Rockies sign a pitcher not freaked out by Coors Field

In their never-ending quest for a veteran starter who can eat innings and provide leadership, the Rockies traded for Jeremy Guthrie a little more than a year ago. The move was a disaster on many levels.

Guthrie went 3-9 with a 6.35 earned-run average before being unceremoniously shipped off to Kansas City at mid-season. The Rockies paid a reported $7.1 million of his $8.2 million salary for this embarrassing performance.

Worse, Guthrie visibly freaked out trying to pitch at Coors Field, doffing his cap to the crowd sarcastically after one brutal outing and suggesting to the outside world that the Rocks’ home ballpark can drive a normal pitcher crazy. Or, at least semi-normal in Guthrie’s case.

In effect, the Rockies traded Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom, whom they shipped to Baltimore for Guthrie, for broken-down Jonathan Sanchez, whom they received from Kansas City as a consolation prize when they got rid of him. Hammel was good, if fragile, for the Orioles, starting 20 games and going 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA. Sanchez was even worse than Guthrie for the Rocks, going 0-3 with a 9.53 ERA.

So when the Rocks went back out on the market a year later still looking for a veteran starter, they were a bit hamstrung. To pay major dollars to a starter who had never pitched in Colorado was now a verb. They did not want to be Guthried again. When I asked reliever Matt Belisle, who has thrived at Coors Field, how you can tell if a pitcher has what it takes mentally to pitch there, he said candidly that there’s no way to know until he does it. Not very comforting in a game in which every contract is fully guaranteed.

So the Rocks passed on the expensive free agent pitchers and seemed prepared to enter the season with what they had until Seattle obligingly released Jon Garland near the end of spring training. It was a little puzzling considering that in four spring starts for the Mariners, he’d given up three runs and 10 hits in 12 innings for a 2.25 ERA. If those results weren’t good enough, it’s not exactly clear why Seattle signed him in the first place.

“I was actually a little surprised, but then again, there’s more than just baseball, there is a business going on and they have to value certain things and certain moves that they’re going to make,” Garland said on the Dave Logan Show. “You know what, it came down to them making that decision and there’s no hard feelings there. Things work out for a reason and Colorado was able to pick me up and give me an opportunity.”

A first-round draft pick by the Cubs (tenth overall) in 1997, Garland is a 6-foot-6-inch, 210-pound horse who has taken the ball every fifth day for most of his career. He has made at least 32 starts in a season nine times.

In eight seasons with the White Sox — this just in: the Cubs made a bad trade — he won 92 games, including back-to-back 18-win seasons. Since then, he’s bounced around, always earning double-digit wins — 14 for the Angels in 2008, 11 for the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in 2009, 14 for the Padres in 2010 — before suffering a shoulder injury in 2011. He had surgery and was out of baseball in 2012, which is why he had to begin the tryout process all over again this spring. Still, he certainly looked healthy in his spring work for Seattle.

“The arm’s doing good,” he said. “I had the surgery in 2011 and took all of 2012 off to rehab and get it stronger. Being in the position I was in, pretty much already throwing a career, that was kind of a luxury that some guys don’t have. But so far this spring, everything’s been really good. It’s been responding well. It’s been bouncing back really well after games. To me, that was the biggest key coming in. I knew it was strong and I knew we were going to be fine, it was just how would it respond after a game, after throwing four, five, six innings and being ready for the next bullpen and the next game. And it’s done really well.”

Garland has thrown at least 190 innings in nine seasons, 200 or more in six. In his lone start for the Rocks in Scottsdale, he threw six innings and gave up one run. At 33, if his shoulder is sound, he should have plenty left in the tank.

“I want to make all my starts and I want to give the team a chance to win every time I’m on the field,” he said. “If I can get to the 200-inning mark, I think that would be a good accomplishment because that means you’re staying out on the field and the manager thinks you’re pitching well enough to give the team a chance to win.”

OK, fine, but what about the elephant in the room? What about Coors Field?

“I think that’s the biggest problem starting pitchers (have) coming in there, is they start to worry about it,” he said. “Is the ball going to carry? What’s going to happen here? My overall feeling is if you keep the ball down and you throw strikes and you work quick, you’re going to get outs regardless of what stadium you’re in.

“I think the biggest thing is just try and maintain that hydration there in Colorado because you don’t really bounce back as strong. But I think overall just the fact that people go in there and they hear so many bad things, I mean, I’ve played in parks that played smaller than that and the ball’s carried just as good. So, like I said, if you keep the ball down and you throw strikes, it doesn’t matter where you’re at, you’re going to get outs.”

Unlike Guthrie, who had never started a game at Coors Field until the Rockies acquired him, Garland actually has a little experience with the barnyard on Blake Street. He’s started three games there — one in 2009 as a member of the Diamondbacks and two in 2010 as a member of the Padres. In the first, he pitched seven innings and gave up three runs. In the second, he pitched six innings and gave up four runs. In the third, he pitched seven innings and gave up three runs, two of them earned. Overall, that’s an ERA of 4.05, very respectable for the ballpark sometimes mistaken for a pinball machine.

If it weren’t for the shoulder issue, you might question whether Garland should be subjected to the pitch counts the Rocks imposed last season in an effort to keep their pitchers healthy. Reportedly, last year’s 75-pitch count will be relaxed to 90 or thereabouts this season. Garland threw 102 in each of his first two starts at Coors, 86 in the third.

On the other hand, he wasn’t pitching there regularly in those days and there is the matter of recovery he mentioned — starters don’t tend to bounce back quite as quickly at high elevation. Coming off major shoulder surgery, Garland is a health risk, which is probably why he was available to Colorado in the first place.

Familiar with Rockies personnel from his stints pitching for Arizona, Los Angeles and San Diego, Garland believes the club will be formidable offensively so long as its two cornerstones, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, stay healthy.

“As an opposing pitcher coming in and facing a lot of these guys, when they’re healthy and they’re right, it’s a damaging lineup,” he said.

“You have to be careful up and down that lineup and you have to makes sure to get the guys at the top of the lineup out. Otherwise, you can be in big trouble each and every inning. But I think the biggest key for this lineup is keeping Carlos Gonzalez and Tulo healthy. You keep those two guys healthy, everybody around them becomes better players. They start seeing better pitches, they start getting a little more selective, getting on base a little bit more and it all kind of gets rolling from there.”

However it works out, the Garland acquisition is thoroughly low-risk for the Rocks. His one-year deal is worth $500,000, so if he flames out, it’s not a big financial hit. A younger former first-round pick, Drew Pomeranz, is waiting in the wings just in case.

Garland’s experience pitching at Coors Field means it won’t be a complete shock to his system, as it was to Guthrie’s. And his history as a volume innings-eater suggests that if his repaired shoulder holds up, he just might be that stable veteran the Rocks have been looking for.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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