In some ways, first base is the easiest position to project for 2012. That position has belonged to one man since 1998, and until that man wants to leave, it will continue to belong to him. However, he is getting a bit aged, and the questions at hand are these: Who will cover for him when he needs a break? And who is poised to take over for him when he retires? Well, if he retires. Let’s be serious, this is the Toddfather we’re talking about.
Helton has been a mainstay at first for 14 seasons now. He has played 2016 major league games in a Rockies uniform, which puts him in an elite group of players who have stayed with the same team that long. I may be a little biased, but I don’t know that anybody in the bigs takes better at-bats than Todd Helton. He has impeccable discipline, he can foul off any pitch, and he knows exactly where to put the ball depending on the circumstances. When his back problems began in 2010, his numbers suffered and he hit a career-worst .256. But he’s a fighter, and he made the necessary adjustments and had a resurgence in 2011. He seems to be in a comfortable place now in terms of knowing how much he needs to rest in order to be fresh when he plays, and how to play so that he doesn’t aggravate any physical problems he’s having. Expect him to log 100-120 games at first in 2012. Just how many games and when he rests will essentially be up to him. When he does play, he’ll bat 5th against right-handed pitchers and 6th against left-handed pitchers, and he’s as good a heart-of-the-order guy as you could want. His Gold Glove defense is still basically unparalleled, and at 38 he can dive and scoop almost as well as he did at 28.
Helton’s primary backup will be Giambi, who hasn’t played anywhere other than first since 1999. His fielding abilities haven’t aged quite as well as Helton’s, and he can be a little slow to get to the ball at times. But he knows the position and plays it well. He’s also much better as a starter than as a pinch hitter, which makes me highly prefer him as backup first baseman rather than guy on the bench. He’s performed well this spring, with a couple of doubles and 4 RBI in 16 AB’s. And he’s known for being one of the hardest-working Rockies, constantly spending time in the cage and making adjustments to his swing so he can keep producing. The Helton-Giambi tandem is a solid one.
Cuddyer is the starting right fielder, but he can play first and likely will at times. He was also became the Rockies’ biggest free agent signing in a decade when he negotiated a 3-year contract with the team this past December. For that reason, we need big things out of him. Most of those things will come at the plate, though, and we won’t see too much of him at first. He’s logged more than 1600 innings there, with a .993 fielding percentage, so he’s a perfectly suitable option when both Helton and Giambi are hurting, or when Jim Tracy really wants a right-handed heavy lineup and chooses not to use either of those guys.
Of all the prospects I’ve seen this spring training, Pacheco’s bat is the one I like the most. He’s major-league ready and hasn’t missed a beat since last September when he was first called up. He is a terrific situational hitter and knows how to wait for the right pitch. The main issue with Pacheco is that he doesn’t easily slot in anywhere defensively. He was initially an infielder, but his glove is substandard, and he was moved to catcher in 2008. I’d be comfortable calling him a backup catcher if it weren’t for a guy named Wilin Rosario, poised to the Rockies’ backstop of the future. Because of Pacheco’s lack of defensive prowess, his future with the club is uncertain. But look for him to make the team out of camp and occasionally cover first when none of the above are available. Or even occasionally when they are, just so he can log some extra time there.
Paulsen is the closest to a Helton heir that we have right now. He won’t be a major leaguer quite yet, as he was sent down to minor league camp during the first round of cuts, but after a little more time on the farm he could be ready to take Helton’s place when the time comes. He hit 19 home runs at Double A Tulsa in 2011 and definitely has the power potential to take Helton’s spot in the lineup. Some concerns for Paulsen are his low on-base percentage (.296 in 2011) and his poor strikeout/walk ratio (132/40 in 2011). With time, though, he could at the very least soften the blow of the Toddfather’s departure.
Runner-up to Paulsen is the boss’s son, who was acquired from the Texas Rangers for pitcher Greg Reynolds this offseason. I think we’re all in agreement that the Reynolds experiment had ended, and ended badly, so it wasn’t hard to say goodbye to him. However, I don’t know that Tracy was much of a return on the investment. The organization was likely doing their golden manager a favor bringing Chad here, and it remains to be seen whether he can really bring anything to the club long-term. He’s still in camp right now, but he won’t make the final active roster. He could very well stay on the 40-man and be called up later in the season. As for his potential to measure up to Todd Helton, well, he won’t. He could be given the chance though.
Who makes the 40-man: Helton, Giambi, Cuddyer, Pacheco, Tracy
Who makes the 25-man: Helton, Giambi, Cuddyer, Pacheco
Who starts opening day: Helton