Health biggest question facing Tsao

While Dodgers outfielder Chin-Feng Chen was the first native of Taiwan to reach the major leagues, Rockies right-hander Chin-hui Tsao should be the first player from the island nation to make an impact in the big leagues.

The Rockies have shifted Tsao to the bullpen after using him almost exclusively as a starter in the minor leagues. It's a path many big-league closers have followed -- Keith Foulke, Eric Gagne, Jason Isringhausen, Joe Nathan and Mariano Rivera, among others, all were primarily starters in the minor leagues (if not the majors) before moving to the bullpen.

While Shawn Chacon faltered in his conversion from starter to closer in Colorado last year, the Rockies have had high expectations for Tsao ever since giving him a $2.2 million signing bonus in 1999. Tsao ranked as the organization's top prospect three of the previous four years.

He was considered a polished, precocious amateur, pitching for Taiwan as an 18-year-old in the 1999 Asia Games. Tsao had a strong debut season but didn't take his offseason conditioning seriously, leading to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2001.

Tsao continued to work as a starter after his return from the surgery before shifting to the bullpen in 2004, and the move has given his stuff a boost. He touched 100 mph pitching for Taiwan in the 2004 Olympics, a requirement the Rockies had to fulfill to get the Taiwanese government to waive his mandatory 18 months of military service.

Tsao has had trouble staying healthy, which was one reason for his move to a relief role, but he still has starter stuff. Besides Tsao's fastball, from which he can add and subtract velocity, scouts consider his mid-80s slider an above-average pitch, as well. He also can throw his curveball and changeup for strikes.

His biggest test in 2005, if he's to thrive as the Rockies' closer, is proving his arm can hold up on back-to-back outings. He has had shoulder soreness and hamstring injuries in the past, and must prove he's durable enough for a relief workload.