Everyone is in the best shape of their lives. Everyone has dropped 20 pounds of fat or packed on 20 pounds of muscle. Every dead pull hitter is learning to use the opposite field. Every slap hitter is aiming for the gaps. Every fringe starter has either added a new pitch to try and stay in the rotation picture, or has focused on his fastball/offspeed combo to try and earn a bullpen job. Every new player is fitting in well in the clubhouse and getting to know the guys. Everyone with potential is just one spring, one adjustment away from being great, and everyone who was once great is just one spring, one adjustment away from being great again.
Such is the optimism of spring training. The return of green grass and sunny skies make us all believers. We believe in that fringe starter, that young phenom, and that past-his-prime star. Maybe the latter most of all. It's impossible to watch greatness on the field slowly erode without being reminded, in some small way at least, of the inexorable passing of time in our own lives.
And so it is with Todd Helton, the Rockies' lion in winter, who trudges out for his fifteenth big league season still entrenched at first base for an organization that has, amazingly, still only known two everyday players at the position in its entire existence. His power gone, his back balky, his ability to play everyday in question, Helton is the greatest dilemma on the Rockies roster – the player that most needs replacing, and the player the team can least bear to replace.
Normally it wouldn't be hard to replace a 37-year-old first baseman who batted just .256 last season, has missed large chunks of time in two of the last three seasons due to increasing injury woes, and hasn't topped fifteen homers in any of the last three years. But there is nothing normal about dealing with a franchise player, the man who blew the front end of his prime on mediocre teams and the tail end of it on awful ones while exuding professionalism and quiet leadership. Were he Brand X First Baseman, he'd be someone else's springtime hope. But he is Todd Helton, and as he once said himself, he IS a Rockie.
So fans deal with the present, made easier by the fond memories of the not-so-distant past. The hope is that a breakout year from Ian Stewart and a bounce-back from Seth Smith can replace the left-handed potency that Helton once provided, and that Helton's defense, still sterling if not golden, can add the value that his bat no longer does. The hope is that his .273/.401/.460 line from the season's final two months, after he came off the disabled list, is a portent of contributions to come. The hope is that all the spring training talk about Helton having a chip on his shoulder and feeling healthier than he did at any point in 2010 isn't just the typical empty rhetoric that February so frequently provides.
Because the Rockies need Todd Helton. They don't need the Todd Helton from 2000-2002, when he was arguably the game's best hitter. But they sure could use something like 2007 and 2009 – not coincidentally the two playoff campaigns in the last four, when Helton hit above .320 and justified his presence in the heart of the order beyond it being just too awkward to pencil him in second or seventh. Helton isn't just a Rockie – he's a rock. He's never been the type of leader Troy Tulowitzki is, full of fire and brimstone and capable of putting a team completely on his back. Helton's leadership is based upon his example of showing up to the yard every day and competing to the best of his ability, something the lingering back issues have prevented him from doing in the (non-playoff) seasons of 2008 and 2010.
When Helton is right, he can still lace line drives into the outfield. Even when he's not right, he still possesses a camera eye and the caginess to flick away tough two-strike offerings to extend at bats. And while first-base defense isn't as glamorous as glovework at other positions, there's no quantifying the confidence that Helton's fellow infielders have in him to dig any throw out of the dirt.
But Helton must hit for the Rockies to contend this year. And while it's accurate to say that in every healthy season Helton has ever had, he has raked, it is equally true to say that it's awfully optimistic to assume this year will be a healthy year.
Still, this is the time of year for hope. So with every swing of Helton's once mighty bat, Rockies fans will envision a return to form. Something like his 2006 - .302/.404/.476 with 15 homers – would do nicely. No one is asking for too much. The hope is for just enough. No one can catch up to the sunset. All you can do is chase it and try to see as much daylight as you possibly can.