Jeff Francis could have pitched for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic this spring, but opted to stay in camp with the Rockies and focus fully on getting ready for the season.
The 32-year-old left-hander played for his national team in 2006 in the first World Baseball Classic. He wasn't able to do so in 2009 due to a shoulder injury that slowed him during the 2008 season and required surgery in February 2009.
Skipping the WBC this year turned out to be a good decision. Through March 17, Francis had been on the mound in 19 Cactus League innings, 18 of them scoreless. He was 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA, having allowed 16 hits, two walks and 10 strikeouts. He began the spring with a scoreless streak of 13 innings.
A year ago, Francis was unable to find a major league job after going 6-16 with a 4.82 ERA for the Royals in 2011. He signed a minor league deal with the Reds and pitched well enough in spring 2012, posting a 2.70 ERA, but the Reds had no room in their rotation.
Francis began last season at Triple-A Louisville, where he went 3-6 with a 3.72 ERA in 12 starts before opting out of his contract June 4. It's not like Francis then had a major league job lined up; he didn't. He wound up returning to the Rockies -- they drafted him ninth overall in 2002 -- and he made his major league season debut with Colorado on June 9.
In 24 starts for the Rockies last year, Francis went 6-7 with a 5.58 ERA. Largely due to the pitch-limit restrictions imposed as part of the four-man rotation that the Rockies used for two months last year, Francis ended up leading the team in innings pitched (113) and starts.
In the offseason, Francis signed one-year contract worth $1.5 million, with a chance to earn that much in incentives. He provides veteran stability to a rotation that could include Jhoulys Chacin, 25; Jorge De La Rosa, 31; and Juan Nicasio, 26 -- all coming back from injuries -- and possibly Drew Pomeranz, 24.
The Rockies brought Francis back last year to help guide a young, inexperienced staff.
"I'm comfortable with it, for sure," Francis said of being a mentor. "It was new to me last year. I'm still learning how to be in that role, but I definitely don't walk around like I know what to do. I learn from everybody, just like they might learn from me. I have a lot of experience, but there are things I'm trying to get better at, things I'm trying to learn."
To be sure, the Rockies didn't just re-sign Francis simply because he's a solid citizen.
Francis isn't going to pitch at the front of the rotation, the way he did while winning 17 games for Colorado in 2007 when he had a fastball in the 88-89 mph range rather than the 84-85 mph fastball he currently possesses. However, he can use his experience and his pitching guile to strengthen the back end of the rotation.
"He's gotten to where he can get his cutter in on right-handers," pitching coach Jim Wright said, "and that opens up the plate. They will have to stay back. It's a significant weapon."
The cutter opens the outer portion of the plate for Francis' curveball -- he now has two types, one at about 72 mph and a loopier version at about 68 mph -- or his changeup, always a good pitch and one he can throw in any count. But make no mistake, Francis must locate his pitches with precision, starting with his fastball.
Manager Walt Weiss said, "He does what we're looking for. He pitches at the bottom of the zone. He's got a good changeup, which is really important, not only in (Coors Field) but in general. A changeup changes an at-bat for a hitter. And he commands it very well. He knows what he's doing."
Weiss said Francis "kind of reminds me of Tommy Glavine," who was a teammate of the new Colorado manager for three years with the Braves. "There are some similarities in the approach to pitching."
But not the results. Francis frequently has had to contend with Coors Field, where he has made 84 starts and is 33-26 with a 4.82 ERA. But his bottom line in the big leagues includes a 67-73 record in 205 games, all but one of them starts, with a 4.86 ERA.
"You can tell by my career ERA that I don't have it all figured out, by any means," Francis said. "But I do have an idea what I'm doing, and if I execute, I can get anybody out. I know that."