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Tuesday, May 7, 2013
How much should the Rockies play Helton?

By David Schoenfield


 
I'm not a Colorado Rockies fan so I can't profess to know how they feel about Todd Helton returning from the disabled list and into the starting lineup a couple days ago. He's the greatest player in Rockies history, a guy who will have an interesting Hall of Fame case in a few years, a respected veteran who has played in nearly two-thirds of the games the franchise has ever contested.

He's also a first baseman who has been a below-average park-adjusted hitter in three of the past five seasons, a hitter whose injuries have sapped his power. He can't run and, while he's still regarded as a good fielder, he's not Keith Hernandez-in-his-prime good, and not many teams win pennants with a slick-fielding, bad-hitting first baseman anyway.

More importantly, the Rockies don't necessarily need him. His stint on the DL with a left forearm strain allowed the Rockies to give more playing time in the outfield to Eric Young Jr., who has played well, and slide right fielder Michael Cuddyer to first base on occasion (or play Jordan Pacheco at first). Playing Young in the outfield instead of the slow-footed Cuddyer improves the defense, and playing Cuddyer over Helton likely improves the offense, even if Cuddyer cools down from his hot start.

It's the first big test of rookie manager Walt Weiss' season and it's not an easy decision, one perhaps clouded by the fact that Weiss and Helton were briefly teammates during Helton's call-up to the majors in 1997. It's never easy knowing what to do with a player of Helton's stature; they don't all go out on top like Chipper Jones did a year ago. It's also unclear whether Helton's offseason arrest for driving under the influence (he pleaded guilty Tuesday to driving while impaired) affected his standing in an organization that has made public overtures through the years about acquiring "good guys."

Todd Helton
Fitting Todd Helton into a Rockies lineup that's gotten along OK without him presents a dilemma.
All this was on my mind as I watched the Yankees and Rockies face off in a rare Coors Field pitchers' duel. Carlos Gonzalez's two-run homer in the sixth off Hiroki Kuroda was it for the scoring as Jorge De La Rosa tossed six scoreless frames (the Yankees can't hit lefties at all, even in Coors Field) in a 2-0 Colorado victory. Helton went 1-for-3, singling to right in the sixth.

"He has been driving us crazy," Weiss told MLB.com when Helton, who turns 40 in August, was activated. "At some point about halfway through his DL stint here in the dugout, I tried to get [head trainer Keith Dugger] to hit him with a tranquilizing dart. But it's good to have him back out there. It'll be nice watching him take [at-bats] again, doing his thing."

The Rockies don't need Helton's value -- if it even exists -- as the "face of the franchise." For one thing, he's not that guy anymore. Troy Tulowitzki, when healthy, is one of the 10 best players in baseball and right now he's healthy and mashing. Gonzalez is playing his best baseball since 2010 and Dexter Fowler may finally be developing into the star player Insider many once projected he would be. Second-year catcher Wilin Rosario looks like he'll improve on the 28 home runs he hit as a rookie. Plus, rookie third baseman Nolan Arenado has made a huge impact in just eight games in the majors.

In other words, this isn't a case of the 2009 Seattle Mariners bringing back Ken Griffey Jr. in an attempt to draw a few extra fans to see a bad team (and then making the mistake of re-signing him for 2010). But Helton should have to earn his spot in the lineup. If he hits like he did in 2012 -- .238/.343/.400 -- it's hard to justify a regular spot. Maybe Weiss develops a Helton/Young platoon, with Helton sitting against left-handers and Cuddyer moving back and forth between right field and first base. Helton certainly deserves the leash to prove there's something left in the bat; knowing how long of a leash is what can turn competent managers into great ones.

I'm not quite sure what to make of the Rockies. They're probably better than I projected, and definitely interesting and exciting, especially with Tulo playing so well. Unlike pretty much every Rockies team ever, they're actually hitting well on the road (so far), as their .800 OPS led the National League entering Tuesday's action.

Arenado just adds another dimension. He was a highly rated prospect before 2012 after a big season in Class A, and nearly made the big league club out of spring training. Some of his shine was lost after a mediocre season at Double-A Tulsa (.285, 12 home runs), but a hot start at Triple-A and Chris Nelson's struggles led to Nelson getting traded to the Yankees and the quick call-up for Arenado.

He's a high-contact guy with power potential, and a contact hitter who can spray the ball around can do a lot of damage in Coors Field. He's just 22 but he doesn't have to be a star just yet; he just has to be a solid contributor.

That's also all the Rockies want from Helton at this point. Who knows, maybe his body will hold up and he can put together one last .300 season. That would be a nice way to head off into his retirement years -- with maybe a surprising playoff appearance to boot.

Speaking of: Now, about the pitching ...