, has spent 76 days in the majors, where his minimal body of work includes 13 starts and 64 2/3 innings. He has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. The four scoreless innings he threw Saturday against the Giants are a hopeful sign Morales can find the groove that eluded him in 2008.

Smith, 25, has one year of service time in the big leagues (172 days equals one year of service) with a bottom line that includes 32 starts and 190 1/3 innings with the A’s in 2008. Scouts view Smith as a fifth starter, fourth at best.

Omitting Morales and Smith from this discussion of left-handed starting pitching prospects, there’s Xavier Cedeno . . . well, not anymore. Cedeno, 22, has been moved to the bullpen this spring, a conversion he actually began in his native Puerto Rico this winter where he went 1-1 with a 1.32 ERA in 10 games with Santurce, walking five and striking out 13 in 13 2/3 innings.

With Cedeno now relieving, that leaves Keith Weiser and Christian Friedrich as left-handed starters in the organization qualifying as prospects. That’s it. And that’s why Friedrich, in particular, bears watching.

This isn’t meant to be as much of a knock on Weiser as it sounds. It’s just that Friedrich’s ceiling is much higher. The Rockies took Weiser, 24, in the third in 2006. He has proven to be durable and unquestionably can throw strikes.

Weiser worked 179 2/3 innings last year, the most in minor league baseball while going 7-10 with a 3.05 ERA in 22 starts at high Class A Modesto and 1-2 with a 3.60 ERA in five starts at Double-A Tulsa. And Weiser issued a mere 25 walks in those 179 2/3 innings. That’s an average of just 1.25 walks per nine innings, slightly above his career average of 1.38 walks per nine innings.

Weiser projects as a fourth or fifth starter in the big leagues. Friedrich, 21, the 25th player taken overall in the 2008 draft, projects as a No. 2 or No. 3. That’s a gaze into the future, certainly no guarantee Friedrich or Weiser, and here let’s not forget Morales or Smith, will ever join a small group.

The Rockies have been in existence 16 years. During that time, Jeff Francis is their only homegrown left-handed starter to win 10 games in a season, a plateau that has been reached nine times by six different Rockies left-handers.

Year Pitcher Record
1999 Brian Bohanon 12-12
2000 Brian Bohanon 12-10 *
2001 Mike Hampton 14-13
2003 Darren Oliver 13-11 **
2004 Shawn Estes 15-8
2005 Jeff Francis 14-12
2006 Jeff Francis 13-11
2007 Jeff Francis 17-9
2008 Jorge De La Rosa 10-8 ***

*two wins in relief
**no decision in one relief appearance
***no decision in five relief appearances

Friedrich is a candidate this spring for the high Class A Modesto rotation. He made his professional debut July 10 at short-season Class A Tri-City and went 2-1 with a 3.25 ERA in eight starts. Friedrich moved up to low Class A Asheville on Aug. 18 and in three starts for the Tourists, went 0-1 with a 7.50 ERA.

At each stop, Friedrich initially scuffled. He allowed seven earned runs in his first two starts for Tri-City and just six earned runs over 30 innings in his final six starts. At Asheville, Friedrich gave up nine earned runs in seven innings in his first two games and one in five innings in his last.

“I’m not really sure what it was,” he said, “but I felt the ball was kind of just jumping out of my hand. I didn’t have much control over it. I don’t know if it was the nerves of being in a new place or just getting acclimated to the team or what.”

The Rockies believe Friedrich benefited greatly from his participation in their winter development program at Coors Field in January. During that three-week program, Friedrich had the opportunity to work with new roving pitching coordinator Bo McLaughlin, who spent the previous six seasons as the pitching coach at Double-A Tulsa where he nurtured the likes of Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Morales and Manuel Corpas.

The second time Friedrich threw off a mound this winter, he got an introduction to McLaughlin’s method and his pitching wisdom.

“He mentioned three things to me, and I’ve never had that successful of a bullpen or felt that great after one,” Friedrich said. “It was something as easy as staying on the weight of the balls of your back foot, getting your leg down early and separating your hands earlier. It was just three simple things, and I was just painting the corners.”

At 6-feet-4, Friedrich can create a good downhill angle to the plate. He has an 88-93 mph fastball and sits at 91 mph. That’s plus velocity for a left-hander. His out pitch is a plus major league curveball with a 12-to-6 break. Friedrich said his slider has become one of his better pitches and “is just as lethal as my curveball right now.”

While Friedrich’s changeup was below average last season, he said, “It’s come huge in length and strides from what it used to be, so I’m really excited to use it this year.”

In terms of stuff, Friedrich has a higher upside than Francis, who ranks fourth in franchise history with 51 wins — the most by a left-hander — but is expected to miss the entire 2009 season after undergoing arthroscopic shoulder surgery Feb. 25. However, Francis, a physics major in college and a cerebral sort to begin with, not surprisingly has more pitching smarts that he can rely on at this point.

Like Friedrich, Francis, the ninth overall pick in the 2002 draft, pitched that season at Tri-City and Asheville. In his first full season, Francis moved up the following year to high Class A Visalia, which is where the Rockies’ affiliate in the California League was located before moving to Modesto in 2005.

Friedrich could climb as quickly as Francis, who reached the majors toward the end of his third professional season. With better stuff, Friedrich can miss his location in the strike zone and get away with it more than Francis. That’s only an indicator, hardly a guarantee Friedrich, when it comes to victories in a season, will go where Francis has more often than any left-handed starter in Rockies history.