Helton seeks a return to form in '07

Helton seeks a return to form in '07

DENVER -- Can't quite say Rockies first baseman Todd Helton looks like his old self. We've seen a goatee, maybe not as thick, but we haven't seen such thick muscles along the back of the arm and upper back.

After dropping at least 20 pounds and never getting it back last year, when a serious stomach ailment cost him 14 games in April and May, Helton is his old self and more.

Everything is set up for Helton, 33, to show his strength by returning to the production of 1999-2004, when he never hit below .329 or hit fewer than 30 home runs. That, however, still wasn't strong enough to carry a flawed club to playoff contention.

With Garrett Atkins, Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe having grown up and grown strong around him in a revamped lineup, Helton might be able to press the club higher in the standings.

Helton's muscle isn't necessarily designed to translate to home runs. His best years he stayed around 210 pounds, which is less than he is carrying now. Muscle should mean more availability.

Helton's decline in the last two years can be blamed on injury. The two issues that landed him on the disabled list -- a left calf strain in August 2005, which forced his first career DL placement, and the illness last season -- could be considered freak occurrences.

But if any physical issue can make the decline irreversible, it's Helton's back.

Tissue damage was discovered late in the 2002 season, but Helton and the club backed away from a dangerous surgery. Helton went into a period of protecting the back, rather than strengthening it. The strategy didn't prevent him from suffering an injury in an offseason weight-training mishap before the 2005 season, however.

This offseason, Helton went to Olympic lifts. The techniques force coordinated movements of the upper and lower body, which means the back comes into play to provide balance. They also require the athlete to be flexible in many areas, including the back.

"The last few years in the offseason, I've stayed away from workouts that had to do with the back," Helton said. "This year I said I'm going to just do my workout. At first it felt really bad. Then it got to the point I was like, wow. Once my back got strong, it got a lot better.

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"It's still early, but it feels great."

If Helton feels great and stays available, it makes sense for the Rockies to use him properly.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Rockies have led baseball with 304 sacrifice bunts over the last three seasons. Last year, they dropped 119 -- 19 more than the second-most sacrificing club, the Astros.

The strategy, which often involved the No. 1 and 2 hitters, gave Helton fewer opportunities to drive in runs from the No. 3 hole. He walked a career-high 127 times in 2004, and totaled 106 and 96 walks the last two years, when injuries lessened his playing time.

Now Helton hits fourth, behind Atkins. The Rockies also have speedy Willy Taveras in the leadoff spot and either Kazuo Matsui or Jamey Carroll -- both productive hitters last season -- second. There are plenty of new ways to move runners into scoring position for the heart of the order.

"I don't' think we're good enough to be just giving up outs," Helton said. "There's a time and a place for everything, but you've got to do whatever the manager says."

Manager Clint Hurdle says he is happy to see a hearty Helton.

"He's been in territories that not many people have offensively, and defensively -- there are [three Rawlings] Gold Gloves to go with that," Hurdle said. "I know he is focused and he is determined to do things the way he wants to do them and how he wants to do them."

Rockies CEO Charlie Monfort is convinced Helton is where he wants to be, as well. The Rockies and Red Sox entered serious trade talks, and Helton -- owed $90.1 million through 2011 -- was willing to waive his no-trade clause. But the teams couldn't reach agreement and broke off talks in January, and Monfort refuted recent speculation that the talks would be revived this spring.

"I think he's shown that he's happy to be here," Monfort said. "I don't think he's got any weird feelings about it, and we surely don't. We'll go forward.

"Once winning happens, everything else falls into place and the conversations all change."

Now the conversation is whether Helton can get back to the run production that could make the Rockies better.

He missed a few days this spring with a sore knee, but that's been chalked up to Spring Training pain and the right a veteran has to not play in meaningless games.

Through his first eight appearances, Helton batted .500 (10-for-20) with one home run and one double, but that indicates nothing. As he noted, every time he has tried to put a charge into a ball is "every time I've grounded out to second."

Throughout the spring, Helton has avoided handicapping the team's chances. He won't let his extra beef fool him into setting production goals for the same reason -- brain and timing are more important than brawn and bravado.

"That wouldn't be smart at all," Helton said. "With those things, you just get in one of those streaks.

"You can hit a lot of balls hard all year and they've got topspin or you're hitting line drives. You can get the ball in the air and it's got backspin, a lot of times it goes out of the yard. But it's not something you try to do, or you'll get yourself in a world of hurt."

Helton hopes to muscle his way out of the world of hurt in which he was trapped the last two seasons.

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