Colorado Rockies right-hander Jhoulys Chacin will pitch for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, taking a roster spot that arose late.
He will replace Felix Hernandez in Venezuela's rotation. Hernandez bowed out of the WBC to protect himself after signing a six-year, $175 million contract with the Seattle Mariners. Chacin had expressed an interest in pitching for his country during the winter before the WBC rosters were set and then pushed for the chance to replace Hernandez.
"It's a dream of mine to do this," Chacin said. "My priority is the Rockies, but this is an opportunity I want to take advantage of."
Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and catcher Ramon Hernandez, Chacin's teammates on the Rockies, will also play for Venezuela in the WBC. Chacin, who turned 25 in January and signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract, is expected to pitch twice in exhibition games for the Rockies before leaving for the WBC.
The Rockies are counting heavily on Chacin this season. He began the 2012 season injured and struggled through the first month before going on the disabled list for nearly three months with a nerve issue in his right chest muscle. Chacin returned Aug. 21 and in his final nine starts, he went 3-2 with a 2.84 ERA.
While pitching for Venezuela, Chacin will take the mound in games that are far more consequential than any in the Cactus League. Manager Walt Weiss said the intensity of the WBC when compared with a spring training start could work to Chacin's advantage.
"You can look at it any way you want to," Weiss said. "You like to have your guys around in spring training, so you've got them in front of you. But the guys who are in the WBC are going to be in some high-pressure situations, having to win games. They're going to get a lot out of that. It's a great honor for these guys to be selected for that."
With the Venezuelan team, Chacin will be reunited with Wilson Alvarez, who is the team's pitching coach and whom Chacin visited in January in Sarasota, Fla. According to MLB.com, Alvarez made some adjustments in Chacin's conditioning and corrected a flaw in Chacin's fastball grip that Alvarez had noticed on video. Chacin has kept his fingers on top of the ball while throwing his changeup and slider but had gotten in the habit of having his fingers slip beneath the ball on his fastball.
Chacin along with Jorge De La Rosa and Juan Nicasio are starters who missed considerable time last year due to injury. The three pitchers combined to make just 28 starts in 2012. All three are healthy, and the Rockies are optimistic they will be part of the rotation on Opening Day and going forward. But since all three are coming back, the Rockies aren't certain about how many innings they can pitch this season. Those three pitchers plus Jeff Francis and a fifth starter from among the likes of Drew Pomeranz, Tyler Chatwood, Chris Volstad or Christian Friedrich make for a rotation that needs a boost.
ESPN reported the Rockies have had preliminary talks with the Rays about pitcher Jeff Niemann, who turns 30 on Feb. 28. Niemann, who is competing for the fifth starter job with the Rays, went 2-3 with a 3.08 ERA last year. He suffered a broken right leg when hit with a ball in a May 14 start and returned Sept. 1 only to be removed in the fourth inning from that start with shoulder soreness.
Niemann will make $3 million this season and is under contract through 2014 after which he can become a free agent. The Rockies have had interest in Niemann going back to spring training 2009 when they acquired pitcher Jason Hammel from the Rays just before the start of the regular season that year. In five seasons, all with the Rays, Niemann is 40-26 with a 4.08 ERA in 97 games, including 92 starts.