NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Maybe it takes a hard-nosed shortstop to know one, and manage one. The Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki has won two Rawlings Gold Glove Awards and twice has been an All-Star. But last season he appeared in just 47 games before eventually undergoing left groin surgery and missing the rest of the season. Tulowitzki also missed a large chunk of 2008 with a torn right quadriceps tendon, nearly missed the 2011 All-Star Game with a left quad strain, and has dealt with leg soreness at various times over his career. Those are the hazards that come with being a bigger-than-average shortstop who plays all-out, insists on being in the lineup, and often puts extreme torque on his body to make outstanding plays.
New Rockies manager Walt Weiss can identify. Weiss was a similar grinder while playing shortstop for the Rockies from 1994-97. Games back then were at their wildest, meaning they were long, close and high-scoring, and not much was known about how daily play in the mile-high atmosphere could weigh on a player. But don't expect Weiss to be overprotective. Health is important to Tulowitzki, but he has never asked to be treated with kid gloves. Weiss said on Tuesday during the Winter Meetings that he'll be smart, but the Rockies need Tulowitzki. "The thing with Tulo is whatever it takes to keep him on the field, that's what we've got to do, because that's our best shot," Weiss said. "When we talk about taking our best shot, that gives us our best shot with him at shortstop. He's a difference-maker. He's a game-changer. We'll handle that accordingly. "We've got to be honest with each other, and we've got to take care of him and keep him on the field because he's a special guy. It's the way he plays the game and how hard he plays the game and his style of play where he does a lot of things off-balance and trying to finish plays. It's a very demanding position he's playing and where we're playing at. That's part of trying to be smarter as a club." How much did the Rockies miss Tulowitzki's defense? Without him, they led the National League in errors. Bill Geivett, the Rockies' senior vice president of Major League operations, said improving the defense is a key, if underrated, priority. He said he is fine with the formula of strong offense and credible pitching, as long as the other issue is not ignored. "I can see that, as long as we play better defense," Geivett said. "Those two alone aren't going to do it. We need to play better defense." Tulowitzki is a key part of the defense. Another key issue is whether veteran first baseman Todd Helton, at age 39, can return from right hip surgery that he underwent in August. Helton has been working on his conditioning. Weiss believes Helton -- who broke into the Majors in 1997, during Weiss's last season in Colorado -- can complete the comeback. "I said, man, you'll be able to hit a ball in the gap when you're 52, so don't tell me you can't hit anymore; I know better," said Weiss, who said he spoke to Helton within the last three weeks. "I think he's going to mean a lot to our club this year, just because he who he is and what he's done and all those things. He's one of those unique guys. He's a great, great pro." Weiss and the Rockies' coaches have conducted lengthy meetings over the last two days to discuss personnel and strategy. What has emerged is the Rockies' model is the mid 1990s teams, which were annual threats to hit 200 home runs and steal 200 bases. The young roster hit 176 homers last year, without Tulowitzki and without All-Star Carlos Gonzalez getting pitches to hit, so 24 more homers is easily imaginable. The Rockies, however, stole just 100 bases last year. But there is speed that isn't being used, Geivett said. "How are we going to put as much pressure on the defense of our opposition as possible," Geivett said. "Having players that are dangerous with their power is important. But at the same time players that use their speed on the bases are important on the bases. Our ability to apply pressure in every facet of the game is what we're looking at right now." The Rockies continue to pursue veteran free-agent pitchers Jeff Francis and Kevin Correia to add experience to the staff.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.