DENVER -- The best measure of the health of Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis' left shoulder isn't in how he is throwing. It's who is catching his throws.
"I can go out and play catch without a trainer," Francis said. "I can throw with the guys. My shoulder feels smooth, feels stronger than before. "
Francis was a key figure in the Rockies' magical 2007, winning 17 games in the regular season and two in the postseason. But shoulder problems led to a subpar 2008 and forced him to undergo arthroscopic surgery in February 2009 to repair his labrum and clean out his rotator cuff. That meant no World Baseball Classic, where he would have represented Canada, and no participating in another postseason trip for the Rockies.
Francis watched the Rockies make the 2009 playoffs without him. When he wasn't a spectator, he was as much a presence as possible. When he wasn't rehabbing, Francis was doing numerous community projects. At the ballpark, he all but served as emcee for pregame activities. He even pitched in as the regular catcher for first-pitch ceremonies.
But all signs point to Francis returning to his perch as a key member of the Rockies' rotation in 2010. As the team celebrated its playoff berth, the organization celebrated Francis' appearance in the fall instructional program in Tucson, Ariz. Granted, it was just three innings against the Rockies' youngest prospects, but it finished the rehab period and started a legitimate countdown to Francis' return.
Francis is on a normal offseason program. He'll begin throwing bullpen sessions next month and should be ready for full participation in Spring Training. No longer worried about shoulder pain, Francis' biggest stress is the waiting.
"I'm doing pretty good for someone who hasn't thrown in a real game in 15 months," Francis said with a laugh.
Rockies manager Jim Tracy said the club will keep an eye on Francis early in the season, since pitchers coming off the surgery Francis had tend to struggle early with the strain of regular big league work. But he's almost as excited about Francis' return as his pitcher.
YEAR BY YEAR
A glance at each of Jeff Francis' seasons in the Major Leagues.
"I look for Jeff Francis to be an integral part of our rotation," Tracy said. "I have every reason to feel that way, and I think that's the way he would want me to feel about him."
Francis' return raises a question: Can the Rockies claim to have the best top-to-bottom rotation in the National League West? Given the club's history of struggling, partly because of Coors Field being a hitter's park, it's an odd question. The Rockies don't have recognized stars, like the Giants' Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain and the D-backs' Brandon Webb and Dan Haren.
However, neither of those teams, nor the defending West champ Dodgers, can say they had five pitchers reach double figures in wins.
The Rockies will lose 15-game winner Jason Marquis to free agency, but that loss is tempered by the veteran presence of former All-Star Aaron Cook (11-6, 4.16 ERA in 2009). Last season, Ubaldo Jimenez (15-12, 3.47) began realizing his potential as a power pitcher and seems just a few degrees of maturity away from being mentioned with the division's stars. Lefty Jorge De La Rosa (16-9, 4.38) went from a liability to a standout as last season progressed. Righty Jason Hammel (10-8, 4.33) leaned to pitch with efficiency in his first go-round as a regular rotation member in the Majors.
Now Francis has the pedigree to add to the argument, even if he doesn't want to participate in the Hot Stove debate.
"I don't think it's important whether we have the best rotation, but it's important that we have the best team," Francis said. "We have guys who can get people out and a taem that can score runs, and it's that combination that needs to go out and win games. The teams in our division have real good starters, especially the Giants, but if we play the way we're capable we can stack up against anyone and have success."
The nagging question is which Francis will show up for 2010. Will he have the smooth, collected motion and demeanor that led to 44 wins from 2005-2007, or will he be the pitcher who displayed an inconsistent delivery and missed locations badly in 2008?
Francis hopes he has that answer covered.
It isn't clear if the injury led to changes in his motion or vice versa. But from the beginning of the season until he went on the disabled list after his June 28, 2008, start, Francis was 3-7 with a 5.67 ERA, and an uncharacteristic 40 walks and 67 strikeouts. After returning in August, Francis continued to pitch in pain for seven starts, but was 1-3 with a strong 3.50 ERA and 27 strikeouts against nine walks.
"After I came back from the disabled list, I didn't win a lot of games, but I thought I pitched pretty well," Francis said. "I look at that as a positive, and it's what I hold onto at this point.
"Last year brought a lot of reflecting, personally. You realize how fragile your time in this game is, and you can't take it for granted. Whatever success you have can be taken away in a heartbeat. Now that I didn't before, but I'll really appreciate my time on the field and on the mound."
Now Francis can look forward to actually beginning games on the mound, rather than squatting behind the plate while a happy a sponsor or season-ticket holder lives the dream of standing on the hill. Then again, a fellow British Columbia native who made his name in Denver -- on the ice rather than the diamond -- can convince Francis to revisit that role.
"I'll hold out for Joe Sakic to come down and do it," Francis said. "He may be the only one."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.