Helms, Nunez battling at hot corner
Pair may split playing time if neither claims job out of camp
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Abraham Nunez understands why he's in this situation, since he did it to himself.Had Nunez shown more of the hitting form he displayed with the Cardinals in 2005, when he batted .285 -- in addition to playing excellent defense -- Wes Helms might be dressing at a different Spring Training facility, or at least there might not be a wide-open competition to be the Phillies' starting third baseman. Instead, Helms was signed in the offseason in part because the Phils wanted more right-handed power in the lineup, and because Nunez batted .211 during a season in which he struggled mightily at the plate. While insisting that he's fine with the team's offseason moves, Nunez intends to fight for the regular gig he held after David Bell was traded. His focus remains on keeping the job. "Nothing has been determined," Nunez said. "I'm just ready to play. I have to make the most of my chances whatever they may be. I come ready to play and want to help this team win." Not surprisingly, Helms feels the same way. He signed a two-year, $5.45 million contract because of the security and lure of more playing time in Philadelphia. He considered an offer to start at first base for the Yankees, but opted to remain in the National League East. Hitting .329 with 10 homers in 240 at-bats for the Marlins last season helped land him guaranteed money, and Helms hopes to see his name in the daily lineup. "If there wasn't competition, it's not any fun," Helms said. "We're looking at it like we're out there to win. The best man for that day is who it's going to be. We're a team. We're not looking at it as me trying to beat him or him trying to beat me." In considering both players, manager Charlie Manuel must weigh the power advantage of Helms against Nunez's defensive superiority, a choice made more intriguing by the fact that balls that elude either third baseman could then become a problem for left fielder Pat Burrell. Should the two wind up sharing the position, Nunez might start behind lefties Jamie Moyer and Cole Hamels, since opposing lineups may include more right-handed batters. The whole season was a challenge for Nunez, who struggled as reserve in his first season with the Phillies. He batted .128 as a pinch-hitter while competing for playing time with Alex Gonzalez. "I probably was too hard on myself," Nunez said. "I dug myself a hole, and once you're in a hole, it's tough because you feel like you have to get three hits every time up to catch up for lost time. It's an experience, and I learned from it. I can't tell anyone what it's like in the desert, because I've never been in the desert. When you go back again, you know how to deal with it."
Floundering at .157 on July 28 was Nunez's Sahara, until the trade of Bell provided the oasis. Nunez batted .242 as a starter the rest of the season, picking his season average to .211, and he also impressed Manuel with his defense.Still, that wasn't enough for him to be viewed as the Phils' starter entering the 2007 season. "I've never had a stretch that bad," Nunez said. "It's not how you go through it, but how you come out of it. Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes, it's a wakeup call." Helms' epiphany came over the past few seasons, and he claims to have figured something out at 30. "The biggest thing was I slowed myself down and let the game come to me," Helms said. "I let the ball get deeper on the plate, and I think more [about hitting to the] gaps rather than trying to jerk the ball. I know if I get a good pitch I'm going to drive it. I thought about making contact -- base hit first -- and if they make a mistake, the power will come. My goal is to do what I did last year over a full season. If I do that, the numbers will speak for themselves. "I'm sure I'm going to get the at-bats that they've told me, but I've got to go out and do the job that they signed me to do. That's what it's all about. I've got to play like I know how to play. If I do that, then the playing time will be there." And Manuel will decide the rest.
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.