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Rockies’ Jon Gray ready to take on role of staff ace

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Gray already played the part for most of last season, but now he could officially be the No. 1 guy.

It’s been a while since the Colorado Rockies have had a bona fide No. 1 starter, but that could be changing.

For the last few years, Jorge De La Rosa — a wily veteran who proved that pitchers can make a lengthy career out of working their craft at Coors Field — served as the team’s de facto ace. He’s one of only a handful of hurlers to make multiple Opening Day starts for the Rockies, who — surprise! — have struggled to identify and maintain top-of-the-line starting pitchers.

Enter Jon Gray.

The 25-year-old right-hander’s surface numbers — 10-10 record, 4.61 ERA — don’t do justice to just how good he was at times in his rookie season. Gray finished in the top 10 among National League starting pitchers in fWAR (3.7), K/9 (9.9), and FIP (3.61). He flashed ace potential, which makes the prospect of his future that much more exciting when considering the fact that he’s still learning what works for him at the major league level.

Gray excelled at Coors Field, posting a 7-2 record with a 4.30 ERA while striking out 94 batters and walking just 18 in 8323 innings. He did so despite cutting down the use of his changeup — a pitch long considered to be one that actually works at Coors Field — in favor of increased use of his slider and a new curveball.

The slider, in particular, was a wipeout pitch for Gray. FanGraphs had the pitch at 13.9 runs above average, which ranked among the best in the NL.

He thinks it can be better.

"There are some things I did last year that took away from my slider, like trying to throw different changeups,” Gray explained in a recent conversation with Purple Row. “I'm going to stay away from that this year and focus on my breaking ball and fastball command."

Gray’s fastball added some velocity last season but still wound up as a below-average pitch. He struggled to command the pitch on the road, where fastballs tend to have more movement than they do at elevation. That fact isn’t lost on Gray, but it’s not something he’ll allow to affect his mindset, either.

“I take the same mentality into every game,” Gray said. “I'm just trying to go out there and get their guys out. I don't think any game is different. Doesn't matter who we're playing or what time of year it is.”

That approach should bode well for the Oklahoma alum if Rockies manager Bud Black decides to tab him as the team’s No. 1 starter, which could come with a nod on Opening Day. Gray relishes the opportunity.

“I'm definitely ready for that job,” Gray said. “A lot of our guys are. I think we have three or four frontline guys who can step into that role."

It’s true that fellow starters Tyler Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, and Chad Bettis all bring something to the table that would make them a good fit for the job. It’s a big reason why the Rockies are predicted by media types to contend — and why the players themselves believe they’re ready to take the next step.

"It means a lot,” Gray said about the front office’s decision to make offseason moves that reflect a team that expects to be in the thick of things. “They see what's going on with our talent and made a few additions accordingly, and for us players that is great to see.”

As spring training games approach, Gray and the Rockies will be focused on turning that talk into reality. But so far, all is good.

“[The front office is] ready for the playoffs and so are the players,” Gray continued. “We're all on the same page, and that's already been a great thing to experience."