Hopes were high after his rookie year, but toward the end of an optimistic offseason, Speier tore the labrum in his right shoulder while playing basketball, necessitating shoulder surgery that cost him the entire 2006 season.
Speier had jumped directly to the Opening Day roster in '05 after a 2004 season at Double-A Tulsa, where he won the Rolaids Relief Man Award for all Minor League pitchers. He spent most of April, a week in August and from Sept. 6 through the end of the season pitching for the Rockies, logging the rest of his time in Triple-A Colorado Springs.
The 6-foot-7, 27-year-old showed enormous promise in '05, finishing the season with a 3.65 ERA in 22 appearances for the Rockies, all out of the 'pen. On Tuesday, he showed his determination to keep that promise, holding the White Sox hitless as he struck out one and walked one in the eighth inning.
"I felt great," Speier said. "My arm strength is there. My command was a little off; it might have been the nerves. I'll tighten that up."
Speier has his work cut out for him to break back into the crowded Colorado pitching field, but if he can re-visit the success he enjoyed in his rookie year, he should find himself back in the Coors Field clubhouse before too long.
"Because of the uniqueness of what he does, we really don't have anybody else like Ryan," general manager Dan O'Dowd said Tuesday. "When you're that tall and throwing from the angles he throws from and how he varies the slots, he's just a very unique guy to see if you're an opposing hitter."
The Rockies were not content to simply send him home for a season of recovery last year. Instead, they elected to keep Speier with the team throughout the season, giving him the opportunity to undergo his rehabilitation with the supervision of the Major League training and coaching staffs.
"One of the good things about him rehabbing all year is I think he's much physically stronger than before the injury," O'Dowd said. "He's really filled in his upper half. He's had really no residual effect from the injury at all. Physically, he's much more put together than he was before the injury. His whole body is better."
In addition to whetting his appetite for competition, spending the year with the Rockies gave Speier the chance to study the game in a way he wouldn't have had he been working on his own daily challenges and adjustments. He did his homework, and is ready to ace the test.
"It's amazing the things you can learn when you just watch people play baseball, especially at that level," Speier said. "I was in the video room a lot of the time and I was behind home plate a lot of the time. You start to really learn how to pitch when you see other people pitching. You start to think, 'What would I throw if I had his stuff?'"
The challenge for Speier this spring is to demonstrate his health, his stuff and his mind, bouncing back with the strength and resiliency to pitch in back-to-back games and the mental fortitude to challenge big-league hitters on a daily basis.
Speier took a step in the right direction when he pitched for Grand Canyon in the Arizona Fall League after the '06 season. He compiled a 4.50 ERA in eight appearances spanning eight innings, striking out 11 while walking two.
"It was great," Speier said of the return to competition in the fall. "We had a great group of guys, and it was a lot of fun. Just putting the uniform back on again -- I was in uniform last year, but I was kind of on the sidelines and doing administrative type things rather than playing ball. So it was a really good feeling to get back out there."
His goal for the spring is to reestablish the regular work pattern he's been craving since Sept. 29, 2005, his last big-league outing. The Rockies hope to see him return to the form he showed in his stellar rookie season, but they are wary of elevating expectations for him.
"Realistically, I'm just happy to see him healthy and getting out pitching," O'Dowd said. "I think he's going to show up well, and I think as the course of the year goes along, at some point in time, he's going to help us."
Manager Clint Hurdle echoed O'Dowd, clearly pleased to see Speier back on the mound and poised to roll again as a member of the Rockies pitching staff.
"He's worked extremely hard," said Hurdle. "It's good to have him in our inventory. It's good to have him here. He's gotten outs at the Major League level. He's got a little experience. For him to be healthy, I believe even better things are in front of him."