Spring countdown discussion: First base
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: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 , (despite his second-half slump), and 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: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., 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