SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) – If you’re going to replace Todd Helton at first base in Colorado while wearing Larry Walker’s old number, you better have a solid resume.
The Rockies are convinced four-time All-Star and former American League MVP Justin Morneau is the answer as they begin the post-Helton era.
“It’d be tough for anybody to have to fill those shoes,” manager Walt Weiss said of Helton, the freshly retired five-time All-Star who holds nearly every Rockies career offensive record. “But we’re doing it with a guy that’s been a league MVP and has been an elite player in this league.
“Maybe that ghost isn’t overwhelming for someone like a Justin Morneau.”
There were many compelling reasons for Morneau to sign his two-year, $12.5 million free-agent deal with Colorado in December.
It meant being reunited with former Minnesota teammate and friend Michael Cuddyer, and they now have adjacent lockers.
Walker, Morneau’s boyhood hero and fellow Canadian, recruited him to where he was National League MVP in 2007. Walker even signed off on Morneau wearing his old No. 33.
Morneau has an offseason home minutes away from the Rockies’ spring training facility.
And playing in the high altitude of Denver in a park that sparks a fond memory helped, too.
“In the end it turned out to be a pretty easy decision,” Morneau said Tuesday. “For the most part it had to do with the baseball side of it, from the good reviews that I got from Cuddyer and Walker and the positive things they had to say about the organization.”
But there will be pressure.
Morneau has to replace the face of the Rockies in Helton, who spent his entire career in Colorado and is the franchise leader with 2,519 hits, 369 home runs and 1,406 RBIs.
“From the outside looking in, it looks like I’m coming in to replace him,” Morneau said. “But that’s not my thought process. My thought process is just come in and be me and do what I can do. He has things that he can do that I can’t do and the other way around.”
The 32-year-old Morneau will likely bring more offense than Helton, who struggled at the plate amid injuries at the end of his career.
Morneau, who was in his 11th season with the Twins before being traded to Pittsburgh late last season, is a career .277 hitter with 221 home runs.
The left-handed hitter was sidelined with concussions in both 2010 and 2011, but played in 152 games last season and hit .259 with a .734 OPS.
“I remember him hitting a homer off me in Oakland, an absolute bomb to dead center field,” said pitcher Brett Anderson, acquired by the Rockies in an offseason trade. “He has power to all fields along with the ability to make contact. He’s a tremendous hitter overall.”
And the Rockies aren’t losing much, if anything, defensively. Since 2003, no infielder with more than 1,000 games played committed fewer errors (43) than Morneau. Helton was second with 47. And only Helton (.997) had a higher fielding percentage (.996).
Morneau arrived at spring training well ahead of Friday’s reporting date. He’s taken batting practice the past few days, providing a possible preview of the season ahead.
The last time Morneau played in Colorado, in 2008, he homered off Jeff Francis. The two were high school teammates and played together at Larry Walker Field in British Columbia.
Now he’s wearing Walker’s old number and about to become the first everyday first baseman in Colorado not named Helton since 1997.
“Obviously the fans will never forget him,” Morneau said of Helton. “It will be a fun day when they retire his number and we’ll look forward to that. But for me it’s just going out and starting over with a new organization.”
– By MIKE CRANSTON, Associated Press
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