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Nelson working hard to become more explosive

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies third baseman Chris Nelson's task this season is to get going faster.

Nelson batted .301 with nine home runs and 53 RBIs in 111 games last season, but knew the secret to more production was in his legs. More speed could make him more of a threat offensively. Increased quickness also means better defensive range.

So Nelson, 27, simply joined a couple of literally fast friends.

"I worked with Jason Heyward of the Braves and Xavier Avery of the Orioles -- those guys are really fast," Nelson said. "I really worked with them on first-step quickness. A lot of the machines I used, it was like I was running on air and you're pumping your legs real fast. My first two steps have gotten a whole lot better than they were last year."

The Rockies lost a club-record 98 games last season. However, they made almost no changes to their position players after last season, because they believed many of them were capable of more. Nelson agrees that he is one who can use a little more get up and go.

And no doubt the Rockies, their fans, and especially Nelson can be delighted that he chose a safe and effective way to do it.

Nelson earned his first Opening Day start last year, but struggled through wrist inflammation before going on the disabled list in May for 14 games. After he returned, his bat showed life.

For an extra boost, Nelson found himself guzzling highly caffeinated energy drinks. The consequences were frightening. On July 16, the Rockies announced he had been admitted to a local hospital with an irregular heartbeat. Doctors eventually decided to shock his heart back into rhythm. He missed 17 games with the ailment.

From his return on Aug. 6 to season's end, Nelson batted a sizzling .345 with four homers and 30 RBIs.

Still, he'd rather not have his stat line split between, pre- and post-EKG.

"I just asked God," Nelson said, smiling. "I got on my knees and said, 'I learned a huge lesson with this caffeine thing. I get the message. I don't want to go through this again.' And then after that, I just put it all out there. I was perfectly fine, healthy, running around. Everything was good."

Still, Nelson needs to move quicker.

Nelson made several dazzling plays last season, either charging slowly-hit balls or diving toward the third-base line.

However, defensive statistical analysis pointed to a lack of range, which showed up more on balls to his left. In 92 defensive games at third, Nelson's -2.1 defensive Wins Above Replacement (WAR) player -- according to Baseball-Reference -- tied with the Phillies' Greg Dobbs for lowest in the National League. Interestingly, the player who appeared in 80 or more games at third who had the next-lowest defensive WAR was the Rockies' Jordan Pacheco, who posted a -1.5 mark while receiving most of his playing time at the position when Nelson was injured.

In both cases, a factor was being moved to third from other positions. Nelson was a top Draft choice in 2004 as a shortstop and played slightly more second than third in 2011, and Pacheco was a catcher at the higher Minor League levels. Troy Tulowitzki's absence was also likely a factor as well.

New Rockies manager Walt Weiss, who did one-on-one instruction with Nelson in the Minors while serving as a Rockies assistant to the general manager through the 2008 season, said Nelson just needs more time at the position.

"Getting a lot of time at short in the Minor Leagues, the angles are different," Weiss said. "Every once in a while you get caught in between, and you get tough hops. I don't know if that's the case. I'm guessing here. The finer points of the position are going to come with experience for 'Nelly.'

"He's got good hands, he catches the ball, he's got a strong arm. There are some things he does well. It's just experience at that position. Obviously, there is some thunder in the bat."

Pacheco is in camp with the pitchers and catchers, but will compete for starts at third as well. Ryan Wheeler, a power hitter in the Minors with the D-backs before being traded to the Rockies this winter, and prospect Nolan Arenado -- who finished strong at Double-A Tulsa last year and has been tagged as a possible impact hitter -- will also see time at third this spring.

But Nelson believes his freedom of movement can help him stay a step ahead of the competition.

"I worked at moving laterally, backward, forward, and I feel much more explosive than I did last year," he said. "My legs feel lighter. I was running the other day. Sometimes when you come out here for your first workout, your legs feel real heavy. Mine felt wonderful, real light."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.

Colorado Rockies, Chris Nelson