TUCSON -- It's not fair to say right-handed pitcher Taylor Buchholz is the forgotten player the Rockies received when they traded pitcher Jason Jennings to the Astros. It's just that people weren't sure what to make of him.

Center fielder Willy Taveras is the potential sparkplug at the top of the lineup. Right-hander Jason Hirsh is the prospect around such deals are built. But Buchholz doesn't fit into a neat classification.

Buchholz no longer fits with Hirsh in the prospect box. That was Buchholz's role Nov. 3, 2003, when the Phillies sent him to the Astros for closer Billy Wagner. But now Buchholz is out of Minor League options, so he doesn't even have the fallback that a prospect has. And last year was his first Major League experience (6-10, 5.89 ERA in 22 games, including 19 starts), so he isn't an established player. The Rockies aren't sure if he'll be in the rotation or the bullpen.

But classifying Buchholz isn't important. What matters most to the Rockies is Buchholz has a lively fastball and a biting curveball.

After a difficult road to the Majors that included a 2004 shoulder surgery, and after enduring rough outings and a trip to the Minors last season, Buchholz is ready to forge his own role.

"I'm definitely kind of out of that prospect stage," said Buchholz, who also spent part of the year at Triple-A Round Rock (1-3, 4.91 ERA). "Once you break into the Major Leagues, they give you a little time to get ready. But this year, I'm supposed to have learned. I'm supposed to have gone through all those tough times. I'm just ready to do everything I can to stay in the big leagues, contribute and help out the team."

Buchholz, 25, demonstrated his ability to the Rockies last May 5, when he started for the Astros and held the Rockies to three runs, two earned, and six hits over seven innings but took a 5-4 loss.

Buchholz struck out just two, but his ability to make hitters whiff at his curve and the finish to his fastball intrigued Rockies manager Clint Hurdle, who believes Buchholz can increase his potential by adding a changeup.

"He's just got some skills that fall in that line when you're looking to create pitching depth, and you watch the way the market exploded for pitching last winter," Hurdle said. "At his age and his skill set that he has right now, he's a good guy to get."

Last season was a learning experience for Buchholz, who pitched with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt in Houston's rotation. This season is a test of what he learned.

"This is a different team, definitely a whole different mind-set here, a younger team, a little pressure. I liked playing last year with all the veterans, but this is a new start."

Nagging feeling is gone: Right-handed reliever Ryan Speier missed 2006 because of a torn shoulder labrum he suffered playing basketball before the season. But Speier did limited throwing in the Arizona Fall League and now feels ready to compete for a bullpen spot.

In 2005, Speier went 2-1 with a 3.65 ERA in three stints with the Rockies. His last nine appearances with the big club were especially strong (1-0, 1.54 in 11 2/3 innings). Yet the whole time, and even throughout the previous four seasons in the Minors (including a 2004 during which he won the Rolaids Minor League Relief Man Award at Double-A Tulsa), there was a nagging feeling in his shoulder.

"Even since college, I had to ice it and take ibuprofen here and there," Speier said.

There was a warning sign during the 2006 season. He hurt the shoulder when he fell while covering first base during one of his stints at Colorado Springs, but he kept pitching. The basketball incident finally forced surgery last Feb. 1.

Not only is Speier now healthy, but he's better than before. A fastball that traveled at 89-90 mph is now consistently at 92.

"It wasn't until about a month and a half ago that I was feeling like my old self, but now I even feel better than I remember feeling since high school," Speier said. "I'm going to be full-tilt this spring. They said up to a year after surgery, they were going to be trying to keep an eye on everything to make sure I wasn't getting overworked. I just passed the year mark a couple weeks ago."

Ball control: The Rockies pioneered the use of storing baseballs in an atmosphere-controlled chamber at the Major League level, but do not use such devices in the Minors. However, they take special precautions to keep the balls used at Triple-A Colorado Springs out of the mile-high atmosphere -- which causes the balls to shrink, become slick and harden -- as much as possible.

"We have our balls shipped to the Sky Sox in stages, so they're coming from the factory in five different shipments," Rockies player development director Marc Gustafson said. "At the start of the year, we'll get through the first month, then we'll get another shipment in. We're trying to keep them fresh. We don't want them to go to Colorado Springs and sit in their storage room. Rawlings has been real good to work with."

Most Minor League teams take three shipments of baseballs, as oppose to five at Colorado Springs.

There is room for a Coors Field-like chamber at recently renovated Security Service Field, but there is cost involved in purchasing one and it would have to be monitored.