Chacin alters offseason routine, exudes optimism
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Tuesday was a Denver-like February morning at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. It required a hoodie, maybe a jacket on top. Each breath hung visibly, like a dream. Rockies pitcher Jhoulys Chacin wasn't afraid to talk about the dream that keeps him warm now and will fuel him through the long baseball season.
On the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers, Chacin predictably said he would like to earn the Opening Day start for Colorado. He sees an All-Star Game in his future. But those aren't at the top of his list of aspirations.
Never mind that he missed most of 2012 with a nerve issue in the right side of his chest, that the Rockies lost a club-record 98 games and didn't make any trades or free-agent signings to change what was statistically the worst rotation in the Majors. It's baseball season, so it's time to shoot for the stars.
"One of my dreams is to pitch in the first game of the World Series," Chacin said, smiling at the thought, but definitely not laughing. "I'm not afraid to say that. I know we have the guys here who can put it together and get to that point.
"Nobody thinks we can do something, but that's when we do better. This year, people don't think we have a chance. But we signed Jeff Francis back. Jorge De La Rosa [also injured most of last year] is fine now. Our young guys have to grow up a little bit, but if we put it together, we can go to the World Series. I want to be optimistic."
So if Rockies fans who suffered through the pitching staff's injuries, the immature work of many novices and the ill-fated four-man rotation experiment need unbridled optimism, Chacin was happy to provide it. No one analyzing the 2012 stats and the '13 roster is going to say right now that Chacin's dream is realistic, but Chacin has done all he can to try to reverse last year.
Chacin looked like a young star perfectly capable of honors and success as recently as June 2011, when he as 8-4 with a 2.71 ERA through 15 starts. But he pitched through a forearm strain in his next start, a loss at Wrigley Field to the Cubs, and went 3-10 with a 4.58 ERA in his final 16 starts.
Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd, based on information he received from Chacin's home country of Venezuela, blasted the right-hander last winter for not being in condition. Chacin was inconsistent in Spring Training because of various small ailments. He was 0-3 with a 7.30 ERA through five starts last year and on the verge of a demotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs when the Rockies further investigated his loss of velocity, and the chest nerve problem was diagnosed.
Chacin rehabbed and retooled, returned on Aug. 21 and went 3-2 with a 2.84 ERA in his final nine starts to provide a hint of optimism.
Chacin pitched winter ball in Venezuela, but he realized he needed to change his preparation. A mutual friend of former Major League pitcher Wilson Alvarez arranged for the pair to work out together for more than a week in Sarasota, Fla., uniting a pair of Maracaibo, Venezuela, success stories.
Alvarez, who will coach pitchers for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic and coach at the rookie level for the Orioles this summer, offered some of what he learned over 14 seasons in the Majors. Gone were the heavy lifting exercises that increased the mass of Chacin's chest, but created the impediments to his shoulder and arm. Chacin learned to properly improve the smaller muscles in his shoulder area and converted his leg routine to one that improved endurance.
Alvarez also believes he helped Chacin find the key to gaining consistency on his fastball, which has been considered the last step between where he is now and where he can go.
"He tends to get underneath the ball with his hand, and I tried to help him so his fingers can stay on top of the ball, where they're supposed to be," Alvarez said. "He gets his fingers on top of his slider, but when he's underneath his fastball, it just takes too much effort for his arm. With his fingers on top, he has better angle on his fastball and better location."
Chacin said, "Everybody from Maracaibo knows [Alvarez], and I appreciate that he is so willing to help me."
Alvarez said he would have loved to have worked with Chacin longer, although it's hard to imagine Chacin could have emerged with more confidence that he exudes now.
Catcher Ramon Hernandez said Chacin earned the Rockies' confidence with the way he finished last season.
"He was feeling strong, and even with a 75-pitch limit, he got to the sixth inning a couple of times," Hernandez said. "He's going to come at you. If you're going to beat him, hit him. That's the best way to be a pitcher."
With a two-year, $6.5 million contract, a leaner body and improved mechanics, he said he is prepared for the challenge of restoring the Rockies' respectability, not only on the field, but in the eyes of their fans.
"Yes, we're mainly the same guys who pitched last year, but we know what we have," Chacin said. "You have to be patient with the guys we have here. We're going to be better. We're going to make the playoffs soon.
"One thing guys learned is you can't think about Denver and how hard it is to pitch there. Get groundballs, throw strikes low in the zone, and you'll see the result."
And Chacin believes the result can match his wildest dreams.