Mailbag: Can Baker break into lineup?

Mailbag: Can Baker break into lineup?

Prospect Jeff Baker got a chance to start the season at third base last year after Garret Atkins' hamstring injury. He struggled and there has been talk of moving him to the outfield. What are the Rockies plans for the former fourth-round pick (2002) out of Clemson?
-- Bill G., Woodbridge, Va.

Baker started and homered on Opening Day but struggled for about a month before being sent to the Minors in 2005. That was understandable, considering that he had played just 166 Minor League games, and the previous two years were cut short by injury.

The injuries continued after Baker was sent to Triple-A. The Rockies have made several offseason moves for backup types and could have at least one more in the works, so it appears the only way Baker will break with the big club will be in the event of injuries.

But it's hard to imagine Baker, 24, begin forgotten for long, provided he finds a way to stay healthy. After setting the Clemson career home run record, he has homered once every 23.7 at-bats in 228 Minor League games. Colorado can't afford to forget about that kind of power. Atkins was solid at third last season, so Baker's decision to visit with first base coach/outfield instructor Dave Collins this offseason for outfield work was done to enhance his value to the big club.

Who are some of the top players to look for at Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2006? Are there any pitching prospects in that group?
-- Chris M., Colorado Springs, Colo.

Any discussion of Colorado Springs has to start with two returnees from last year's rotation, right-hander Mike Esposito and left-hander Justin Hampson. Both were inconsistent last year while playing at the Triple-A level for the first time. They have to show they can handle the altitude and pitching in a hitter's league, since they could be the first ones to get a call if a Rockies starter is injured.

Righty Zach McClellan, who pitched for Colorado Springs in relief last season, is also an intriguing returnee. Outfielder Tony Miller should get his first Triple-A look, and outfielders Jeff Salazar and Ryan Spilborghs should be there, too.

As for pitchers who should be reaching Triple-A for the first time, righty Jon Asahina, claimed from Florida at the end of Spring Training in 2005, could make a mark there after going 12-10 at Double-A Tulsa, as did lefty Zach Parker. Organization pitcher of the year Jim Miller fits into the Colorado Springs bullpen, too. Righty relievers Ramon Ramirez and Eduardo Sierra, obtained from the New York Yankees for pitcher Shawn Chacon, could also become Sky Sox.

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The most exciting prospects, though, won't be there in the beginning, but they could arrive as the year progresses. Iannetta, right-handed pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez and a strong trio of infielders -- third baseman Ian Stewart, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and second baseman Matt Macri -- are candidates to get to Triple-A and possibly even set foot in the Majors.

Another possibility for Triple-A is second baseman Jayson Nix, who was the team's top pick in 2001 but has struggled for two years in Double-A.

I have followed Choo Freeman since he was drafted by the Rockies. He has to break through soon, or the Rox will lose his rights. What are the Rockies looking for from him?
-- Chris W., Littleton, Colo.

The Rockies have enough confidence in Freeman's raw tools to play him at any defensive position, but his future with Colorado depends on his offense. Freeman, a supplemental first-round choice in 1998, is out of options, meaning he must either make the club or be exposed to other teams via waivers.

A baseball-football prospect in high school when he was drafted, Freeman has shown flashes of the skills he needs, but hasn't completed the task. Last season, a hamstring injury while he was at Triple-A Colorado Springs cost him a possible callup, and center fielder Cory Sullivan's late-season hot streak zapped him of playing time after he was promoted.

If Freeman is exposed, plenty of organizations will want to claim him and develop his athletic ability. Many have been watching the Rockies for the past couple of years hoping they make that decision. But the Rockies still like Freeman and appreciate the tireless effort he has given; they will think long and hard before cutting ties.

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