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Rockies leaning on younger players for bench

MLB.com @harding_at_mlb

SAN FRANCISCO -- Will the Rockies find happiness with a young bench?

It used to be the key bench player was a long-in-the-tooth veteran who could fall back on many at-bats past when he received the few chances late in a game. The Rockies, like many teams who have re-evaluated how they spend resources, are breaking bench players into the Majors by hoping the sprinkling of starts prepare them to make a difference late in a game. Right-handed-hitting outfielder Noel Cuevas and infielder Pat Valaika started Sunday against the Giants, but more often than not, they'll have pinch-hit roles.

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Will the Rockies find happiness with a young bench?

It used to be the key bench player was a long-in-the-tooth veteran who could fall back on many at-bats past when he received the few chances late in a game. The Rockies, like many teams who have re-evaluated how they spend resources, are breaking bench players into the Majors by hoping the sprinkling of starts prepare them to make a difference late in a game. Right-handed-hitting outfielder Noel Cuevas and infielder Pat Valaika started Sunday against the Giants, but more often than not, they'll have pinch-hit roles.

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It worked last season, when Valaika drove in 16 pinch-hit runs -- a Major League rookie record (since rookie standards were established in 1958). Not as much this year.

Valaika went 6-for-58 to start the season before being optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque on May 8. He was recalled last Monday. Left-handed-hitting Mike Tauchman (1-for-23) and Ryan McMahon (9-for-50) also started the year with the Rockies, but were optioned and are still at Albuquerque

"We had young guys on the bench. We felt that those guys were ready," Rockies manager Bud Black said. "As it turned out, they probably were ready mentally, but physically and being in that role as a backup bench player, getting at-bats here and there, coming off the bench to pinch-hit, might not have suited them well."

Black is augmenting the left-handed part of the bench by rotating Carlos Gonzalez, Gerardo Parra and David Dahl as starting corner outfielders, with the remaining outfielder coming off the bench. Still, Cuevas and Valaika are the main righty bats off the bench.

Cuevas, who made his Major League debut April 22 after being called up from Albuquerque, has fared better. He entered Sunday .283, and he is 3-for-10 as a pinch-hitter. Interestingly, the Rockies used him this year the way they used Valaika last year -- by giving him regular playing time in Triple-A before summoning him.

"The times that I was able to experiment with what I'm experiencing now was in Spring Training," said Cuevas, whose short swing is conducive to success off the bench. "Last year was my third Spring Training with the Rockies and that's what I did -- come from the bench and have my at-bat.

"It was tough in the beginning, but I understood what kind of role I could have. Even though I was playing every day in Triple-A, I understood that whenever the time came to come up here, it was probably going to be a role like this. Mentally being able to prepare, then seeing the results in the big leagues from the beginning is giving me a lot of confidence."

Valaika said the retuning in the Minors was beneficial.

"The short little hiatus was good for me to get down there, work on some things and be back up," Valaika said. "Stakes are a little higher. It's good to go down there, take a deep breath a little bit, enjoy playing, get four at-bats and have fun."

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.

Colorado Rockies, Noel Cuevas, Pat Valaika