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01/12/11 7:00 PM EST

Rockies counting on Morales to step forward

DENVER -- Rockies left-handed relief pitcher Franklin Morales knows that the path to stardom is a simple one.

"Only thing I need to do is throw strikes, that's it," Morales said.

At times, Morales has been simply electric. At other times, strike-throwing has been easier said than done.

In 2011, Morales must provide the simple, correct answer. All of his Minor League options are exhausted, meaning the Rockies cannot send him to the Minors without exposing him to other clubs via waivers.

Morales, who turns 25 on Jan. 24, has long been considered one of baseball's most talented left-handed prospects. He showed signs of realizing that potential in '07, when he helped the Rockies as a starter during their late-season playoff run, and in '09, when he stepped in as closer while Huston Street dealt with an arm injury in September.

The intervening years, however, started with high hopes that Morales never fulfilled. Morales began 2010 in the starting rotation, but was sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs before the first month was done. He would not return, partly because of continued inconsistency and partly because of a back problem that he admitted he hid from the Rockies.

Last season, after Street suffered a shoulder injury in Spring Training, Morales took the closer job again. But he went back to Colorado Springs twice, the first time with shoulder weakness and the second time because he was issuing walks at crucial times in games.

But Morales ended the year in respectable fashion. In 11 appearances after being recalled in late August, Morales struck out 12 while issuing four walks in 7 1/3 innings, and held opposing hitters -- mostly left-handed -- to a .185 batting average.

Overall, Morales was 0-4 with a 6.28 ERA, with 27 strikeouts against 24 walks. Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca called Morales' finish a "resurgence."

Morales' biggest issue, Apodaca said, is a complicated, jerky delivery. In '08, the Rockies ended up sending Morales to the team's training center in Tucson, Ariz., to face the youngest Minor League hitters, while smoothing out his motion. The delivery was the main reason for his stint in Colorado Springs last season. The work returned when Morales returned to finish the season in the Majors.

"We can't take for granted that he's got it. We've got to stay on top of him and stay on top of it, not take a single day for granted," Apodaca said. "You constantly see him down in the bullpen before a game tinkering and honing his delivery. Now you see a much, much lower leg kick -- you see a much straighter direction with his approach. There are fewer moving parts."

Morales also challenged himself to improve mentally.

"Right now, I feel I had my stuff, I had my better concentration and my focus to throw the ball," he said. "What I need to do is throw my fastball for a strike, and after that, play with my breaking ball."

The Rockies could enter 2011 with a pair of young, homegrown lefties in the bullpen in Morales and Matt Reynolds, who emerged as the top late-game left-handed option last year after being promoted from Colorado Springs.

There will be competition. Former Mariners lefty reliever Sean White will be in camp under a Minor League contract. Prospect Rex Brothers, a supplemental first-round pick in '09, is considered close. The Rockies have signed onetime Giants lefty Geno Espineli for Minor League depth.

But Morales still has a chance to reach the heights that have been long predicted for him.

"When these guys sent me to Colorado Springs, the first couple weeks I felt my mind was OK," said Morales. "After that, I tried to do what I need to do, throw strikes, make my pitches. That's what I did my last month when I played there, I had my focus, my concentration for the hitter, I threw strikes, made my pitches.

"That's not my decision. I'm waiting for the team, for the general manager to make the decision for me. I know right now I'm a reliever, but I want to do what these guys want me to do. I want to be ready for any situation, to be a starter or a reliever. I need to keep my mind strong.

"You know what I need to do? I need to take care of my career. Then they can make the decision. When I throw strikes, no matter what they decide, it's good for me."

"It's taken a while for him to feel comfortable, but you're dealing with human flesh and emotions, people who have a brain and think for themselves," said Apodaca. "Now, you're implementing something, and it takes awhile. With some people, it takes longer. With Franklin, it took longer. Hopefully, it's something that he can really hold onto."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.