DENVER -- At 37, after enduring years of back problems and coming off his worst season, first baseman Todd Helton knows that he'll have to answer the inevitable question. He handles it with a touch of mystery, a large helping of determination and, although he hides it with a stern look, a little bit of humor.
"I've got at least 12 or 13 more years of baseball," Helton said as the regular season came to a close.
Putting off the punch line, he added, "You're not writing that? I'm going to play until I'm 50."
Theoretically, he's a member of the club until then. His restructured contract has deferred payments through 2023 -- when he happens to hit the big 5-0.
But the real issue is the kind of baseball he's capable of giving the Rockies in 2011. For the Rockies to return to the postseason, Helton will have to prove that his .256 batting average and .367 slugging percentage -- both career lows -- in 118 games were not signs that his most productive days are behind him. A productive physical program this offseason to improve the condition of his back is a part of the equation.
"Surely that would help," he said. "There have been some days I haven't hurt and still haven't swung the bat well. I'm not using my back as an excuse for an overall poor performance by me. I've had bad years before, nothing this bad. I'll work hard and see what happens."
From his first full season (1998) through 2006, Helton hit .334 with 281 home runs and posted a 1.027 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). He was one of the game's top offensive players and the heart and soul of the Rockies. The problem was, the team around him was not strong enough for his efforts to matter in the standings.
Chronic back issues have knocked Helton out of the superstar category. Although he is capable of a high average and on-base percentage, he hasn't reached 20 homers since 2005. But the argument could be made that in the last four years, he has been a more important figure than ever for the Rockies.
The Rockies made the playoffs and advanced to the World Series in 2007, when Helton hit .320 with 17 home runs and 91 RBIs in 154 games. In 2008, back problems that eventually led to surgery limited him to 83 games and a .264 average.
Helton bounced back in 2009, hitting .325 -- good for fourth in the National League -- with 15 homers and 86 RBIs while batting in the key No. 3 spot in the order. Although he felt worn down late in the year, he managed to play in 151 games and carried a .333 average after the All-Star break. The Rockies made the playoffs.
The Rockies went into the 2010 season hoping to receive similar production from Helton while minimizing the wear on him. Jason Giambi, signed to serve as a slugger off the bench late in 2009, re-signed, with Helton's blessing, so Helton could be rested more often. Even so, Helton had neither health nor production.
Helton didn't hit his first home run or post his first multi-RBI game until May 18. A 3-for-38 slump from May 26 to June 9 dropped his average to .239. Back pain, and the muscle weakness in his legs that went along with it, led the Rockies to place Helton on the disabled list in early July.
But it was Helton's strong return from the DL, after 22 games, that left the Rockies with hope that he isn't done being a contributor. From his Aug. 3 return through Sept. 28, the day the Rockies were eliminated from playoff contention, Helton hit .287 with a .414 on-base percentage, six homers and 20 RBIs. The OPS was a healthy .907.
With 2010 NL batting champ Carlos Gonzalez set at No. 3 and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki hitting cleanup, that type of production over a full season from Helton in the sixth spot would be just fine.
But the productive period at the end of the season did little to salve Helton's feelings about his performance.
"Why would I ever be pleased with this year?" he said. "Who cares? There's nothing I can take out of the year as a positive. Watching some of the young guys come into their own [was a good thing], but that's probably about it."
In any event, the club will need a companion first baseman; Giambi would like to return, and the Rockies could sign a potential free agent such as the Indians' Victor Martinez, who could split time between catcher and first base, or someone with power who can play the corners in the infield and the outfield.
General manager Dan O'Dowd hasn't given up on Helton being a major part of the Rockies in 2011.
"Take [his performance] over the course of the season, we'd be very happy with that type of run production," O'Dowd said. "But we need to have that. He knows that for us to win, we need all of our players to take a step in the right direction.
"But did we miss his at-bats, his on-base percentage, how he prolongs an inning, pitches per plate appearance? He's still relentless, he's still well above average defensively, but we really missed his productive bat. But we saw some signs of it. That means it's still there."
But for how long? Even Helton isn't sure. Until he is, "until I'm 50" is a fun way to avoid answer such questions with anything but his play.
"That'll at least stop those questions," Helton said, breaking into a wide grin.