Francis finding ways to contribute out of 'pen
After struggling as starter, left-hander hopes to excel as Rockies reliever
DENVER -- Rockies left-hander Jeff Francis spent too much time in front of the mirror early this season, when start after start turned ugly enough that he ended up in Triple-A Colorado Springs.
"I had to do a lot of self-talk between starts and draw confidence from a lot of different places," Francis said. "When you keep going out there and not having good results, it gets tiring to keep talking yourself up. It's difficult to do, but it's something you have to do. You've got to get yourself out of a rut somehow."
But the important question will come after the season, when Francis, 32, has the next big talk with himself.
Francis was 2-5 with a 6.58 ERA in 11 starts when the Rockies sent him to Triple-A Colorado Springs and, at least he thought, away forever. But the club offered him a chance to return as a middle reliever. Francis has 5.68 ERA in six appearances while being tested in the bullpen.
At season's end, when his one-year, $1.5 million contract expires, Francis, who turns 33 on Jan. 8, will have to determine if he will attempt to see how far he can go as a reliever or seek a job as a starter.
For now, Francis is learning the ways of the bullpen. Before this season, he had made one relief appearance and 215 starts -- 189 with Colorado, many at the top of the rotation.
"My path this year has brought me to where I am, and I'm just trying to be ready to pitch if I'm called on," Francis said. "I've had a lot of help from other pitchers and 'B.J.' [strength and conditioning coach Brian Jordan]. I have been getting in games fairly regularly, so I can know that night that I pitch I can work out and I can have a day or whatever. I haven't pitched on back-to-back days. I have been available to, but I haven't yet."
Francis' best work as a starter came when he used a well-spotted changeup to make a fastball of average velocity effective. It worked for him to the tune of a 44-32 record with a 4.65 ERA from 2005-07. In 2007, Francis went 17-9 with a 4.22 ERA. He was also 2-1 in the postseason while helping the Rockies reach the World Series.
Francis, who has battled shoulder problems and lost velocity, is adjusting.
"There are some things I'm trying to do -- trying to learn a slider, maybe learning to drop down a little bit arm-angle wise," Francis said. "That's something that can help me get left-handers out as well as right-handers.
"In no way am I mentally closing the book on being a starter, but sometimes baseball just takes you down roads, and it could be a ticket for me to keep competing and help the team win."
After missing the 2009 season because of left shoulder surgery and batting through a compromised 2010, Colorado allowed Francis to leave as a free agent. He established his health by making 31 starts for the Royals in 2011. After spending the first half of 2012 in Triple-A with the Reds, Francis joined a depleted Rockies rotation last year and went 6-7 with a 5.58 ERA in 24 starts.
It is unlikely that Francis will find a starting job in Colorado.
The current rotation has been a pleasant surprise, with right-handers Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood and lefty Jorge De La Rosa having solid seasons. Righty Juan Nicasio has shown improvement during the second half, and rookie right-hander Chad Bettis has been showing some promise. The Rockies usually seek experienced starters to compete for spots, but it looks as if they believe Francis is better as a reliever.
"He could always go back to being a starter, but we want to take a look at him in this role -- a left-hander in the bullpen that can give you multiple innings if needed," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "He's got a lot of experience, a lot of wisdom out there. He can manipulate a lineup."
In his return to the big leagues as a reliever, Francis gave up two runs over 2 1/3 innings of mop-up work in an 11-3 loss to the Braves. Three of his five bullpen appearances since have come in close games. Two were scoreless frames. Last Thursday, Francis entered after closer Rafael Betancourt suffered a blown save and a sprained pitching elbow, and he gave up a walk before Domonic Brown won the game for the Phillies, 5-4, with a single.
There are challenges, but at least Francis is no longer trapped in the maddening cycle that he suffered through in the starting rotation this year.
"I couldn't really just find that one thing to concentrate on to turn things around, yet I felt like I was never really far off," Francis said. "It was a mistake here, a mistake there and then an inning would get away from me. I felt like I was constantly chasing."
The opportunity to pitch out of the bullpen surprised Francis.
"When I left in June, I didn't really think I'd be back," Francis said. "I knew they were optioning me and I had accepted that. But I felt like it was kind of it. Here I am a month later. I'm not in a prominent role, but I'm contributing. I love being a part of this team."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.