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Hurdle, Rockies need healthy Helton

Hurdle, Rockies need healthy Helton

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Rockies manager Clint Hurdle didn't have to tell veteran first baseman Todd Helton how much difference he can make by staying healthy and approaching the numbers he posted just a few seasons ago.

In fact, Hurdle has made it a point not to tell Helton anything since the 2006 season ended. Hurdle knows how Helton is approaching 2007.

"He has put in a workout routine that is very demanding," Hurdle said Tuesday during his annual Winter Meetings media gathering. "He has put himself already to task and to work. He's professional enough, he's prideful enough that he's going to do anything he can do to compete at a level that he's more satisfied with next season."

"It's important. It's important to the club. It's important to him."

Hurdle, whose club is coming off a 76-86 finish and is still looking for the first winning season since the manager took over early in 2002, talked optimistically about the youthful nucleus and the starting rotation, which he believes could be strong even if ace Jason Jennings is traded at some point.

But with a tight payroll budget and a spiraling free-agent market, Hurdle understands the best addition that the Rockies could make is the old Helton.

A chronic back problem and a calf injury in 2005 and a stomach ailment last season, from which Helton returned too soon and never fully recovered, have knocked Helton out of star status. Helton had hit 30 or more home runs in each season from 1999 to 2004 but dropped to 20 in 2005 and 15 last season, when he batted a career-low .302.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to work away from the big issue last season of being physically unable to perform and still trying to go out and perform," Hurdle said. "He goes out and can just start playing the game again, seeing the ball, hitting the ball, reacting to the ball on defense, getting a lot of those cobwebs out or maybe questions he has on his own.

"I mean, the days of 40 [home runs] and 140 [RBIs], that would be nice, but we don't need that. We sure could use it, but we don't need that. We just need some more than what he's done."

Helton could be added to a young lineup that has some breakout performers in 2006 who should be poised to make the next step, as well as some other young talents that could be ready to contribute.

Having third baseman Garrett Atkins (.329, 29 HRs, 120 RBIs) and left fielder Matt Holliday (.326, 34 HRs, 114 RBIs) means Helton isn't burdened with carrying the lineup. Atkins has been moved into Helton's No. 3 spot in the order, and he'll be followed by Holliday and Helton.

"He doesn't have to do any more than be another piece," Hurdle said. "Where initially coming in before the '05 season, it was 'I've got to have a big year; we've got a lot of young kids that are cutting their teeth. Who knows what they'll put up.' We've got a few guys that have shown what they're going to put up. What they're putting up is pretty good as far as scoring runs and driving in runs."

Although the Rockies seek a center fielder with Major League experience, much of their hope rests with younger players.

Right fielder Brad Hawpe is coming off hitting .293 with 22 home runs in his first wire-to-wire season without Minor League time or an injury.

The Rockies also have shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the top pick in 2005, and catcher Chris Iannetta, a 2004 draftee, who spent the final five weeks of 2006 breaking into the Majors. The Rockies can turn to Clint Barmes at short and plan to give Yorvit Torrealba slightly more playing time at catcher than Iannetta (assuming Torrealba's shoulder is whole after strained muscles forced him to the disabled list twice last season).

Add them with second basemen Kazuo Matsui and Jamey Carroll, both of whom were productive last season with the Rockies, and Hurdle is looking at a club that could take the next step.

Although the Rockies tied for fourth in the National League West, they were in first place on July 5 -- the latest they had at least a share of the lead in a season since 1996.

"I think we learned a lot through last season's challenges," Hurdle said. "We saw a lot of development through last year. In the game of baseball, there is nothing that can replace a full season in the majors and I think we got that accomplished in many different ways for many different players."

The Rockies have a chance to go into 2007 confident in their rotation, a rare feeling for them.

Jennings is a free agent at the end of next season, so the Rockies are exploring trade options to avoid the specter of losing him with nothing in return, but the club also is trying to negotiate an extension.

At the top of the rotation, Jennings (9-13, 3.78 ERA) and right-hander Aaron Cook (9-15, 4.23) could have had winning records had they not had the second-lowest and seventh-lowest run support in the NL, respectively. Jeff Francis (13-11, 4.16 ERA) has led the Rockies in wins each of his two full seasons.

The Rockies will continue to tweak the bullpen, having completed the one-year signing of LaTroy Hawkins on Tuesday. But durability could be the hallmark of the Rockies' rotation.

"We had two guys over 200 [innings, Jennings and Cook], one guy at 199 [Francis]," Hurdle said. "Josh Fogg threw 170, Byung-Hyun Kim 150. We were able to take that step in developing length that we never had before."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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