SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Todd Helton is relieved all the hype of a year ago surrounding the big-spending Colorado Rockies has subsided significantly.
Slugger Carlos Gonzalez acknowledges that the $80 million, seven-year contract he received last offseason and Troy Tulowitzki’s monster deal might have been a distraction for a club that began 2011 as an NL West favorite.
“For whatever reason, the Colorado Rockies don’t play with expectations,” Helton said Monday. “When we play with expectations, we stink. I think we’re in a better spot now as far as that’s concerned. There’s not that expectation. There’s not that talk and I don’t think these guys are reading the newspaper about how people are going to be and believing the hype.”
It sure appears as though the immense pressure is off this spring. The Rockies are committed to playing together as a team focused on finding a way to contend again for the division title they planned to win last year.
Manager Jim Tracy and the Rockies took the field for their first full-squad spring training workout Monday at Salt River Fields eager for a fresh start after two disappointing seasons. Tracy has said he takes responsibility for the failures and believes he let the team down when times got tough.
Colorado finished 73-89 last year and in fourth place in the NL West. The Rockies came out of the gates 11-2 and by April 15 looked like the contender everybody expected, then a 3-10 stretch from May 1-15 showed there were flaws and inconsistencies.
Helton is candid about the problems.
“Last year we were trying to be good players and we definitely didn’t play as a team,” he said. “I think we forgot how hard the process is and just thought, `Hey, everybody’s going to be one step better and we’re going to go out and be this team.”‘
It was another frustrating result on the heels of an injury-plagued 2010 season in which the Rockies dropped 13 of their final 14 games to crush the club’s playoff hopes and finish at 83-79.
“That’s all in the past. We were one of the favorites to win the division and everything went opposite,” Gonzalez said. “This year is totally different.”
Gonzalez will be the first one to say he failed to live up to expectations last season — both his own and those of the front office personnel who rewarded him with the hefty new contract.
The 26-year-old Gonzalez missed time with a strained right wrist and was limited to 127 games. He still batted .295 with 26 home runs and 92 RBIs. He understands the importance of staying in the lineup for the Rockies to reach their potential.
“I have to be in there every day for the whole year. I know that if I play more than 150 games, I’m going to be able to contribute for the team and do special things,” he said. “I’m not talking about numbers, of course. The numbers are going to be there at the end of the year. I have to be able to stay in there to help the ballclub with anything. I can help this team with a stolen base, with a throw home, playing defense, offensively. My mentality right now is to stay healthy and be out there to support our team. That’s what I want to do this year.”
Tulowitzki, 27, hit .302 with 30 homers and 105 RBIs — so he will be out to use another strong season as momentum for 2012.
“He’s one of those kids who has an unlimited ceiling,” teammate Jason Giambi said. “He’s not content being the best shortstop in the game right now.”
General manager Dan O’Dowd brought in more experience to complement his big hitters, 15-year big leaguer Helton and 41-year-old backup and new father Giambi.
The Rockies added free agent outfielder Michael Cuddyer in December on a $31.5 million, three-year contract. Second baseman Marco Scutaro came in a trade with the Red Sox in January. Third baseman Casey Blake and catcher Ramon Hernandez are other new faces now in the mix.
“We have new faces and a lot of guys who are veterans who have been involved in great games and had success, like Cuddyer, Scutaro,” Gonzalez said. “We’re ready to start over. This is a new season. We have to continue to get better. The players are still here. We just need to continue to learn to play this game together.”
Scutaro was eager Monday — on a windy day in the desert — to start finding his double-play rhythm with Tulowitzki, who in each of the past two seasons has been an All-Star and won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
“Everything I know about him is from highlights on ESPN, going deep and doing crazy plays and stuff,” Scutaro said.
Colorado is counting on its top players carrying the load again this year, while also getting more from others.
This winter, Tulowitzki recruited Dexter Fowler and a few other teammates to go to Las Vegas to train. The speedy Fowler is 25 and looking to show he can be a steady player in the majors. He batted .266 with five homers and 45 RBIs in 125 games last season.
“Dexter has man strength now,” Helton said. “He always had the talent. You’re going to see a difference. I’ve already seen it out there in BP. He would be my breakout player if I was going to have to pick one. He’s my pick to click.”
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