Rockies' Helton sporting new look
Team leader doesn't want to talk about deal that fell through
TUCSON, Ariz. -- The thick mustache and goatee of Rockies first baseman Todd Helton stand out at first glance. But that's not the important part of Helton's new look.
The triceps, shoulders and chest are bulked up -- a welcome sight after last year, when a stomach ailment robbed Helton of about 15 pounds and cost him 14 early-season games. He still managed a .302 batting average and 81 RBIs. That would've been a stellar year for many. But he never approached full strength, finished with a career full-season low of 15 home runs and couldn't carry the outsized burden that comes with being the lone established star on a young ballclub.
By season's end, Helton needed to get away. He needed to eat properly and rebuild muscle, sure, but he had to get away as well. So he combined it all, working a program developed by Knoxville, Tenn., trainer Charles Petrone but taking some time to let his hair down.
"A lot of times in the offseason you hate to be in one spot and have to stay in one spot for your workouts," Helton said. "So even if I went hunting I'd take something and at least do something when I was there. I just made sure I got my workouts in and was consistent."
He needed strength just for what went on in Denver during the winter.
During the Winter Meetings, the Rockies listened to a trade proposal from the Angels, and general manager Dan O'Dowd said the Rockies would keep an open ear to requests through which the Rockies could get multiple players and trim some of the $90.1 million Helton is owed through 2011. Last month, word of a proposed deal with the Red Sox reached the media, but it fell through within a week.
Here was Helton, 33, a five-time All-Star whose .333 batting average tops all active players, close to being removed from an organization built around him. It opens many questions about the Rockies' plans and Helton's future.
But a new season beckons, so answers must wait.
When Helton arrived at camp -- although position players don't begin workouts until Saturday, Helton was part of a large group of early arrivals -- he said he was not going to "talk about a trade that didn't happen."
Asked how the Rockies stand on possible Helton trades at this point, general manager Dan O'Dowd said, "Our focus right now is on our team, and Todd is an integral part of our team."
About all Helton, who was willing to approve the trade to the Red Sox, would say was the rumors helped his offseason program.
"I didn't expect to hear about a trade, but if it did anything it made me work harder," Helton said.
The percentage of the payroll that his $16.6 million occupies (the Rockies' payroll this season is expected to fall between $50 million and $55 million) and the Rockies' habitual standing toward the bottom of the National League West is enough to keep trade speculation afloat.
The best way to solve that for this season is for the Rockies to stay in contention.
Maybe a healthy Helton is the difference.
Helton went to the disabled list after going 0-for-3 in a 13-4 home loss to the Padres on April 19. But at that point, Helton had a .347 batting average and the Rockies were a half-game out of first place. When he returned May 5, which he later admitted was too soon, they were tied for first.
With third baseman Garrett Atkins and left fielder Matt Holliday combining for 63 home runs and 234 RBIs, the Rockies stayed in contention into July before fading. They finished in a last-place tie with the Diamondbacks, marking the ninth straight season of finishing no higher than fourth.
It would be unfair to blame the finish on Helton. On a team that struggled mightily with runners in scoring position, Helton batted .347 in that situation, led National League first basemen in fielding percentage, and he sat out just three games when he wasn't on the DL.
But what if he'd been whole the whole time?
"At the time he got sick he was hitting [close to] .400 -- people seem to forget about that," O'Dowd said. "I have no doubt Todd's going to be a middle-lineup bat. He's going to be on base a ton of times, score a ton of runs. I have no doubt about that."
The younger Rockies were happy the deal didn't occur.
Helton signed in 2001 amidst a slew of large contracts, which the Rockies quickly discovered they couldn't afford. They began dealing players with multiyear contracts, which forced them to turn to players in their farm system. Amid fan and media criticism of the organization, Helton endorsed the youth movement in repeated interviews.
"He stood up for all of us -- as good a player as he was, with all of us struggling to make it to the big leagues, he made it a point to set an example for all of us," right fielder Brad Hawpe said.
Said Holliday: "When you're a first-year player, you're always trying to find where you fit in, and he's always done a great job of including you with the other players. Plus you want to watch him. You always had that feeling that Todd was going to do something good for the team that day."
Now, however, begins a new page in the relationship with Helton and the Rockies.
"I'm not going to sit here and talk about the team on paper," Helton said. "We've had good teams in the past that have been terrible. We've had bad teams that have played above our heads. Me sitting here talking about this, that or the other isn't going to help."
After an offseason of all trade talk and no action, it's time for Helton and the Rockies to let their play speak for itself.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.