With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Rockies squad each day this week. Today's topic: Who might surprise?
DENVER -- Left-handed starting pitcher Kyle Freeland is seeking a Major League job, as well as a homecoming.
Freeland, 23, the Rockies' top pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, grew up in Denver and pitched at Thomas Jefferson High before solidifying his prospect status at the University of Evansville. Last year -- really his first full season, since he suffered from bone chips in his elbow and shoulder fatigue in 2015 -- he went 11-10 with a 3.89 ERA combined at Double-A Hartford and Triple-A Albuquerque.
In three of his final four Triple-A outings, Freeland pitched seven, seven and six scoreless innings. Given that he had thrown 162 innings, after throwing 46 2/3 innings while battling the ailments the previous year, it was understandable the Rockies didn't give him his Major League debut. But indications are the club is looking at him seriously as a contender for a spot on the big league staff to start 2017.
Freeland would love to taste home cooking at baseball's highest level.
"Not many people get the opportunity to be drafted to their hometown team and be able to go through their entire farm system, and hopefully get to play in their hometown in front of friends and family for a team they grew up watching," Freeland said. "That's been a dream of mine for a long time and a goal I'm very close to reaching."
Barring injury to any of the four expected starters, Freeland, the eighth overall pick in 2014, is in competition for one open rotation spot. Righties Jeff Hoffman, who was chosen by the Blue Jays one pick behind Freeland and obtained for shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and German Marquez made their Major League debuts last year. Lefty Chris Rusin, a starter-reliever, and righty prospect Antonio Senzatela, who was stellar when not battling shoulder issues at Hartford, also are in the mix. Manager Bud Black has indicated that he isn't opposed to one of the younger pitchers beginning the season in the bullpen.
It's been rare that Colorado natives have been drafted by the Rockies and pitched for them. Greeley's Shawn Chacon, who was chosen for the 2003 All-Star Game (but didn't pitch because of injury) comes to mind. Lamar's Scott Elarton and Denver natives Nate Field and Mark Knudson pitched for the club after beginning their careers elsewhere. But Freeland's ability to locate his pitches makes him a candidate to make his city and state proud.
Freeland's fastball travels in the low 90s in mph, but he can spot it. He also has a penchant for tying up right-handed hitters with a cutter when he wants to go up in the zone or a hard slider low.
Freeland said facing seasoned competition in Triple-A helped his growth.
"It was knowing that these guys either have MLB time or they're knocking on the door, so they know what they have to do and they've done it before," Freeland said. "When that's in the back of your head, you focus in a little more when you're on the mound. It's controlling the running game and knowing what you have to execute."
In addition to the hard stuff, Freeland uses a curveball -- sometimes early, sometimes as a put-away pitch -- and a developing changeup on the arm side that could help open the glove-side fastball, slider and cutter.
Rockies co-pitching coordinator Darryl Scott, last year's Albuquerque pitching coach, said Freeland impressed him with his ability to use his heart, as well as his head and arm. For example, on challenging hitters inside, Freeland said, "It's a joy hearing that bat crack and seeing the frustration in their eyes," and Scott believes that attitude will take him far.
"When he walks out onto the mound, he's in a very competitive mode," Scott said. "Those guys, typically when they come in with that kind of intensity and that kind of competitiveness, there's no fear involved in pitching inside. If that's the pitch he needs, there's no fear to go there."