Rockies glad to be flying under the radar
Todd Helton couldn't convey how glad he was that nobody's talking about the Colorado Rockies this year - and that was even before his college buddy Peyton Manning decided to play for the Denver Broncos.
A year ago, it seemed everybody had already anointed the Rockies 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 disappointing season in franchise history.
Now, even after a massive makeover that included the infusion of veteran leadership into the clubhouse in Michael Cuddyer, Jeremy Guthrie, Marco Scutaro, Jamie Moyer and Ramon Hernandez, not many pundits are predicting the playoffs for Colorado.
And that's just fine with these rejuvenated Rockies, whose best seasons, playoff runs in 2007 and `09, came out of the blue.
''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 buzz in Colorado, anyway, is with the Broncos following Manning's decision to come to Denver.
''I'm excited. I think it's a good move. He's a great football player, one of the best of all time,'' said Helton, who was Manning's backup QB at Tennessee in the 1990s before both became stars in their respective sports.
''I think it's a great thing for the town and will bring unbelievable excitement,'' Helton said. ''I can picture him in a Broncos uniform. It's a Broncos town and they have somebody to root for. He's going to come in and play well and I'm excited to see it,'' Helton said on the same day Manning called John Elway and told him he was going to be a Bronco.
After talking up his pal, Helton turned to a scrum of reporters as he left the team's clubhouse in Scottsdale, Ariz., and cracked, ''I did get a hit, too, you know?''
At least he's preparing for flying under the radar.
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.''
He said it was even more disheartening than losing the 2007 World Series to Boston in four games.
''Yeah. Because we weren't expected to go to the World Series. We were at least expected to go to the playoffs last year,'' Helton said.
So, general manager Dan O'Dowd brought in some veterans to mix in with the youngsters such as catcher Wilin Rosario and third baseman Nolan Arenado, two budding stars who will be on the Rockies' roster this summer, even if they start out in the minors for a tad more seasoning.
Nicasio has made a remarkable comeback from his accident that could have paralyzed or even killed him last summer, and De La Rosa figures to be the Rockies' ace when he's healthy again come midsummer.
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.
After hitting .228 with just five extra-base hits in April, Gonzalez rebounded to hit .295 with 26 homers and 92 RBIs last season. But he also injured his right wrist from multiple crashes into the outfield walls, which sidelined him for 33 games.
The Rockies went 10-23 in his absence.
''I basically battled the whole year because after I hit the wall that first time, I never felt the same,'' Gonzalez said. ''And right now I feel great.''
Gonzalez has long prided himself on his versatility in playing all three outfield positions, but the Rockies are hoping to keep him in left field this season, which should help him get more comfortable with the warning tracks.
''You know what would help me?'' Gonzalez said. ''If Dexter Fowler plays 162 games in center field.''
That's the plan, and Cuddyer is penciled in as the everyday right fielder, leaving Gonzalez in left.
''I would love to stay in one position,'' Gonzalez said.
And off the DL.
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, 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.''
Follow AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton on Facebook and on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton