Patience key for Lambert; Nuñez’s power

April 3rd, 2022

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- 's Spring Training is beginning too late for him to be a factor by the start of the regular season. But if all goes as planned, the Rockies' right-hander will have a chance to utilize his limited innings in a beneficial way.

Lambert had a bright beginning to his career in 2019, but underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, missed all of 2020 and was limited to two Major League re-acclimation starts at the end of last season. Then, Lambert felt a twinge in his arm just before the lockout ended and again during camp, so the Rockies decided not to rush him back to the mound.

The original plan was to start Lambert in Saturday's eventual 11-11 tie with the Athletics in Mesa, Ariz. Non-roster righty Matt Dennis started instead and went three innings, gave up one run on two hits and fanned three as he tried to put himself on the radar.

Lambert, who turns 25 on April 18, wants to be available down the road this year for innings that count -- and to put himself in the position to be on the mound deep into the season.

“Part of the plan is for me to be able to pitch through the whole entire year -- it’s actually going to be an innings-limit type deal,” Lambert said. “It’s been a long road, but the most important thing is being healthy. That’s my priority right now.”

Under manager Bud Black, the Rockies have successfully massaged pitchers through a season before. No injury was involved in 2017, but by skipping starts and optioning pitchers to Triple-A -- sometimes without even pitching in a Minors stint -- Black ushered then-rookies Kyle Freeland, Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela through a season that saw the Rockies earn a spot in the National League Wild Card Game.

If Lambert stays healthy, the delay in the start of the year means he could have innings to throw toward the middle and end of the season. The team's rotation depth is iffy right now, but the Rockies see no point in risking someone they like in the long term by rushing him back for the start of the year.

“We’ve got to get Peter to a spot where he feels completely confident in his arm, and the physical part of being ready to start a season, and we’re just not quite there yet,” Black said. “He felt a little bit of forearm discomfort prior to coming to camp. That sort of resolved itself.

“When he started ramping up in the shortened Spring Training, everything was going well. Then he felt a little bit that same feeling, and we decided to be cautious with Peter.”

Maybe the at-bats are enough for Nuñez
With catcher Elias Díaz playing with a new three-year, $14.5 million contract earned after a solid 2021, there is the concern that second-year catcher Dom Nuñez won’t receive enough playing time to stay sharp offensively. He hit .189 in 81 games last season.

While keeping him sharp could be an argument for sending him to Triple-A Albuquerque, the left-handed hitting Nuñez’s power is a weapon. On Sunday, he clubbed a grand slam off Athletics right-hander Justin Grimm, who hadn’t yielded a run in his previous four outings. Of his 43 hits in 2021, more than half were for extra bases -- 10 homers, 12 doubles and three triples.

In Sunday's contest against Oakland, Nuñez, who played for Mayagüez in the Puerto Rican Winter League to make up for missing at-bats, went 3-for-4 to lift his Cactus League average to .300. While it’s not the regular season, Nuñez has fared well in a playing time rotation.

"That was good to see -- he jumped on a fastball on an 0-1 count," Black said. "He's still learning as a young catcher. We feel good about Dom behind the plate. There are some things fundamentally that we have to get going offensively, but he's doing a nice job."

What we've learned, and what’s still to come
In addition to the lefty Freeland starting Friday afternoon’s season opener at Coors Field (2 p.m. MT) against the Dodgers, Black said righties Márquez and Senzatela will start the final two games of the series. Black added that he and his staff haven't yet set the order.

Lefty Austin Gomber and righty Chad Kuhl pitched on the same day last time through the Cactus League rotation. It’s likely Gomber will start Colorado's final Cactus League game on Tuesday against the Guardians, with Kuhl throwing in a Minor League or camp game Tuesday or Wednesday. They are the probable pitchers for a two-game set at Texas on April 11 and 12.