TUCSON, Ariz. — When Colorado Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis reported to spring training last year, his eagerness to start another season was tempered by a hard truth.
The lefty admits he was hoping for a breakthrough, but really thinking, “It’s a lost cause.”
Sure enough, Francis struggled through one bullpen session, his shoulder aching. He watched the video for confirmation, saw a distressingly low arm angle, underwent surgery in late February to repair a torn labrum and missed the entire season.
The Rockies have reason to believe the 29-year-old Francis, who won 17 games in 2007 and threw 215 1/3 innings, can return to their rotation. They envision him replacing Jason Marquis, who left as a free agent after he pitched 216 innings and went 15-13 in 2009.
“There’s no reins on me,” Francis said Thursday when Rockies pitchers and catchers reported to Hi Corbett Field. “There’s really no question marks. I’m going to be honest with myself, take it easy when I need to. But healthwise, I’m there. To be able to throw and not worry about shoulder pain — that’s a nice feeling to have.”
Francis hasn’t pitched in a major league game since Sept. 12, 2008, concluding an injury-plagued season when his velocity dropped and he went 4-10 with a 5.01 ERA in 24 starts.
“I’m not just jumping in there like nothing ever happened,” Francis said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. I’m not totally comfortable out there yet. I think that’s the type of thing that’ll come as I get innings under my belt.”
Because his delivery doesn’t feel fluid yet, Francis is trying to get on a mound as often as possible just to “really practice” his pitching motion even when not throwing a ball.
Francis gained some peace of mind when he faced hitters in the Rockies’ instructional league program in September. A bigger mental boost came when he traveled to the Rockies’ complex in the Dominican Republic and participated in a minicamp Feb. 3-11. Among other things, Francis faced hitters from behind a screen as he threw batting practice.
“He benefited a lot from being in the Dominican Republic, just getting out sweating and throwing,” Rockies trainer Keith Dugger said. “He only had 5-6 days off from there, which is a little time to recoup but not enough time where you’re losing what you gained.”
Dugger said Francis will begin spring training with “no restraints.” But when the pitchers begin throwing live batting practice, Dugger said, Francis occasionally might be given an extra day of rest.
“It’s pretty common also to have a little flare-up coming off of something like this,” Dugger said.
Manager Jim Tracy, wanting to separate his left- and right-handed starters, will either slot Francis second between Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook or move left-hander Jorge De La Rosa to that second spot and position Francis fourth between Cook and Jason Hammel.
“I’m not in the rehab phase anymore,” Francis said. “To me, I’m back on the team. I’m one of these guys now.”
If spring training will have a refreshingly similar feel to Francis, there is one difference. He became a first-time father on Oct. 13 when his wife, Alison, gave birth to their daughter, Cameron.
“My wife and I are both from Canada,” Francis said. “Now we have a daughter, who has a U.S. passport. We wonder when she’s 4 or 5 years old and has to go to school, will we live here or will we go back to Canada. We don’t know. All of a sudden the focus has changed.”
Francis’ baseball outlook is radically different, too, than it was a year ago. At the outset of spring training, Francis is anticipating a return to the Rockies’ rotation. Considering his lost 2009 season, Francis could enter the season as a prime candidate to win Comeback Player of the Year honors.
“Let’s not talk about that,” said Francis, whose 51 victories are a franchise record for a left-hander. “Let’s just try and make 35 starts this year.”