Rockies hope less equals more with Helton
Team plans to give first baseman extra rest this season
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The old clubhouse at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, where the Rockies used to conduct Spring Training, made it easy for Rockies veteran Todd Helton to keep to himself. The lockers formed a maze, and when you found Helton -- the big cheese first baseman -- he was close enough to the trainer's room to quietly slip away for privacy.
Even with the state-of-the-art openness of the new headquarters at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Helton has prime real estate for privacy -- in the corner of the room, with an open door nearby. Only now, he doesn't have to deal with visitor overload.
"It's been wonderful," Helton said. "I don't like attention. If I do have to talk, I'm talking about somebody else, which makes it nice. In that part, it's been a wonderful spring. Let those guys deal with it. I've done it long enough."
Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki dresses squarely in the middle. When he's there, he's easy to find for an interview. Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez sets up not far from Tulowitzki, and gladly makes time -- and room -- for reporters from the U.S. and his home country of Venezuela. Jason Giambi, having spent key parts of his career squarely in the limelight with the Yankees, dresses beside Tulowitzki, and is gracious and gregarious with a much smaller media contingent. Unfailingly polite pitching ace Ubaldo Jimenez occupies some visible real estate, several feet from Tulowitzki on one side and Gonzalez on the other.
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Helton is still visible and reachable, but relatively undisturbed. But when the game begins, the Rockies can't afford for him to disappear.
Helton, 37, won a batting title, posted five top-five finishes in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), and earned five All-Star Game invitations, four Rawlings Gold Glove Awards and four Louisville Slugger Silver Slugger Awards -- all before 2006. All that occurred while the Rockies were building, or rebuilding, but not winning. Through that time, Helton handled duties as the team's best player (always proudly) and the team spokesman (often reluctantly).
"He went through a very long, painful rebuilding process," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "For a person as competitive as he is as it relates to winning, there were some lean years. He handled it exceptionally well. It made the winning all the more enjoyable when he had the opportunity to do that, and hopefully do a little more of it."
The Rockies have gone to the playoffs two of the last four years. Even with other stars emerging, Helton, who has dealt with serious back issues in recent years, occupied space in the epicenter of the winning. In 2007, he finished ninth in the NL with a .320 batting average, and helped the team make an unexpected trip to the World Series. In 2009, he hit .335 -- good for fourth in the league -- as the Rockies made the playoffs.
But Helton hit .264 in 2008 and .256 last year.
This incarnation of the Rockies has not won with Helton not hitting for high average, which carries with it a high on-base percentage and a high number of pitches seen (which wears on opposing pitching and makes the rest of the lineup stronger).
The Rockies' plan is to bat him fifth, behind Tulowitzki. With Helton hitting .355 with a .432 on-base percentage over 13 Cactus League games, there is no cause to alter the plan. He is seeing more action against higher-level pitchers than in past springs because the team no longer has the long bus trip from Tucson for the bulk of its road games.
"I'm just working on having consistent at-bats, and hitting the ball hard wherever it's pitched," Helton said.
The difference now, however, is the Rockies are not overrating his mere presence.
At times since taking over as Rockies manager in 2009, Jim Tracy put an ailing Helton in the lineup, hoping opponents' perception of him as a dangerous hitter would have a positive effect. The problem with that was teams eventually caught on, and Helton wasn't getting the rest he needed.
It's different this year. The addition of right-handed hitting Ty Wigginton, who plays first among his several positions, means Helton can sit against tough left-handed pitchers. Also, Giambi is back in his late-innings pinch-hitting role, but will need occasional starts at first base to build a catalog of at-bats to stay sharp.
There will be an adjustment period for Helton, who appeared in 154 games in 2007 and 151 in 2009. Tracy said he and Helton discussed a playing-time plan earlier this spring.
"If Todd is at the level that he's playing at this spring, and realizing that a day off here or there is going to keep him at that level ... when you need a day, you get a day," Tracy said.
Still, with Ian Stewart having not yet developed into a middle-of-the-order power hitter, part of the Rockies' postseason hopes rest on less of Helton amounting to more.
"We need Todd to be good," O'Dowd said. "'Stew' is going to have to show us, and we're still hoping. But Todd has done it for a long time."
With rising stars surrounding him, Helton will be heard less. That suits him fine.
With a less-is-more lineup plan, which could leave him at 130 games or fewer, he won't be seen as often. That will require an adjustment.
But will his presence when it counts be enough to help the Rockies push forward to the playoffs and beyond?
"Everybody wants to make a difference in a lineup," Helton said. "That's just a given. I put pressure on myself every year. This is going to be nothing new."
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.