DENVER (AP) — Todd Helton is glad nobody’s talking about the Colorado Rockies this year.
At this time last year, it seemed everybody had already anointed them the NL West champions after a busy offseason in which they committed nearly $300 million to their budding stars.
Amid all that optimism, they led their division for 38 days before the bottom fell out and they plummeted to a 73-89 record in what was easily the most deflating season in franchise history.
Today, not many pundits are predicting the playoffs for Colorado, and that’s just fine with the rejuvenated Rockies.
“We don’t deal too well with expectations for whatever reason,” Helton said. “So, I hope we’re going into this season without any.”
With this healthy dose of reverse psychology, Helton figures maybe Colorado will be this year’s version of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who were nobody’s pick in spring training last year or at the start of the season but ended up as division champions.
The Rockies didn’t handle the heaviness of high expectations or the weight of adversity well last year, when ace Ubaldo Jimenez showed up ill-prepared, got hurt and never found his groove before being dealt to Cleveland at the trade deadline. By then, Jorge De La Rosa had undergone Tommy John surgery and soon, rookie fireballer Juan Nicasio would suffer a broken neck when he was struck in the head by a comebacker.
Slugger Carlos Gonzalez stumbled along with star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and before long, the Rockies were freefalling.
“Oh, it was the biggest disappointment that I’ve ever gone through,” Helton said. “I mean, there was so much expectation and we truly believed that we were going to be a good team and just to crumble the way we did and just to have the lapses and lose the games we did, just unacceptable.”
Wait a second. THE biggest disappointment? Bigger than losing the World Series to Boston in 2007?
“That’s a good question,” Helton said, pondering the question for a moment.
“Yeah,” he concluded. “Because we weren’t expected to go to the World Series. We were at least expected to go to the playoffs last year. And I thought we had the pitching to go deep in the playoffs, and to finish with a losing record, it just wasn’t right.”
After the season, general manager Dan O’Dowd conducted a makeover, infusing the clubhouse with proven veterans that he hopes can change the culture.
He brought in Michael Cuddyer, Casey Blake, Ramon Hernandez, Marco Scutaro and Jeremy Guthrie and jettisoned Huston Street, Seth Smith, Ian Stewart and Jason Hamel, among others.
He also stockpiled arms, leaving manager Jim Tracy with several candidates for the rotation.
With camp opening in Scottsdale, Ariz., this weekend, the projected rotation is Guthrie, Jhoulys Chacin, Drew Pomeranz, Nicasio and Guillermo Moscoso, with Alex White, Tyler Chatwood, Josh Outman, Jamie Moyer and Esmil Rogers all competing for spots.
De La Rosa, who figures to be their ace when healthy again, hopes to be back by May.
Second and third bases were problem points for the Rockies last year, but O’Dowd acquired Scutaro from Boston to play second base, and the team’s interest in David Wright and Kevin Youkilis evaporated when Nolan Arenado tore up the Arizona Fall League. With Stewart’s departure, the 20-year-old Arenado could jump from Class A ball to the majors this spring. Otherwise, Blake figures to get plenty of time there.
The Rockies have traditionally thrived when nobody’s given them a chance, like in `07 and `09, two playoff runs that came out of the blue.
Helton’s hoping the Rockies, minus the pressure of last year, can surprise again in 2012.
“I know there will be some (big expectations) outside the clubhouse, but I hope we just focus on the job we have to do that day and not worry about the big picture,” Helton said. “I think we kind of got caught up in a little bit of that” last year.
“Baseball is a grind and there’s going to be ups and downs and it’s how you deal with those that decides whether you’re a good team or a terrible team.”
Gonzalez said he realizes now that he got off to a poor start in 2011 because he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been after a winter in which he signed a huge contract and was the toast of Venezuela following his breakout 2010 season.
So, he had a quieter offseason this time around and expects to return to his 2010 form, especially now that his right wrist, which bothered him most of last summer, is healed.
Tulowitzki also recommitted himself over the winter, holding what came to be called “Camp Tulo” in Las Vegas, where he worked out with several teammates, including Jason Giambi, Dexter Fowler and Arenado.
“Last year humbled me as a player, as a leader. And it humbled a lot of guys in this locker room,” Tulowitzki said. “You look around and there’s a lot of different lockers that are empty from guys who have moved to other teams. It’s kind of a wake-up call for not only the guys who have been here for a while but also the young guys, the young prospects coming up, that if they don’t perform and they don’t put in the time, they’re going to be gone.”
One of the few things that went right for the Rockies last year was another solid season from Helton, their longtime leader who’s confident he can carry over last year’s sweet swing.
“I sure hope so. I’m going to go work on it here in a second,” he said. “It’s one of those things where surely I haven’t forgotten how to hit.”
He’s just hoping the Rockies remember how to win games in bunches like they did in `07 and `09.
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)