Colorado Rockies Closer Rafael Betancourt went on the disabled list three times last year, the last time with a season-ending injury in late August. And on each occasion, Rex Brothers moved into that role and did very well.
At one point last season, Brothers was asked how much he enjoyed getting the final three outs of a game and saving a Rockies victory.
"I really do, I mean more than I could probably even describe," he said. "I really do. You're the last defense down there and you're putting that game to sleep. There's no other feeling like that, personally, coming out of the 'pen to pitch in those situations or that kind of atmosphere."
Those situations might be less frequent this year. During the offseason, the Rockies signed LaTroy Hawkins, 41, to a one-year, $2.5 million contract and said he will be their closer.
"I have to be honest," Brothers, 26, said at the outset of spring training. "I've always wanted to be a closer. I've worked toward it. But I will take on whatever my role entails. When we signed LaTroy, I was excited. I think we were looking for ways to make our ballclub better."
Brothers went 2-1 with a 1.74 ERA last year in 72 games and converted 19 of 21 save opportunities. Only one of those blown saves occurred in the ninth inning -- Sept. 6 at San Diego to break a string of 14 consecutive successful save opportunities.
While he was closing last season, Brothers was asked whether it would be a letdown to go back to pitch the eighth after savoring the special joys found only in the ninth while closing.
"I would say it's a letdown," he said. "You got to taste it. You know what it feels like. You get that adrenaline rush. You get that feeling that you can't replicate any way, anyhow in any fashion in any other situation. I think athletes long for that. I think that's what drives a lot of people is just to be out there competing."
Barring injury or a particularly abysmal spring, Hawkins is expected to begin the season as the Rockies primary closer. But the left-handed Brothers will give manager Walt Weiss an option if left-handed hitters are lurking for the opposition in the ninth or Hawkins' workload becomes overly heavy and he needs rest or if Hawkins hits a rough patch and needs a breather from the stress of closing.
The Rockies also added left-hander Boone Logan, a free agent who left the Yankees for a three-year, $16.5 million contract with the Rockies. Right-handers Matt Belisle, Adam Ottavino and Wilton Lopez and one other reliever figure to comprise a bullpen that should be much better than last year when Betancourt's injuries -- ultimately his season ended Aug. 22 and he will miss 2014 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery in September -- roiled the bullpen, and the Rockies relievers finished last in the National League with a 4.23 ERA.
"If LaTroy can be successful as a closer," Weiss said, "and he will get some days off, our bullpen sets up really well. We will be able to match up from the sixth (inning) on, something we couldn't do last year."
Brothers strung together 30 consecutive scoreless innings over 32 games last year. He has swing-and-miss stuff with his fastball, slider and changeup. But he does tend to issue walks, albeit typically limiting damage because he can regroup and overpower hitters. Regardless of when he pitches, Brothers wants to reduce his walks. In 67 1/3 innings last year, Brothers averaged 10.2 strikeouts and 4.8 walks per nine innings, very close to his career averages in three seasons of 11.2 strikeouts and 4.8 walks.
"Obviously, you always want to get walks down, because if you walk guys, it's going to mess with your success. I think this year I would like to get more ground balls. That means pitching to contact early in counts."
--RHP Jhoulys Chacin is experiencing right shoulder inflammation and will undergo an MRI on Monday. He is expected to miss at least a week.
Chacin has not thrown a full side session and has been limited to long-tossing this spring.
Trainer Keith Dugger said the injury is not related to the pectoral nerve injury that caused Chacin to miss much of the 2012 season when he made 14 starts and pitched 69 innings. Dugger said Chacin's current injury is inflammation of the right biceps tendon with the irritation near the rotator cuff.
The Rockies are counting heavily on Chacin, who has a goal of pitching 200 innings after falling short last season with a career-high 197 1/3. But for four-inning outings in two of his final three starts, Chacin would have crossed that 200-inning barrier.
Regardless, Chacin went 14-10 last year with a 3.47 ERA, the second-lowest ERA by a starter in franchise history behind only Ubaldo Jimenez's 2.88 ERA in 2010. The 14 victories were a career-high for Chacin.
His success was largely due to a vastly improved sinker. The pitch helped Chacin record 30 double play grounders, the second-best total in the National League, trailing only the St. Louis Cardinals' Adam Wainwright. Prior to last season, Chacin induced 34 double plays on ground balls in 411 1/3 career innings as he tried to miss bats and notch strikeouts.
"I always talked about pitching to contact," Chacin said, "but it was hard earlier in my career, because when I got one or two strikes on a hitter, I wanted the K. But last year, I didn't worry about it. I made up my mind that I would get quick outs."
--OF Corey Dickerson's chances of making the Opening Day roster for the first time likely were not helped by the Rockies' decision to have Carlos Gonzalez stay in left field rather than move to center field.
Newly acquired Drew Stubbs, a right-handed hitter, has done very well against left-handed pitchers but struggled against right-handers. Stubbs is a true center fielder, much more comfortable there than one of the corner outfield positions, and will make $4.1 million this season, all of which should give him an advantage over Brandon Barnes, another right-handed hitter and capable center fielder.
Stubbs could end up platooning in center field with Charlie Blackmon or Dickerson, both left-handed hitters. Dickerson has had limited experience in center field -- which at Coors Field is vast -- and is a left fielder by trade. Dickerson has worked hard on his defense, which is greatly improved. But Blackmon is the better defensive player.
However, Dickerson is the better hitter. He could play his way onto the Opening Day roster this spring if he hits well and shows he can be a reliable center fielder. If Blackmon ends up in a platoon with Stubbs, the Rockies will have to decide whether Dickerson should play every day at Class AAA Colorado Springs or be the fifth outfielder -- Barnes is also a candidate for this spot -- who pinch hits and occasionally starts.