MESA, Ariz. -- Veteran third baseman Casey Blake represents an answer for the Rockies, even though he also represents a difficult question.The Rockies see Blake, 38, as a winner who knows how to help others win. "In a winning environment, he knows how to help to build that," manager Jim Tracy said Tuesday after Blake made a brief Cactus League debut with the Rockies by going 0-for-2 with a run scored after he was hit by a pitch in an 11-4 loss to the Cubs. The vexing issue, however, is Blake's health. Blake's appearance was his first in a game since Aug. 31 of last year, before a neck injury ended his season while he was with the Dodgers. Neck and elbow problems contributed to a .252 batting average, four home runs and 26 RBIs in just 63 games. But during the period when he was healthy, Blake showed flashes of the player who gave the Dodgers consistent run production and compiled the highest fielding percentage in club history (.968) for a third baseman who appeared in more than 250 games for the team. Blake has been a standout player for 13 seasons with five clubs.
That was enough for the Rockies to sign Blake to a one-year, $2 million contract, with another $1 million available in incentives. The production he showed when not battling pain was enough for Blake to test his body in an effort to keep his career going.The Rockies offer a chance for Blake to prepare for a season without taxing his body in Spring Training. Top prospect Nolan Arenado, 20, is in big league camp, and the Rockies plan to give him regular opportunities in Cactus League games to speed his learning curve. That means Blake can ease his way into the season. "You just take it day by day, just do a little more each day," Blake said. "At 38, you're a little paranoid when it comes to the body. You're like, 'Gosh, maybe I did too much and I'll feel sore tomorrow.' Or you'll feel something and you're like, 'What was that?' But I feel pretty good, for the most part. "When I was healthy last year I was able to produce. As far as the neck, I feel pretty good. I haven't had any issues with the neck. It's been a while since I've been in a ballgame. Being 38, it seems you have a lot of issues all the time with things going on. But it's just trying to get in good shape, trying to minimize those aches and pains, take care of them, get in the ice tank." Blake's debut came with the Rockies' former third baseman, Ian Stewart, suiting up for the Cubs. Stewart, who made a sliding catch and spinning throw to retire Brandon Wood in the fourth inning, was a first-round pick by the Rockies in 2003 who demonstrated power early in his career, but had a lost season in 2011 (.156, zero homers, six RBIs). Until Stewart and right-handed reliever Casey Weathers, another first-round pick by the Rockies, were traded for outfielder Tyler Colvin and infielder DJ LeMaheiu in December, Stewart insisted he did not need a change of scenery and that he could find his way with the Rockies. Now, Stewart likes the atmosphere with the Cubs, and he wishes the Rockies well. "They just gave me so much confidence by telling me I was going to be the third baseman, just go out and play, have fun, get healthy," Stewart said. "'You're going to be our guy.' That spoke volumes to me." By turning the page, the Rockies became more experienced in the infield. Not only did they add Blake, but they acquired Marco Scutaro, 36, from the Red Sox. They join first baseman Todd Helton, 38, and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who is much wiser than his 27 years. "It doesn't happen a whole lot where you're playing with a lot of experienced guys like that," Blake said. "You expect them to make the plays, play the right way, do the right things. It's fun. It should be a good infield. It's good for a ballclub, good for a pitching staff."
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.