- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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After Jeff Francis received a $1.85 million bonus as the Colorado Rockies' first pick and ninth choice overall in the 2002 draft, he splurged and bought a GMC Yukon. Eight years, 51 major league victories and roughly 100,000 miles later, man and vehicle remain inseparable.
In a few days, Francis will settle into the SUV with his wife, infant daughter and the family dog for the 900-mile trip from Denver to Tucson, Ariz., where he'll pick up the pace in his recovery from shoulder surgery. In the meantime, he's taking a detour to a more far-flung locale to get a jump on the proceedings.
The Rockies thought it might be beneficial for Francis to get a head start on spring training, so last week he hopped a plane for the Dominican Republic. He'll spend a week at the team's complex in Boca Chica playing long toss, throwing in the bullpen and watching movies on his laptop at night when he's not feeling culturally adventurous enough to sample the local Spanish-speaking TV fare.
Sunshine is abundant in the Dominican, with temperatures in the mid-80s. Francis' old Double-A pitching coach, Bo McLaughlin, is on hand, and Ubaldo Jimenez, Franklin Morales, Manny Corpas and Greg Reynolds are among the familiar faces taking part in early workouts. Better yet, he'll be home in time for Valentine's Day.
"I feel good," Francis said by phone. "I'm not thinking about the injury anymore, which is nice. Last summer was a grind mentally more than anything. Then I got over a hump where I stopped feeling shoulder pain and I could just ramp it up. That's really helped me get my body back into the delivery I know."
Injury rehabs are in vogue for pitchers in the Cactus League this spring. Ben Sheets is coming back from flexor tendon surgery at Oakland's camp in Phoenix, Brandon Webb is recovering from a shoulder cleanup in Tucson and Francis will try to regain the form that prompted the Rockies to give him a four-year, $13.25 million contract in November 2006.
From 2005 through 2007, Francis symbolized the new-and-improved Rockies pitching staff in this post-humidor era. He won 17 games in 2007 to tie the franchise single-season record shared by Pedro Astacio and Kevin Ritz, and ranked sixth in the National League with 215 1/3 innings pitched.
But Francis began feeling discomfort in his left shoulder during the 2008 season, and he dipped to 4-10 with a 5.01 ERA before shutting it down in mid-September. Francis tried to come back last spring, but his first bullpen session told him he was fighting a losing battle. He conceded the inevitable and opted for surgery to repair a torn labrum last February. It wasn't until August that he began to feel pain free.
"I was throwing about 40 or 50 feet, and I kind of had to teach myself to throw again," he said.
Once Francis found his comfort zone, he was able to throw from longer distances with more authority. When he pitched well in an instructional league cameo last fall, it brought him some welcome peace of mind.
The Rockies expect some positive long-term results from Francis' injury rehab. He has worked extensively on strengthening the shoulder under the guidance of Rockies trainer Keith Dugger, and he's made some alterations to his delivery that should take some strain off his arm over time. Most notably, Francis is taking a more direct line toward home plate and throwing less across his body.
Francis has always relied more on command and control than velocity, so his challenge now is regaining his touch and "pitchability," as the scouts like to call it. His fastball usually registered between 86 to 89 mph before the injury, and he complemented it with an effective curveball and changeup. Francis posted a 2.62 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2007, so he has a good idea where the ball is going when he's on his game.
"This is not a blow-away type guy," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. "He's an artist who just really knows how to pitch. From that standpoint, he doesn't have to go through a complete readjustment period. If anything, he just needs to refine himself command-wise. But nothing has really changed."
Francis will take the place of 2009 All-Star Jason Marquis, who signed a two-year, $15 million deal with Washington as a free agent in December. The Colorado staff boasts one of baseball's hardest throwers in Jimenez, a ground-ball machine in Aaron Cook and another lefty, Jorge De La Rosa, who won 16 games and struck out 193 batters in 185 innings last season. Jason Hammel slots into the fifth spot, and the Rockies signed veteran Tim Redding for back-of-the-rotation insurance.
I'm not thinking about the injury anymore, which is nice. Last summer was a grind mentally more than anything.
”-- Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis
These aren't your older brother's Rockies. Tracy gives his starters a long leash provided they're throwing strikes, and Colorado's rotation logged 971 1/3 innings last season -- the fourth-highest total in the majors behind the Cardinals, Braves and Giants. The Rockies' starters ranked seventh among the 30 MLB clubs with a 4.10 ERA.
Amid the euphoria over Francis' return, everyone is proceeding with caution. Francis' only stated goal is to make every start this season, and Tracy says the team won't hesitate to back off on occasion if necessary. But if Francis can handle the load, the Rockies won't slap any restrictions on him.
"Jeff will determine his innings," general manager Dan O'Dowd said in an e-mail. "If he maintains his delivery, I believe he could get back to 200-plus this year."
Francis, a soft-spoken, former physics and astronomy major at the University of British Columbia, is a popular player in the clubhouse, and he made a statement to the front office by cutting short his winter hiatus to travel to the Dominican last week.
"Jeff's a terrific competitor," Tracy said. "We didn't push this on him. He's doing it because he wants to do it."
For what it's worth, the sleep is a little more restful on the road. Francis and his wife, Allison, welcomed daughter Cameron into the world in October, so every day is a new adventure. He went from obsessing over arm slots to envisioning the day when teenage boys start showing up at the front door.
"In one day, it went from just the two of us to three of us," Francis said. "All of a sudden you're thinking about, 'Where are we going to live? Where is she going to school?' All those things. Your focus definitely changes."
Clichéd as this might sound, fatherhood and season-ending surgery can alter a man's perspective. Francis spent enough time away from the game to appreciate what he was missing. Now that he's back -- and throwing a baseball feels natural again -- he plans to make the most of it.
5hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com