Without Helton, leaders must step up for Rox
Club expects to feel veteran's absence, but sees opportunity for Tulo and Co.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In case Rockies outfielder-first baseman Michael Cuddyer arrived at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on Wednesday morning expecting to be greeted by Todd Helton, the club in a subtle way confirmed to him -- just in case he forgot -- that Helton had retired at the end of last season.
"They gave me his locker," Cuddyer said. "I don't know about that. It's definitely weird."
This year, for the first time since 1996, the Rockies begin Spring Training without Helton.
Helton debuted in the Majors in 1997 and didn't give up first base until he had set most of the Rockies' significant offensive records and put himself on several all-time statistical lists offensively and defensively. Even more, he was the heartbeat of the franchise. Even after his power declined and back issues robbed him of his All-Star form, he had good campaigns in 2007 and '09 to help lift the club to the playoffs, thus adding to his already special place in Rockies lore.
Helton is active and happy at home with his family in his early retirement in the Denver area. He is joking with folks around the club by text and sending smartphone pictures of the ducks he has hunted and the riding excursions he regularly takes on the horse the club presented to him during an emotional ceremony at Coors Field before his last home game.
But as the Rockies begin their new era, it's almost as if they have to look twice to make sure No. 17 -- which will be retired later this season -- doesn't do an about-face and join the club when position players are due to report Friday and begin workouts Monday.
"I guess it's really weird not seeing him at his locker every day or him making a joke, or him making fun of me every day like he does," said third baseman Nolan Arenado, who spent his Gold Glove Award-winning rookie season last year as the Boy Wonder to Helton's Caped Crusader. "It's a new day, kind of different. It's going to be interesting to be without him. But there's no doubt, I definitely miss him. A lot of guys in here miss him for sure."
Rockies senior vice president of Major League operations Bill Geivett helped negotiate to sign former Twins standout Justin Morneau to play first base. But Geivett admits catching himself looking for Helton.
"You look out on the field and all the players are out there, and you keep thinking you're going to see Todd somewhere," Geivett said, smiling. "Unless he's hiding around the corner, we haven't seen him yet.
"Hopefully, he'll get a chance to come to Spring Training and see all the guys. I know they'd like it. At the same time, that's up to him. It is a little bit different. When you look over at first base and see guys taking ground balls, you expect to see him. It's a big change for us."
The biggest priorities for the Rockies, who believe they can overcome two straight last-place finishes in the National League West to make progress or perhaps even make the playoffs, are keeping their stars healthy and pitching -- always pitching. But shaking out the leadership and tone of the club are also on the agenda.
Helton didn't demand a pedestal, but he was a leader with the force of his personality -- a gruff exterior with a child's eye twinkle and a caring spirit beneath the surface, mixed with an extreme pursuit of a high standard. The trick is keeping those traits present without trying to be Helton.
"If you try, you're going to fail, because they don't make them like that," said reliever Matt Belisle, who has been with the club since 2009. "This is a great group of people that already know what they have to do. We don't try to fill in the gap of a Todd Helton. You just bring in the new crew and let it ride.
"The other thing about Todd's presence, aside from all of the other parts of his presence, is that you basically are in the room with a Hall of Famer. That brings up everybody else's game. I hope we can rouse each other. He naturally did that."
Teams often need contributions in ability and intangibles from many sources, not just one identifiable leader. But there is an undeniable sense that the post-Helton era immediately offers a test to All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, whose competitiveness and talent make him the game's best current offensive and defensive shortstop.
Beyond dealing with frequent injuries, Tulowitzki has to show he is past letting personal hot and cold streaks affect his ability to be a positive force.
"We'd expect Tulo to step up -- that's how we look at it," said Geivett, who added that Cuddyer, star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and new additions Morneau and reliever LaTroy Hawkins also can offer leadership. "It's a great opportunity for him.
"It's a perfect time in his career. He's played in the World Series with our club. He's been through the ups and downs. He's the guy."
Tulowitzki said Helton became a source of information and support as their relationship grew in recent years.
"I'm not going to really miss him until the season starts and we're going through tough times and I'll want to talk to him," Tulowitzki said. "I've played the most years in this organization, and that's a little different for me. I've never had to face that. That's where Todd really came into play for me. I could bounce questions off him that I could never really ask anybody.
"I would think people could come up to me and ask, whether it be about a clubhouse attendant or someone that works in the front office, and I'm probably going to have an answer for him because I've been around just about everybody. You know the ins and outs of the organization. You know people that cover the team. You know TV people. And then there are the baseball questions as well."
Manager Walt Weiss, who was a player with the Rockies during Helton's debut season, is more concerned with what happens throughout his roster than designating a bell cow.
"I want every guy to feel like there's somewhat of a responsibility to lead," Weiss said. "Even if it's a young guy, he can lead in the way he works and the way he plays the game. You don't have to be a 10-year vet to lead. You can lead in your own way."