Sky's the limit for healthy Taveras

Sky's the limit for healthy Taveras

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Rockies speedy leadoff man Willy Taveras is reaching full stride.

Taveras has five stolen bases in his last three Spring Training games, which is doubly important: the offseason training has him feeling healthy, and he's getting on base. If both hold true, it'll add a dimension to an offense that has capable run producers in spots two through six.

Last season, Taveras hit .320 with a career-best .367 on-base percentage, but muscle strains -- especially in a troublesome right quadriceps -- limited him to 97 games. Taveras believes carrying about 184 pounds, 10-14 more than last year, and a different approach to pregame preparation will keep him healthy.

"This time of year, I'm getting better and better every day," Taveras said. "This spring, we've been making sure I'm healthy. That's my concern."

Taveras is hitting .208 in 16 Spring Training games. The entire spring has been devoted to keeping his hands in proper position. Outside of games, Taveras has been spending time in the batting cage with hitting coach Alan Cockrell working on that simple fundamental.

To illustrate his dedication, Taveras, 26, has all but put the bunt in his back pocket during Cactus League play. Despite his injuries last season, Taveras had 37 bunt hits -- second most in the Majors since 1974. To this point of Spring Training, he's limited himself to one bunt per game. He may incorporate the bunt more in the Rockies' final exhibition games.

"I'd say he's pretty darn close," Cockrell said. "The thing is you don't have to be ready to go until Opening Day. But there comes a point in time when you've got to turn it up a notch, turn up the volume a little bit. He's getting it there."

If the work on using his hands better during the swing takes hold, he might add gap power to his game. He already is one of baseball's best at the short game. His 169 infield hits are most of any player over the last three seasons, and he has stolen 33 bases each of the past two years.

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In order to keep his speed game, he has to stay healthy.

While playing with the Astros 2004-06, Taveras never suffered a muscle injury, but that club trained and played the regular season in humid climates. The lack of humidity -- not only in Denver but in Tucson -- shocked his system. Ironically, a troublesome incident occurred in Houston when he tweaked the quadriceps while climbing the terrace in center field for a fly ball. But the real culprit was going in and out of the Rocky Mountain climate.

He began offseason training in Houston, but completed it in Denver and Tucson. Along the way, he learned that he needed some changes.

Head athletic trainer Keith Dugger and strength and conditioning coach Brad Andress put him through specialized pregame stretching exercises. Taveras, always a healthy eater, has found that he responds better to a new sports drink with greatly reduced sugar. His biggest change is right before the game, when he is running in the outfield.

"In warmups, it's at game speed, so it won't be a surprise to my body," Taveras said. "When you're at sea level, it's not hard to warm up. Your muscles are looser. Here, it takes awhile to get loose. You need more oxygen. It's so dry and so high, and it's like your muscles go harder."

Taveras continues to work on his bunting outside of game action and is confident that part of his game will be there when the season begins. He feels good on the bases. The swing is improving.

"Believe it or not, I just wanna be healthy after Spring Training," Taveras said. "And I will do the rest."

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