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Rockies shake things up at first base

7/8/2010

A season ago, Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton helped fantasy owners win leagues, hitting .325 with 86 RBIs as a popular April (or even May) free-agent pickup. Yes, Helton had fallen that far, that fast after injuries ruined his 2008 season. This season I went back to the Helton well on draft day ... and before April had ended, I and many others had moved on. Now everyone should.

On Wednesday night, the Rockies temporarily moved on as well, placing Helton on the 15-day disabled list because of a stiff back. The Rockies said Helton had been bothered by this ailment, as well as a sore hamstring, for about a week.

But I'm thinking Helton's back has been hurting all season. What other explanation can there be for not only Helton's precipitous decline of 79 batting average points, but also the strikeout rate. Helton has fanned 53 times in 248 at-bats; a year ago, he fanned 73 times in 544 at-bats. Clearly he's hurt or something is wrong.

Helton remains owned in 41 percent of ESPN leagues, which speaks to his pristine reputation, but it isn't wise to roster him now. First base is easily the deepest offensive position in fantasy, and two home runs in 69 games won't cut it unless he's hitting .350. Yes, Helton has helped many of us win fantasy titles, but forget the loyalty and move on. It's certainly possible he comes back strong in a few weeks to hit .325 and knock in runs at a high clip again, but it's far from guaranteed, and there are many valuable first basemen.

Among the first basemen available in more than 60 percent of ESPN standard (10-team) mixed leagues I'd choose to sign, in order, would be Ike Davis, Matt LaPorta, Russell Branyan and Justin Smoak. For really deep leaguers, keep an eye on Travis Ishikawa and Eric Hinske.

I discussed Helton's plight in Wednesday's chat session, noting how it made me sad to see him struggle this way but also that Jason Giambi was deserving of more playing time. Perhaps the team would ease a crowded outfield situation and move Brad Hawpe to first base. So what did the Rockies do Wednesday night? Brad Eldred got the start and had three hits and scored three runs!

You might recall Eldred's name from his days as a tantalizing Pittsburgh Pirates prospect. For years, Eldred, a monster of a man at 6-foot-5, 290 pounds (conservatively), demolished minor league pitching -- he has hit 196 homers down on the farm -- but failed in the big leagues (.199 batting average in 74 games). After six seasons in the Pirates organization, in which he once hit 38 home runs and knocked in 137 runs with a .301 batting average in 2004, he has since moved on to through the Chicago White Sox, Washington Nationals and Rockies franchises. All the while, Eldred has hit for power. In 71 games for Triple-A Colorado Springs, a hitter's paradise, he had 22 home runs. Of course, he was also hitting a tame .267 with 20 walks and 78 strikeouts. He's what people call a 4-A player, good enough for the minors but not the majors. He's not a future Richie Sexson.

I wouldn't add Eldred in mixed leagues, and be careful about using a waiver spot or spending money on him in NL-only formats; his time with the Rockies could be short-lived. At best, I'd expect him to face left-handed pitching for the next few weeks, but the team could also use Melvin Mora there and play Ian Stewart at third base against southpaws. On Thursday, with St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Chris Carpenter scheduled to pitch, I expect Giambi to get the first base start. He had three hits Tuesday.

Giambi is someone I would immediately consider in OPS leagues, because he hasn't lost his ability to draw walks. He won't hit for batting average, but he does possess power -- certainly more than Helton was showing -- and he might hit in the middle of the lineup. Note that Giambi has started 23 times this season (15 at first base, eight at DH), making three starts in the No. 2 lineup spot and 11 others as a cleanup hitter. While he hasn't hit well, he has drawn walks. As the team's first baseman, he has hit .244 but has a .431 on-base percentage. I'm curious how much better he would be with regular playing time, and now we should find out. He can still produce runs.

Hawpe, the Rockies' regular right fielder, has never played an inning at first base in his big league career, so I can understand the team's reluctance to move him there, despite the fact the team is loaded in the outfield. Seth Smith deserves to play regularly, just like Carlos Gonzalez and Hawpe. Dexter Fowler is the team's top center fielder defensively; he can take a walk and he smacked a three-run homer Wednesday, but he still hasn't shown consistent power or the ability to reach base, and he's not a high-percentage base stealer. Look for Giambi, Mora and possibly Eldred to receive playing time at first base. As has been the case in the outfield, Fowler, who has raised his batting average 40 points in July alone, likely will be the odd man out.