Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Todd Helton Misses Time; Baker, Stewart to Benefit

Introducing the new Todd Helton, a stranger not only to Rockies fans but perhaps even to himself; not just because he has grown a beard, but because advancing age with its attendant demons -- injury, ill-health and fatigue -- is beginning to catch up to him, to the benefit of prospects Jeff Baker and Ian Stewart.

The first tipoff was at Christmas, when Helton, 33, failed to show at the Thunder Baseball School in Knoxville, Tenn., his customary stop when he returns to his boyhood home to visit his parents, and needs a place to train. Was his absence the result of a chronically tender right knee stubbornly lingering since a 2005 injury? The answer may be yes.

Helton has already missed time in camp, with the knee swollen and red. And he has limited his play to home games at Rockies camp in Tucson, avoiding hour-long bus rides to Phoenix, not only because of the knee but his history of painful compressed discs at the top of the spine.

Though he seems to have recovered the more than 30 pounds he lost last year due to an intestinal illness, the weight gain seems more of fleshiness than of muscle, leaving doubts as to whether he will ever recover the raw power to reach the 30-homer plateau again.

Though he has not yet gone the way of such players as Mickey Mantle, Dale Murphy, Robby Alomar and other gifted players who abruptly hit a wall in their 30s, look for him to miss more and more time, extending opportunities to players such as Baker, in line for a bench role, and Stewart, a third baseman who is blocked at the hot corner by budding star Garrett Atkins,