2/19/2013 9:14 P.M. ET
Rutledge getting to know defensive partner Tulo
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Each day that Josh Rutledge arrives at the Rockies' Spring Training complex, he dresses right beside star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
If it's by design, it wasn't Tulowitzki's, since he didn't express an opinion about the clubhouse plan. And Rutledge's only Major League experience was last year, when he came up from Double-A Tulsa to play shortstop after a left groin injury forced Tulowitzki to the disabled list. Guys with that little big league time have no choice in their clubhouse real estate.
But wouldn't it be nice if they could be neighbors for a while?
Rutledge turned heads to the tune of a .274 batting average, eight home runs and 37 RBIs in 73 games. The performance led the Rockies to give Rutledge a crack at the starting second-base job.
Rutledge has started the process of getting acquainted with Tulowitzki. Late last season, as Tulowitzki was finishing his recovery and rehab from the injury, the two worked together during batting and infield practice. They were in Scottsdale nearly a week before full-squad workouts began.
"We're just getting the feeling where we're comfortable with each other is definitely a key," Rutledge said. "We're well on our way to already being there."
It helps that Tulowitzki is easy to work with. He's had to be.
Since making the Majors in 2006, Tulowitzki has had a lengthy list of keystone partners -- Kazuo Matsui, Jamey Carroll, Jeff Baker, Clint Barmes, Eric Young Jr., Chris Nelson, Jonathan Herrera, Mark Ellis and Marco Scutaro, all of whom had a significant number of games alongside Tulowitzki. Add to that the fact that DJ LeMahieu played second base while Rutledge was at short last year, and you have a position that has been a merry-go-round.
None of this stopped Tulowitzki from winning Rawlings Gold Glove Awards and All-Star Game trips in his last two healthy seasons, or finishing in the top 10 in National League Most Valuable Player voting three times. He has said in the past that the time it takes to develop a partnership is overrated.
Still, he sees Rutledge as having traits that could give him staying power.
"Work ethic-wise, he's someone you don't have to challenge in that direction," Tulowitzki said. "He has that already, and that's impressive as a young player. He gets his swings in the cage. He works real hard in the weight room. He's not afraid to work. So that's awesome."
Rutledge, 23, the Rockies' third-round pick in the 2010 MLB First-Year Player Draft, was hot for most of the time he was in the Majors last year. But he also experienced a healthy amount of downside.
From his debut on July 13 to a 3-for-5 performance against the Padres on Sept. 1, Rutledge hit .353 with seven home runs, 27 RBIs, 13 doubles and four triples. However, having not played more than 113 games in a professional season before last year, the dropoff was painful and ugly. He hit .181 with one home run and 10 RBIs in the final 31 games. A quadriceps issue made the final month painful. By year's end, he had played 160 total games between Tulsa and Colorado -- almost the equivalent of a full big league schedule, all while dealing with the intensity change in jumping two levels.
"It was good for me to get that experience and realize how long a season actually is and grow on that," Rutledge said.
All that Major League action gave opposing pitchers information that can be used against him, but Rutledge saw quite a bit of video as well.
"I spent a good bit of the offseason looking at swings from last year of myself and making some adjustments," Rutledge said. "I felt like that was a key to me. I've never really had the opportunity to use video as much. It's definitely helped me to be able to see what I'm doing and to make adjustments.
"Anybody that's in the big leagues can hit. It's just all about pitch selection and getting your pitch. That's key for any hitter, not just me. Take what they give you, not try to do too much with what they give you."
To help Rutledge's learning curve, manager Walt Weiss has told him to concentrate on playing second. He would move back to short only if the team lost Tulowitzki and the Rockies didn't like their other options.
If all goes as planned, the Rockies will have an up-the-middle mix of experience, with Tulowitzki and potential Gold Glove center fielder Dexter Fowler, and youth, with second-year men in Rutledge and catcher Wilin Rosario.
"It can work," Weiss said. "When you talk about the youth in Rosario and Rutledge, they're two dynamic athletes. I think overall there's a nice mix of veteran players and youthful players on our roster. That's not a concern with the youth up the middle."
But Rutledge's success brings no guarantees. LeMahieu, benefitting from the regular playing time and some swing adjustments that former manager Jim Tracy and former hitting coach Carney Lansford gave him, finished the year hitting .297. While Rutledge's power potential gives him an inside shot at the job, LeMahieu is striving to change the plans.
The Rockies, as history shows, have been known to change their second-base plans.
Rutledge vows to take an even-keeled approach to his assignment and any challenges.
"I feel like if I just play my game, I have a good opportunity in front of me. It helped getting a lot of experience out of me, just to kind of get through the nerves," he said. "But any player coming back is going to be real anxious to get going again. It's not really nerves but if you don't really get butterflies playing this game, you feel like you're doing the right thing."
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.