Helton continues to enjoy the moment

Helton continues to enjoy the moment

Before the 2007 season, the Rockies were on the verge of trading first baseman Todd Helton to the Red Sox and changing their direction.

Well, they didn't trade Helton. But, boy, did they change direction.

That year, they went from perennial bottom-feeder in the National League West to the World Series. Helton, after declining because of back issues, re-emerged as a club leader.

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In 2008, back problems returned, Helton underwent surgery, and the team struggled again. In 2009, Helton was healthy and productive again, with a .325 batting average (fourth in the NL) and .416 on-base percentage (third in the league), and the Rockies returned to the playoffs.

Helton will turn 37 before the 2010 season's end, and the career days are numbered. But he'll always be a part of the Rockies' future. By signing a $9.9 million contract extension through '13 and deferring $13.1 million of his previous contract -- nine years, $141.5 million through '11 -- he has helped the Rockies with payroll flexibility. No doubt he'll have a role with the club after his playing days end.

However, Helton's focus is on the present. Many are picking the Rockies to win the NL West. Helton is a big part of it, even though he'll have a smaller chunk of the action. With Helton's blessing, the Rockies re-signed last year's late-season bench acquisition, veteran first baseman Jason Giambi, so Helton can reduce his games played below the 150-plus that is common in healthy years.

MLB.com: Many see the Rockies as the favorite in the National League West. Do you feel any different being the hunted as opposed to the hunters?

Todd Helton: I don't really think that way. I think every team goes in thinking they've got a chance. That's pretty much the way we look at it.

Early schedule
The early part of the Rockies' schedule shapes up much better than it did last year, when the club started so poorly. Last year's slate started with 11 of the first 14 games on the road, and eight of the first 10 series within the NL West.

The Rockies also had the misfortune of opening the Cubs' home schedule in temperatures that were among the lowest in Rockies history. They managed one hit that day. The team stayed cold early before thawing out in June and turning torrid enough to make the playoffs.

This time, The Rockies open with a three-game road set against the Brewers. They expect to contend, so it won't be easy, but at least Miller Park has a roof to keep the weather at bay. The Rockies play 12 of the following 18 at home, six of those within the division. They also don't play the Dodgers -- who dominated them last year -- until early May.

Interleague Play
At the Royals, May 21-23; at the Twins, June 15-17; at home against the Red Sox, June 22-24; at the Angels, June 25-27.

Key home dates:
Home opener vs. the Padres, April 9; vs. the Dodgers, May 28-30; vs. the Red Sox, June 22-24; vs. the Giants, July 1-4; vs. the Cardinals, July 6-8.

May 7-9 . The Rockies went 2-7 at Dodger Stadium last year. If it weren't for the Dodgers, who won a bunch of games over the Rockies early, last year might have marked the first division title in club history. Make no mistake, these games carry a special importance to Rockies manager Jim Tracy, once the Dodgers' skipper.
June 22-24 . Last time the Red Sox were at Coors Field, they were celebrating with a bunch of their fans after winning the World Series in 2007. In the grand scheme of things, this is a first-half series. But the Red Sox are always a challenge, not only to Rockies players but to Rockies fans who must figure out how to keep tickets in their hands and not in the hands of the Boston rooters living in the Rockies.
July 1-4 . The race between Rockies and the Giants for last year's NL Wild Card was one of baseball's most lively, and it figures to be that way again. The Rockies make two visits to AT&T Park before the Giants come to Coors for four-game set that includes two fireworks games and the finale, on the afternoon of Independence Day.

MLB.com: Is it dangerous to accept that you're the team to beat?

Helton: We don't look at it that way. We look at it as we've got a good team, and there are a lot of things we have to do to be successful throughout the season. It's a long season. There's a lot of work to do. We've got a good team, but there are a lot of good teams that don't make it to the playoffs. So we've got to go out and do it on the field.

MLB.com: Because of the way the team has come back from poor starts to make the playoffs two of the past three years, the perception on the outside is that you don't start playing until May, June, or even August, then find a way to make it to the playoffs. Do you guys have a goal of getting off to a better start?

Helton: We think we need to. We've been here. We know what we have to do to be successful. We just have to do it. I think it's more important just to make it to the playoffs, however you do it. It's good to play good all season. But you're going to have rough stretches. It doesn't matter when they come. All that matters is how long it lasts. You don't want it to last long.

MLB.com: If you could look back to the beginning of 2007, did you ever think you could be this happy with the direction of yourself and this franchise?

Helton: That's a good question. I don't really think like that. I concern myself with the next day. I don't look that far. But probably not, to answer your question.

But even if things aren't going well and the team isn't winning, you're still playing baseball every day. You've got a job that you've got to go out and do every day.

MLB.com: Last season was a solid year for you with your batting average and on-base percentage. Is there any specific area you want to improve?

Helton: Consistency, driving in runs. You just have to learn all you can from the year before. And the biggest thing is staying healthy.

MLB.com: Do you think you need to hit more home runs?

Helton: I don't need to. It would be nice, but in reality, there are certain days when you travel or you get run down throughout the season. One thing I've learned is not to go out there and try to hit a home run if I physically can't.

We've got guys that can do that, guys that are in the prime of their careers that are going to be able to do that. I'm not one of those guys.

MLB.com With the new contract that presumably keeps you with the Rockies for the rest of your career, have you considered the end of your career and what you want to do at that point?

Helton: It's too soon. I'll be here somewhere. I don't know where it will be or how much I'll want to be away from my family. When the time comes, I'll figure it out. Now, I'm just getting ready for a season.

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