SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- This would be a nerve-wracking time for second baseman Josh Rutledge, had the Rockies handled it differently.
Usually a team coming off a year like the Rockies -- 64-98, worst in franchise history -- is making brave statements about every job being open, with the belief that competition will make the team better. There's something to be said for that in some cases, but few squads operate that way. The Rockies operate like most clubs. Few starting jobs tend to be up for grabs, with room for a surprise or two. The competition is at the bottom of the roster.
The Rockies could have gone either way at second base.
Rutledge was a revelation last year, when he was called up from Double-A Tulsa to play shortstop in Troy Tulowitzki's absence and hit a healthy .274 with eight home runs and 37 RBIs in 73 games -- enough to force the club to look at him as a second baseman this year, with Tulowitzki healthy. But Rutledge is young, he struggled at season's end, and there are candidates had the Rockies wanted a free for all.
Instead, through playing time and instruction from the staff, the message is clear that Rutledge is the second baseman unless all falls apart. Rutledge has done his part, to the tune of 6-for-19 (.316) with a double through six games going into Sunday's matchup with the Dodgers. But not having to concern himself with the result of every at-bat or having to fret a bad game has been helped Rutledge concentrate on his craft.
"It feels good to me, makes me feel more confident," Rutledge said. "I like how they've done that. I think them showing that they have confidence in me to make that switch and play me primarily there is pretty cool. It's been going really well."
Where the freedom to relax is especially helpful is in the transition to the right side of the infield.
Rutledge played well at short before a right quadriceps injury reduced his range toward the end of the season. But the return of Tulowitzki, statistically the best all-around shortstop in the game when healthy, meant Rutledge had an iffy future at the position. But his range becomes above average when moved over to second base.
On his own and with the help of Rockies third-base coach and infield instructor Stu Cole, Rutledge has been working on making the double-play pivot.
There are similarities between Rutledge and Cubs Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney, as well as many second baseman who were shortstops. Almost all of the time, they take throw and step to the outfield side of the bag to make the relay throw -- something that requires greater strength than usually associated with second base. The other way is for the second baseman to come across the bag to the inside and make the throw.
"It kind of depends on the ball, but for me I like to stay back more," Rutledge said. "I'm more comfortable with that than going through the bag. But I'm still working on both.
"I'm going to still continue to keep working hard, polishing every part off, from double plays to turns to pivots. As of right now, I feel pretty comfortable. I'm pleased at how I've made the transition so far."
Another way the Rockies simplified Rutledge's transition was by acquiring Reid Brignac to give the team another option as a backup to Tulowitzki. Jonathan Herrera has played there in the past, and the Rockies gave DJ LeMahieu a start at short on Sunday. The message is for Rutledge to banish any thought of playing short. That would happen only in a roster emergency.
"The way he finished up last year, the way he went about when he got to the big leagues gave him a lot of confidence going into Spring Training," Cole said. "With the stuff that he worked on during the offseason, that prepared him as well. Knowing he was going to come in and play second base, I think he did a good job of preparing himself for this. I think it's worked out well for him."
The Rockies also see Rutledge as a low-maintenance hitter. But Rutledge, a third-round pick out of Alabama in the 2010 MLB First-Year Player Draft, came into pro ball knowing the areas he needs to stay on top of so he can self-correct.
"In the offseason I try to work more at staying in my legs, not sliding too much with the hips," he said. "I'll continue to work on that but I haven't really changed anything.
"Right now I'm still trying to get my timing down. My swing is starting to feel better and I'm starting to get into a groove. It's one day at a time."
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.Less