Spring countdown discussion: First base

February 3, 2010 | 3:27 pm | 17  

First base has been by far the most stable position in Colorado Rockies history — the franchise has had just two regular first basemen in 17 seasons. While no change at the position is likely this year or even next, the Rockies should be beginning to wonder what will happen beyond 2011.

Who’s starting: Todd Helton returns to the position he has held since replacing Andres Galarraga to start the 1998 season. Helton bounced back from a terrible, injury-plagued season in 2008 when played just 83 games. His numbers in 2009 (.325, 15 HRs, 86 RBI) were nearly identical to those in 2007 (.320, 17, 91). But Helton received MVP votes in 2009 for the first time since the 2004 season. What changed? The Rockies offense has matured around Helton. With Troy Tulowitzki, Brad Hawpe (despite his second-half slump), Carlos Gonzalez and Ian Stewart beginning to emerge, the pressure for Helton to carry the offense has ebbed. Helton’s power is no longer what it once was, but he’s still doubles machine. His batting average and on-base percentage remain strong and he is the Rockies’ smartest, most experienced hitter. More importantly for the next couple years, the Rockies have found a way to surround him with talented players despite his large salary being a drag on the payroll.

Who’s backing up: Jason Giambi returns to the Rockies after a strong September during which he was used primarily as a pinch-hitter but also to give Helton a weekly breather. Expect more rest for Helton this season as the Rockies try to find regular at-bats for its strong collection of bench players.

Who’s in the picture: Early in the offseason, there was talk of Brad Hawpe getting some work at his original position to spread out work to the Rockies’ glut of outfielders. With the return of Giambi, Hawpe’s time at first base will be limited if the team decides to follow through on the plan. However, without a first base prospect near the top of the system, Hawpe could be the Rockies’ next option in case of injury. Paul LoDuca also provides some insurance.

Who’s in the future: After years of solid prospects like Hawpe, Garrett Atkins, Ryan Shealy and Joe Koshansky running into the Helton roadblock and having to find either new positions or new homes, the well seems to have finally run dry. Marginal prospects like Christian Colonel, Jeff Kindel and Jeffrey Cunningham have underwhelmed at advanced levels. Kiel Roling, a sixth-round pick in 2008, had a big year in hitter-friendly Asheville. Ben Paulsen, a third-round pick in 2009, got off to a flat start in Tri-City but has promise. Jared Clark, a 12th-rounder last season, had a great season as a 23-year-old in Casper. Helton’s contract is nearing its end, but no one in the system is ready to push him out the door.

Discuss: First base is pretty straightforward again this season, so there’s no real point debating who should be playing. But what happens next at first base is an interesting question. Helton will earn $16.6 million in 2010 and $19.1 million in 2011, the last year of his contract. Assuming the Rockies do not pick up his $23 million option in 2012, the team has a decision to make. So, what should the Rockies do beyond 2011? Try to re-sign Helton, albeit at a lower salary, and hope he ends his career where he began it? Try to hang on to Brad Hawpe, who will be a free agent after 2011 if the Rockies pick up his $10 million option after this season, and turn first base over to him? Look for a bargain, someone who will produce something along the lines of .275, 25 home runs and 90 RBI, but at half the price (someone along the lines of Adam LaRoche) and use the savings to lock up other young players? Something else?

Coming Thursday: Second base

17 Comments »

  • Redhawk | February 3, 2010 | 3:57 pm

    As great as the Rockies have been producing players through their system, there isn’t really great corner position players in the system until you get much lower, and even then it’s not great.

    If I were the Rockies, I’d look to trade some (one or 2) of the talented SP’s that are starting to pile up at the upper levels, for a good corner prospect that maybe some where around A ball, or just entering AA. The Rockies can’t use all the SP’s they have coming down the pipeline (even if the old saying you can never have too many starting pitchers IS true, the Rockies have too many SP’s!)

    The extra money…spend it on the draft and signing draftees. Also, Try to lock up CarGo, though having Boras as his agent my eliminate that as an option. Also sign Stewart if he ever lives up to his potential.

  • Julian | February 3, 2010 | 4:04 pm

    If Helton is still productive at the end of 2011 and still wants to play, I would think that the Rockies would resign him, but at a much lower salary. I hope that Hawpe has been traded by the end of 2011. If he hasn’t, returning him to 1B certainly would be a possibility.

    For years the Rockies have been retooling first basemen to play other positions. So, now, what players who currently play other positions can the Rockies retool to play 1B? Darin Holcomb? Seth Smith?

    Who will be playing 1B for Colorado Springs and Tulsa this year?

  • Steve Foster | February 3, 2010 | 4:16 pm

    Although he hasn’t played much first base, Darin Holcomb is certainly a possibility, but he seems more like a utility player along the lines of how Garrett Atkins was used most of last year, bouncing between first and third against lefties. Not sure I could see Smith switching to first base.

  • Rich M | February 3, 2010 | 5:08 pm

    As a middle market club, I doubt that Rocks will ever again sign a player to something close to $20m per year. The impact of that large a contract to one player on the club’s ability to pay its younger players takes its toll eventually.

    It also would be a huge shock if the Rockies pick up Helton’s option year in 2012 at $23m, when his actual value will probably be closer to $10m per year based on current production and market conditions. Hopefully Helton has made enough money by then, recognizes his actual market value, and then signs/retires as a Rockie at a reasonable price.

    Just watch the J Damon/Yankee signing (or not) this spring as an example of how a similar scenario turns out very badly for the player nearing the end of his career.

    Could Scott Beerer be a possibility for first base down the road? Even though he 27ish old, and he probably still needs a couple years in the minors to develope as a hitter.

    Also there was a power hitter with a low average (originally a Cubs high draft choice) that played in AA last year. Does anyone know if he is still in the Rockies system?

  • Rich M | February 3, 2010 | 5:31 pm

    Ryan Harvey was the Cubs high draft choice that played 2009 at Tulsa. It appears that he has been exclusively used as an outfielder, but he has the size to play first base. Finally he is now listed as a minor league free agent?

  • Will | February 3, 2010 | 5:32 pm

    I dearly hope Todd will be willing to make a home-town discount and finish his career as a Rockie. I just can’t see him being with the full price on the option in two years.

  • Rich M | February 3, 2010 | 5:43 pm

    You could add Jeff Baker as well to the Todd Helton roadblock on first base.

  • Steve Foster | February 3, 2010 | 6:06 pm

    We’ll learn more about Scott Beerer this year if he moves up to Tulsa. At this point, very much a longshot. Ryan Harvey has pop, but he hit just .246 at Double-A. He needs to show major improvement before he’s considered a serious prospect anywhere. The Rockies re-signed him back in early December.

  • John | February 4, 2010 | 8:08 am

    I watched Spilly play first base while at Colorado Springs. He did an admirable job.

  • Elliotlc | February 4, 2010 | 9:17 am

    Jeff Baker wouldn’t have been a bad option at first but in time the Rockies will probably find someone who fits that position better than a guy who has been moved all around the field. He is going to be a good second basemen for the cubs and I think in college he was a shortstop at first then Khalil Greene pushed him to third base and so he was drafted over there but did show great versatility and some what success. I have seen the Rockies do pretty well drafting as of late and their team is pretty much built from their farm system and trades of their home grown talent so I think Dan O’Dowd will figure out a way to fill that huge void Helton will one day leave.

  • nick | February 4, 2010 | 9:17 am

    is it fair to say Christian Colonel has underwhelmed? I feel like if anything, he’s exceeded his expectations, and has never been granted a shot at an advanced level. I’d like to see Hawpe at first, that would give you more room for musical chairs when giambi subs in and out.

  • Andrew T. Fisher | February 4, 2010 | 11:56 am

    Marc Gustafson believes Darin Holcomb is a solid sleeper as a corner infielder. He’s 24 and hasn’t reached AAA yet, but it’s not as if the Rockies don’t have their share of late bloomers.

    To be honest, Helton is still a large asset to this team at his age and I don’t think a prospect will come up that will be guaranteed to be more valuable than Todd in 2012. The idea of the FO picking up that monstrous option is laughable, but retaining him at a smaller price makes sense for all involved.

  • Steve Foster | February 4, 2010 | 12:06 pm

    Nick, fair point about Christian Colonel. He has exceeded expectations the organization had for him personally. But like the others, he has not emerged as a potential starter in the major leagues.

  • Rich M | February 4, 2010 | 2:08 pm

    I agree with Steve, that unless the Rockies resign Helton for 2012, the first base starter for 2012 is not likely in the Rockies system yet.

    As noted by someone on this site, they do have a glut of potential major league starting pitchers, so I would project a trade from that minor league pitching surplus to acquire to a starting MLB first baseman. Or it could be a free agent signing because by 2012 they will have the salary flexibility when Todd’s contract draps off the roster.

    DanO knows that you can find first basemen, but with a mid-market budget you have to develop your own starting pitching – and that’s exactly what he’s doing – even to an extreme.

  • reader f/k/a Mike | February 4, 2010 | 3:03 pm

    2012 is a long way off. The Rockies certainly won’t pick up the option, but given that the buyout is $4.6 million, it’s possible they’d renegotiate that and offer him $5 million instead to sign for 2012. So a lot will depend on the then 38-yr old Helton’s health, but a lot will depend on whether Helton will take what will seem like a low-ball offer.

    To replace him, if one of the A-ball first basemen aren’t ready or if none of the other players on the roster can switch positions, I’m sure O’Dowd will be able to find a decently-priced stopgap free agent.

  • Rockpile | February 4, 2010 | 10:58 pm

    I’d be careful about trading minorleague starting pitching for a future first baseman, unless it’s a really good deal. I believe you can never have too much starting pitching in your system, and think O’dowd thinks the same.
    It’ll be interesting to see what happens. Baseball America has Hawpe predicted as our firstbaseman in a few years, which I would not have a problem with, as long as he turns it around at the plate.

    I like what Seattle has done recently at first. Last year they grabbed Russ Branyan off the scrap heap and somehow–maybe former Rox coach Cockrell helped him–he became a good hitter and an allstar. Then this year they signed Kotchman and Garko to play a platoon. Both are pretty good players that are a good stopgap solution. I think a couple years down the road the Rockies will have similar players they can plug in, if we have no one in our system, or if Hawpe is not the answer.

  • Rockpile | February 5, 2010 | 5:48 pm

    Of course, no matter who takes his place down the road, Helton will be impossible to replace. Helton is synonymous with Rockies baseball, and a sure-fire hall-of-famer as far as I’m concerned