Freeland, Márquez aim to change trajectory in 2023

February 16th, 2023

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies starting pitchers and believe the divergent feelings with which they enter 2023 will lead to a successful season.

There is the honor that comes with participating in the World Baseball Classic -- Freeland for Team USA, his first national team invitation at any level, and Márquez with Venezuela for the first time since he was an 11-year-old third baseman on a trip to Cuba. But the validation comes on the heels of 2022, when the inconsistency of the two rotation leaders helped lead to the Rockies' 68-94, last-place finish in the National League West. Both pitchers at least finished well, and now call upon themselves to set a standard.

“We need to continue to share that feeling, that mindset, like, ‘This is not OK,’” Freeland said. “Every year since 2018, 2019 until now, has been nothing but losing seasons. We’re here to win ballgames. We’re here to win the NL West. We’re here to win a championship.”

Manager Bud Black did not like being wrong about last year’s Rockies.

“I thought the starting pitchers would be a strength of our team,” Black said. “As it turned out, we fell short of our standards. I think all those guys are ready to set the record straight about our rotation.”

Can the pitchers live up to their potential and flush last year's disappointment?

“That’s in the past,” Márquez said. “This season it’s different. We’re healthy. We’re going to keep going.”

Freeland, 29, and Márquez, who turns 28 on Feb. 22, each has flashed the quality associated with starters on contending teams. Freeland finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting in 2018, when he had a 2.40 ERA at Coors Field, and Márquez was an All-Star in 2012. Each has flirted with a no-hitter at Coors Field.

In '19, the Rockies signed Márquez to a $43 million contract that ends this season, but has a 2024 club option. Last year, the team signed Freeland for five years and $64.5 million.

Yet, the next level awaits. The Rockies are banking that eliminating last year’s disruptive forces  -- contract uncertainty and the lockout -- will unlock it.

Freeland entered last season in his final year of arbitration. Negotiations with the club on the multiyear deal lasted until April 19. That night, he held the Phillies to two runs in five innings of a 6-5 Rockies victory, but he went to bed with a 7.71 ERA.

“I was doing the best I could to keep it out of my mind,” he said. “I was not standing on the mound thinking, ‘I’ve got to throw well so we can keep talking about contract negotiations.' But I came to peace with whatever happens is going to happen.”

His performance settled and his 3.78 over his final nine starts served as a springboard to 2023. Sharpening two secondary pitches -- a slider that needs more depth and a changeup that must be tougher to read -- became his projects.

“My slider has gotten a little cutter-ish over the years,” Freeland said. “It’s nice to have that cutter-type pitch, but at the same time, I’ve always looked at my slider as one of my better pitches, one I can throw strike-to-ball. And my changeup has always been in the works.”

Throughout Márquez’s career, the Rockies, their coaches and catchers prodded him to work inside to right-handed hitters -- which he backed away from after shattering the helmet of future teammate Kris Bryant as a rookie in '17. Last year, Márquez gave himself over to the project.

Problem was, it was during the lockout, when he could not have contact with Black or pitching coach Darryl Scott, who was in his first year on the job after working in the Minor League system. Increased usage of a two-seam fastball that the right-hander hadn’t mastered eroded all his pitches. It proved too much too quickly. Through June 18, he had a 6.16 ERA. But Márquez persisted with his strategy, and pitched strongly enough the rest of the way to lower his final ERA to 4.95.

In mid-January, Márquez arrived at the Salt River Fields at Talking Stick complex to work with Scott and delve into data with the team’s growing analytics department.

“It’s a lot different, being here in the complex, seeing the little differences that I didn’t see going into last year,” said Márquez, who said he may experiment with a four-seamer arm side, which could help his fastball and curve to the other side.

“I feel like we have a lot of experience now, and we know how to pitch,” Márquez added. “From now on, you’re going to see how good we’re going to be.”