Jussel: First base dilemma
Aging Helton holding back powerful Rockies lineup
When the Colorado Rockies gathered in Arizona in February, the big worry was pitching.
It is now late May, the season has reached the quarter pole, and the pitching has been, if not exactly reminiscent of the Koufax-Drysdale Dodgers, at least good enough to be competitive in the National League West.
Starters Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Tyler Chatwood and Juan Nicasio have all had their moments, and Jon Garland has, for the most part, kept the team in the game through five innings.
The bullpen has been even better, with Rafael Betancourt converting 10 of 11 save opportunities and five others allowing opponents to bat less than .240.
And the staff will get better with the addition of Roy Oswalt and possibly Drew Pomeranz to the starting rotation in the near future.
Hitting and fielding have been a plus as well.
So, why isn’t this team starting to conjure up images of the 1927 Yankees?
Two reasons: third base and first base, one a problem since Vinny Castilla in the ‘90s, and one a problem since Todd Helton became elderly.
Third base has been in flux with Castilla’s replacements from Jeff Cirillo to Chris Stynes to Garrett Atkins to Ian Stewart all failing to provide the offensive threat demanded of the position.
That problem is being fixed. Enter Nolan Arenado, the long-awaited prospect who was called up about a month ago. His fielding has people talking Brooks Robinson (perhaps a bit prematurely) with numerous jaw-dropping plays.
And his hitting, although inconsistent as to be expected for a 22-year-old making his first trips around major league parks, has shown flashes of power that astound. He doesn’t strike out much and hits liners to all fields with seemingly little effort.
He is a threat in the order now, much more so than the player he replaced, Chris Nelson.
The third base problem is being resolved.
Let’s look at the bigger problem now, first base.
Helton has regressed to the point of being a .225 hitter with little power. He is not playing against left-handed pitching. He is, however, taking up a valuable spot on the roster and space on the payroll.
He is known to be a great guy, super in the clubhouse with the young players and popular with kids, mothers and umpires. And although he is still among the best fielding first basemen in the game, that is worth a bag of stale potato chips when it comes to piecing together a lineup that plays half of its games in the best hitting ballpark in the history of baseball.
The first baseman for the Colorado Rockies should, as Helton did in his glory days, hit 35 to 40 home runs a season, better than .300 and drive in more than 100 runs hitting in the middle of the order. It is demanded of the position.
Let’s play general manager.
One option, and there are several, would be to move right fielder Michael Cuddyer to first base on a regular basis. All Cuddyer has done through 36 games is hit eight home runs, drive in 29 and bat .323. Although he has missed more than a dozen games with injuries, he would over the course of a 160-game season have a 40-home run, 150 RBI season at his current rate.
That’s acceptable and, with Cuddyer at first, you could bring in another power bat in right field.
Let’s say for the sake of argument, you have Chris Davis, Baltimore’s right fielder, playing for the Rox.
Here’s your possible lineup:
Dexter Fowler, Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Davis, Cuddyer, Wilin Rosario, Arenado, D.J. LeMahieu and the pitcher.
Insert any number of right fielders from Mark Trumbo to Bryce Harper to Jose Bautista to Nick Swisher and put them in the Rockies lineup instead of Helton.
Now, let’s go with our second option and leave Cuddyer in right field and bring in another first baseman. How about Prince Fielder? Joey Votto? Albert Pujols? Paul Goldschmidt? Mitch Moreland?
Again, put any of those guys in the Rox lineup, and you might have the ‘27 Yanks.
I’m not suggesting the Rockies can or will be able to trade for any of the above-named outfielders or first basemen.
But they need to find someone like one of those mashers. He is out there somewhere, just like Vinny was years ago. Just like Andres Galarraga was. Just like Helton was.
And they need to find him ASAP. Then Helton can sell cars and trucks in Rifle and bide his time for induction into the Hall of Fame. And the Rockies can go about their business of whipping up on the poor pitchers who will have to face their incredible lineup.
Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.