SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The common threads are unnerving, even if everyone insists the dots should not be connected.
It's late March in spring training, and the Rockies' most promising, if not most important, starter, Jhoulys Chacin, is dealing with a finger issue and a fastball that lacks velocity and command.
This mirrors Ubaldo Jimenez's 2011 spring, when the former Rockies ace struggled with a cut right thumb cuticle, landed on the disabled list in April, didn't win his first game until June and was traded to Cleveland in July.
Jimenez and Chacin are similar, but different.
Chacin had a blister on his right index finger that didn't force him to a miss any time, unlike Jimenez, whose schedule was bumped back. And while Chacin's fastball has been sitting between 86 and 90 mph this month, he has never relied on 95 mph heat like Jimenez.
Chacin's velocity is down because he reported to camp with slight biceps soreness, according to Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca.
"It happened late in the winter, and it carried over at the very beginning of pitcher-and-catcher (drills). But it didn't keep him from doing his work," Apodaca said. "He has progressed daily. Now it's a nonissue. As far as strength, he was probably a little behind. I think his velocity is slowly catching up. I think his best velocity is in front of him, as long as he doesn't try to get it."
Chacin has had a decent spring. Even with injury scrapes, he has posted a 4.09 ERA in 11 innings. He threw a three-finger fastball in one outing because of the problem with his fingernail. Tuesday's outing, more than any other, created pause. He issued three walks and needed 70 pitches to navigate three innings. Chacin fell back into a pattern that sabotaged last season, when a potential all-star berth turned into a 3-10 finish with a 4.58 ERA.
"I was leaving all the pitches up. I was feeling a little bit stronger than I'm used to, and maybe that's why I was leaving them up," Chacin said. "I just have to work on it and throw on more of a downhill plane, and I'll get more outs and groundballs."
Apodaca has talked at length with Chacin about pitching to contact. It's always a difficult thing for a young pitcher to reconcile, especially one who has fanned 238 hitters the past two seasons. Those spotlight moments bring a dark side — deep counts turned into a National League-worst 87 walks last year.
"The key to his success is to command his fastball. He will get swings and misses on his breaking stuff," Apodaca said. "His fastball has (sinking) movement, but it's a contact pitch where he can get quick outs."
Chacin's second half clouds what has been an impressive career, one that had the Rockies considering a long-term contract briefly last winter before tabling the idea because of their desire to see how he bounces back. Opponents have hit just .228 against him in his career.
Viewed as a future ace, Chacin found himself in general manager Dan O'Dowd's cross hairs over the winter. The GM questioned his conditioning, believing that extra weight would disrupt the balance in his mechanics. Chacin was surprised he was called out because he met with Rockies officials at Fanfest in January and showed up in spring training at the same weight he finished last season.
The flareup seemed more rooted in communication issues — the Rockies thought Chacin was going to train in Tucson rather than spend much of the winter in Venezuela, and they couldn't reach him at times. There's no denying that Chacin has reached an important juncture in his career. With a big season, he's in line for a multiyear contract, making him part of the core going forward. If he struggles, he could become a trade candidate.
Jimenez's 2011 season veered off track in April. Chacin is determined to avoid that.
"Struggles happen sometimes. You have to keep working and getting better," Chacin said. "You never put your head down."
Staff writer Patrick Saunders contributed to this report.