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Healthy offseason fuels Tulowitzki's optimism

All-Star shortstop, 29, ready to embrace clubhouse leadership role

Healthy offseason fuels Tulowitzki's optimism

DENVER -- Rockies All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki finished 2013 healthy, which meant he's spent this winter building rather than repairing. A broken rib, which cost him 25 games last year, healed well before the season ended. Unlike the previous season, he didn't have any pesky leg injuries to rehab.

So how much better can Tulowitzki be in 2014, coming off a full, injury-free winter?

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Now is not the time to answer that question.

"I've definitely worked on a lot of different things, and hopefully those things become apparent in the games," said Tulowitzki, who appeared at Coors Field on Saturday during Rockies Fest. "Maybe you won't be able to see that when I come into Spring Training, but I'm in good position to get the year started. But I'm going to let my play do its talking for me."

Tulowitzki, 29, has grown into the franchise's top headliner with three All-Star Game appearances, two Rawlings Gold Glove Awards and two Louisville Silver Slugger Awards, as well as being recognized as the game's best two-way shortstop. Also, the retirement at the end of last season of Rockies great Todd Helton leaves him as the player with the most seniority.

Although leadership status was attributed to him because of the passion he showed in helping the Rockies reach the 2007 World Series, he has been more of a leader-in-training. He watched Helton and developed a relationship with him as the years progressed. From 2009-12, Jason Giambi operated as an adviser and confidant, teaching him how to handle his own ups and downs while still being there for teammates.

Tulowitzki credits players such as Helton, Giambi and current Cardinals star Matt Holliday, who was on the team when Tulowitzki arrived, with helping him determine what's important and what isn't when it comes to team leadership.

"I'm excited for this opportunity," Tulowitzki said. "This is the first time I won't be able to look over at Todd and see him answering questions and always being the older guy."

Rockies manager Walt Weiss understood as well as anyone that the leadership kudos that went Tulowitzki's way during his rookie year were coming too soon.

"As a young player, you're not ready to lead, but it gets thrust on everyone that's a great player," Weiss said. "Now, the time is right. He's at a point in his career where he's established himself.

"People get distorted views of what leadership is. Your best leaders are servants. They're not guys that bark at people and tell people what to do. Your best leaders have a servant mentality. He's ready."

The status as a star for the Rockies can cut several different ways. Two straight last-place finishes in the National League West can make the spotlight harsh.

At a meeting with local media at the end of last season, Rockies owner, president and CEO Dick Monfort acknowledged Tulowitzki's growth and called on him to increase his leadership profile.

"I saw the greatest change in him," Monfort said. "This guy is getting more engaged with the younger guys. Before, all he worried about was 'Tulo.' I think the guy is maturing."

Tulowitzki said he and Monfort are coming from the same place.

"Dick wants to win just as badly as I do," Tulowitzki said. "At times, I'm vocal. I express my feelings, and my passion for winning is at its highest. At times, we get a little frustrated."

Tulowitzki realizes the consternation goes away when the Rockies win with him on the field.

A lengthy injury history remains a concern. He suffered a torn quadriceps and a hand laceration in 2008 and a fractured wrist in 2010. He played 47 games in 2012, sidelined by a left groin injury that was worse than originally believed. He underwent season-ending surgery that June to repair core muscles and repair scar tissue.

Last season, the Rockies were careful with his playing time early. An awkward mini-collision at the plate with D-backs catcher Miguel Montero on April 28 created a groin issue that had Tulowitzki in and out of the lineup for a week and a half. The big injury, however, came June 13, when he suffered the broken rib after diving for a grounder against the Nationals at Coors Field.

Tulowitzki did play in 126 games last season, but the 25 he missed with the rib issue came at a bad time. The Rockies were a surprising 2 1/2 games off the pace in the National League West at the time, but a finger injury to All-Star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez while Tulowitzki was out contributed to the club falling out of contention.

But Tulowitzki returned before the All-Star break, and finished the year batting .312 with 25 home runs and 82 RBIs, and his .931 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) was second-highest among NL shortstops. But his health status trumped his stats.

"He's been battling injuries, but he's one of the elite players in the league, and it's always nice to have him in the lineup and be hitting in front of him," Gonzalez said.

The Rockies have made several additions to the rotation and bullpen, and 2006 American League MVP Justin Morneau boosts the lineup. But a healthy winter is one of the main building blocks of optimism for the 2014 Rockies.

"Talent-wise, I think we're right there," Tulowitzki said. "Baseball has always been a special sport. You don't have to have the highest payroll. You go out and mesh as a team, you can do special things. We've made some good moves. Health has always been a concern for our core guys, but if we stay healthy and guys have good years that you didn't expect, I like our chances."

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

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