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Facing competition, Nicasio eyes rotation spot

Right-hander enters Rockies spring camp with renewed velocity, health

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When you're being chased and folks believe they're gaining on you, it helps to have a little finesse. And with the competition bearing down on him for his spot in the Rockies' starting rotation, right-hander Juan Nicasio has gone back to a split-fingered changeup that was a developing pitch before he pocketed it for fear of injury.

But when you're the fastest in the race, there's nothing like stepping on the gas and opening some distance. To win the job and develop the way the Rockies want and expect, Nicasio will have to return to the high-end, consistent fastball velocity that has made him such a prospect.

After missing much of the 2011 and '12 seasons with major injuries, Nicasio reports that his arm once again has speed to burn. Able to concentrate on conditioning rather than rehab for the first time in three years, Nicasio gained confidence -- and top-end velocity -- in winter ball in his native Dominican Republic, and maintained it in workouts at the Rockies' complex at Boca Chica, Dominican Republic.

"I have power," Nicasio said. "I hit 98, 97 [mph]. The lowest it was last year was 88 or 89, I think. You're going to see."

While there are many, including some among the Rockies, who believe Nicasio's destiny is as a hard-throwing reliever who can just live by the heater, the predominant sentiment is he can become a successful power starter. So he'll have a chance to make good on the Rockies' investment -- a one-year, $2.03 million deal to avoid arbitration.

But that didn't stop the Rockies from tossing up his rotation spot, and bringing in veteran lefty spot-starter Franklin Morales from the Red Sox, youthful righty Jordan Lyles from the Astros and oft-injured former top Draft pick Christian Friedrich to vie for it.

Nicasio, 27, is ready to prove himself.

"I need to compete for the job," Nicasio said. "I know they have a lot of young guys here with good arms, and good pitches. I'll compete every day. I don't worry about it. I need to pitch well. I can't worry about who's coming. Just do my job.

"I'm not thinking about the bullpen. My mind is thinking of the starting rotation, and working on my breaking ball and commanding my fastball again. I want to be a starter."

Nicasio leaped from Double-A Tulsa to the Majors in 2011, mainly on the strength of his fastball. But quickly he became known more for injuries than his pitches. He suffered a fractured skull and life-threatening broken neck when he was hit in the right temple with a line drive in August 2011, and he went down with a knee injury just 11 starts into 2012.

For the early portion of last year, Nicasio struggled after five innings. Sub-par secondary pitches were a big part of the problem, and an area in which he must show improvement. But Nicasio and the Rockies believe bigger issues were connected to his injuries.

Having been on the mound so little since the line drive from the Nationals' Ian Desmond on Aug. 5, 2011, Nicasio had the understandable reflex of pulling back his head at the end of a delivery. That meant a lack of finish to the fastball, and it robbed him of downward movement on his breaking pitches.

Then there was the July 2, 2012, left knee injury, which also occurred on a hard-hit ball to the mound. Not only did the incident increase the fear factor, but by last season he was still dealing with pain and weakness. Rehab the previous winter robbed him of valuable conditioning time.

"My knee was killing me all year," Nicasio said. "It's a long season. It's hard pitching like that."

Nicasio was 4-4 with a 5.31 ERA when the Rockies sent him down to Triple-A Colorado Springs. He returned after the All-Star break and was better before wearing out at the end. He finished 9-9 with a 5.14 ERA. It was most important that he finished the year with 157 2/3 innings with the Rockies, plus 11 at Colorado Springs.

"It's in there," said Rockies pitching coach Jim Wright, who was happy Nicasio reported lighter but stronger. "He hit 99 last year with us but he wasn't consistent. But he not only missed time with injuries but he missed time from getting hit. To get past all of that and pitch as many innings as he did was a huge hurdle for him. He knows he can do it again, can get his body stronger and get his legs stronger."

Wright also put the specter of pitchers auditioning for Nicasio's job into perspective.

"You can look around and see what you have to do, and that's what brings the man out of guys -- ones that want to step up and take it," Wright said. "He's one of those guys that would enjoy the challenge. He's met all the other challenges above and beyond now."

Rockies manager Walt Weiss said, "You can tell he's excited, because he's healthy. He's been through a lot in his career. He's got a different look in his eye."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.
Read More: Colorado Rockies, Juan Nicasio