TUCSON, Ariz. -- Say the words "pitching-rich Colorado Rockies," and they sound about as reality-based as "publicity-shy Hank Steinbrenner." When your franchise is entering its 16th year and the best single-season winning percentage still belongs to Marvin Freeman, some perceptions are difficult to shake.
Yet the rumors are true. The Rockies took a big step forward last season when the staff ranked a respectable 14th in the majors with a 4.32 ERA. Much of the credit goes to the equalizing effects of the humidor, which gives pitchers a fighting chance by ensuring that baseballs at altitude actually behave like baseballs. It might be the biggest boost for male self-esteem since Viagra.
But credit should also go to Colorado management for its progressive, open-minded approach to acquiring international talent. As the Rockies have shown, if you want something badly enough, you'll travel the world to find it.
Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook are good, for sure, but the Rockies' mound revival is largely a Latin thing. Starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales and closer Manny Corpas are all between 22 and 25 years old, and they have the type of high-octane stuff and mound presence to make scouts gush and hitters quake.
Last year the young Latino pitchers played a huge role in the Rockies' September run and first National League pennant, even if their contribution was overshadowed by Troy Tulowitzki's all-around game, Matt Holliday's MVP-caliber production and Todd Helton's heartwarming postseason debut. They pitched one big game after another before reality set in against Boston in the World Series.
"We wouldn't have won without them," said general manager Dan O'Dowd.
Corpas, from Panama, seized the closer's job from Brian Fuentes in July and posted a 2.08 ERA, the lowest ever by a Rockies reliever. He converted 19 of his last 20 save opportunities and went 55 straight batters between walks during one five-week stretch. And both of those were intentional. When Corpas throws a fastball out of the zone, you wonder if they're going to stop the game and take his temperature.
"He wants to go right at people," said catcher Yorvit Torrealba. "His attitude is, 'Here's my best pitch -- hit it, swing and miss or take it, but just do something.' You can see him get mad at himself when he starts out Ball 1, Ball 2."
Jimenez, a native of the Dominican Republic, arrived from Triple-A Colorado Springs after the All-Star break with a repertoire that inspired both awe and flights of hyperbole. In an interview last fall, Arizona outfielder Eric Byrnes observed that Jimenez throws "110 miles an hour," with sliders "that started in our home dugout and ended in the visitors' dugout."
Morales, out of Venezuela, is the most athletic and perhaps the most promising of all. Reliever Matt Herges said it probably won't be long before people are comparing him to Minnesota's lefty phenom Francisco Liriano -- for his talent rather than his durability.
Scan the 30 big-league rosters, and you won't find a homegrown Latin triple threat of this sort anywhere. With the exception of a few twin tandems -- Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Marmol with the Cubs, Fausto Carmona and Rafael Perez in Cleveland and Francisco Rodriguez and Ervin Santana in Anaheim -- nothing comes close.
"The whole baseball world looks at those three kids right there and says, 'We wish we had something like that,' " Herges said. "I guarantee you, they're coveted everywhere in the game."
Now that the door is open, others are ready to walk through. Of Baseball America's 30 top Rockies prospects this year, 10 have roots in Latin America. Dominican shortstop Hector Gomez and pitcher Pedro Strop are intriguing talents, and countryman Juan Morillo routinely hits 100 mph on the radar gun -- although he doesn't always know where the ball is going.
"A lot of guys come down to first base and say, 'Where do these guys come from?' " Helton said. "I hear a lot of comments like that."
No one is prouder of the Rockies' Hispanic haul than Rolando Fernandez, the team's director of international operations. Fernandez, 40, left his native Puerto Rico in the mid-1980s to play college ball and study advertising at Northwestern State University in Louisiana. He spent four seasons as an outfielder in the Chicago Cubs' system before a weak bat forced him to stop chasing the dream.
"Now that I'm scouting, I know why I got released," Fernandez said, smiling. "I did the best I could with my ability, but I didn't have that much."
Fernandez went to work for Colorado in 1992 and gradually climbed the organizational hierarchy, but it wasn't until O'Dowd's arrival seven years later that the Rockies intensified their financial commitment in the Latin countries. According to Tracy Ringolsby of the Rocky Mountain News, the Rockies' entire Latin American budget was $50,000 under former GM Bob Gebhard. Last year the team spent $1.9 million on bonuses alone for Latin players.
At the turn of the millennium, the best Latin programs belonged to the Dodgers and Athletics. Fernandez studied both clubs' operations, learned what he needed to do to be competitive, and made a successful pitch to O'Dowd and Colorado ownership to obtain the necessary resources.
Although the Rockies aren't the biggest spenders in the region, they're at least competitive. The team has three full-time scouts in the Dominican and Venezuela and another scout in Panama, and Fernandez has a slew of contacts in Nicaragua, Curacao and Aruba. Colorado's complex in the Dominican includes two fields, batting cages, a cafeteria and enough dormitory space to house 55 players,
In many respects, Fernandez said, scouting pitchers in Hispanic countries is no different than in the United States. A live arm and good mechanics transcend language barriers and cultures. The big difference is that some Latin American athletes grow up with inferior nutritional standards, so there's more projection involved with the understanding that a player's body type might change.
Good instruction is also imperative. "There's a concept that the players play a lot of baseball in the Dominican before they sign," Fernandez said. "But they don't play a lot of organized baseball, so once you sign them and get them in the complex, that's when the teaching starts."
Fernandez raves about the "teamwork" displayed by Colorado's international scouts, and that was never more evident than in the courtship of Morales. When the Rockies first scouted Morales in a tournament in Venezuela, he never appeared in the game. But when he began warming up in the ninth inning, scout Orlando Medina hurried down to the bullpen and took notes. It was love at first sight.
Morales ran a 6.7-second 60-yard dash at age 16 and could swing a bat, and the Yankees and Toronto both liked him as an outfield prospect. But when Fernandez asked him which aspect of the game he preferred, Morales quickly replied, "I want to pitch."
Each of Colorado's young pitchers has his own personality. Corpas, the quiet one, barely says a word in the bullpen, but carries a supreme air of confidence in the clubhouse and on the mound. Jimenez, the analytical one, is the only member of the trio with a high school diploma, and he's made impressive strides in learning English.
Morales, the extrovert, brings an energy to the park that can be difficult to harness. He tends to get distracted and wander around the mound with runners on base, and the Rockies are working with him on keeping his head in the game at all times.
"There's a difference between being antsy and not knowing what you're doing," said manager Clint Hurdle. "I think more often than not Franklin falls in the antsy category, but he's got a learning curve in front of him. That being said, it's like a dog wagging his tail. Are you going to tell a dog to stop wagging his tail when he gets excited?"
As the Rockies advance deeper into spring training, Jimenez is penciled into the No. 3 spot in the rotation, and Morales is in the mix with Jason Hirsh, Mark Redman, Kip Wells and Josh Towers for one of the last two spots.
As Colorado's youngsters proved last year, they're not afraid of competition.
"If you were brain dead, you knew the stakes," Herges said. "Some young kids might come in, see the lights and smell the popcorn and go weak-kneed. With these guys it's, 'I belong here. Give me the ball.' "
A little older, more experienced and mature, Colorado's kid pitchers are ready to take the ball again. And it's the rest of the National League that's feeling queasy.