Last week, the Rockies announced their minor league non-roster Spring Training invitees. While most of their top prospects aren’t quite ready for Big League spring training, some promising talents will be with the Rox in Scottsdale. The two best prospects to make the cut were Charlie Blackmon and Christian Friedrich. I’ve written a lot about Blackmon, probably because I have a special place in my heart for centerfielders, but I haven’t given Friedrich enough of my time. That changes now.
I like to think of Christian Friedrich as Jeff Francis 2.0. Like Francis, Friedrich is a tall, lanky left-hander with an easy yet deceptive delivery. He has a mid-nineties fastball, a big 12-6 curve and a sharp-breaking slider; each is a big league caliber pitch. Also, since being drafted by the Rockies, Friedrich has been working on a change-up, but it still needs perfecting. Even without an effective change, his repertoire gives him the ability to overwhelm hitters.
Christian is one of the Rockies’ most highly touted pitching prospects in recent memory. Baseball America rated him as a top five Rockies’ prospect in each of the last three seasons. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone that doesn’t consider him a top five prospect. If it weren’t for elbow trouble over the last couple of seasons, Friedrich probably would’ve already made his big league debut.
In college, Friedrich was a dominant force for the Eastern Kentucky Colonels. He made 40 career starts at Eastern Kentucky with a sub-2.00 career ERA. Incredibly, he struck out 327 batters in just 244 career innings pitched; extremely high K rates have been a theme for Friedrich throughout his career.
In the 2008 draft, Friedrich slipped all the way to the 25th pick, and the Rockies wasted little time in snatching up the promising lefty. Now, many view the pick as one of the steals of the 2008 draft. After signing with the Rox, Friedrich made his debut with Tri-City later in the summer. On the year, he made 11 starts, striking out 65 hitters in 48 innings. His 12.2 strike-outs per every nine innings was one of the highest ratios in all of the minors.
In 2009, Friedrich’s stock really took off. He made 22 starts for Asheville and Modesto, carrying a 2.42 ERA over 120 innings pitched and K’ing out an absurd 160 hitters. He only surrendered five homeruns for the year. When you take into account the fact that he pitched in two extreme hitter-friendly parks, all of these numbers become even more impressive.
Last year, Friedrich regressed, mostly because he struggled with elbow problems for the entire season. His velocity dipped; his control and endurance suffered. He pitched 87.1 innings without much success – a 5.05 ERA. He finished the year on the DL.
Friedrich’s elbow problems are somewhat disconcerting. He missed time in 2009 because of the joint and 2010 was basically a wash. This past January, the Rockies had him report to Denver for an early spring training, hoping to get him back on track for 2011. Elbow injuries are a tricky thing for pitchers. It seems like most hurlers eventually undergo Tommy John surgery, but the Rockies are hoping that Friedrich’s troublesome elbow won’t ever reach that point. With that said, Tommy John isn’t the worst thing in the world. Doctors have become very skilled with the procedure and most pitchers are able to return to peak form after a year. It would be unfortunate if Friedrich’s elbow reached that point, but his career would continue.
If Christian is healthy this year, bet on him to see time in Denver. Most don’t think he is the same caliber talent as Tyler Matzek, but both could be big league aces. Up to this point, Matzek has yet to face much adversity, while Christian has had more than he would like. The Rockies hope that both guys will make their way into the Big Club’s rotation within the next couple of seasons. Friedrich will start next season in Colorado Springs with the goal of staying healthy and improving his control. If he does, he won’t be in the Springs long. This Rockies writer is going to make it a point to see a few of his starts this year.