Morneau ready to step in at 1st base for Helton

DENVER (AP) Justin Morneau wears Larry Walker’s old number and is stepping in for Todd Helton.

Just so it’s clear, though: He doesn’t expect to be the next Walker and certainly isn’t trying to make Colorado Rockies fans forget all about Helton, the everyday first baseman in the Mile High City since 1997.

Morneau can only be himself, a slick fielder who’s a four-time All-Star and former AL MVP.

That’s not too bad, either.

Still, the Rockies wouldn’t mind if Morneau channeled a little bit of those two Colorado icons to help them get back to the postseason. But that’s a lot of cleats to fill, especially when it comes to Helton, the franchise’s leader in virtually every offensive category.

Morneau’s goals are more modest: Slide seamlessly into to this potent lineup, one that includes good friend and reigning NL batting champion Michael Cuddyer, along with Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki.

The 32-year-old Morneau knows the comparisons to Helton are inevitable. No. 17 spent 17 seasons in purple pinstripes, endearing himself to the community. The team will honor Helton on Aug. 17 when they retire his number (although Helton’s first send-off will be hard to top, when the club gave him a horse in his last home game).

”From the outside looking in, it looks like I’m coming in to replace him,” said Morneau, who wears No. 33 because of Walker, his boyhood idol. ”But that’s not my thought process. My thought process is to just come in and be me and do what I can do.”

Cuddyer thinks Morneau will fit in just fine.

”If you think about the guy you’re replacing, you’re already not doing yourself a good service,” said Cuddyer, who was teammates with Morneau in Minnesota. ”He respects (Helton), but he also understands he has to go out there and be himself.”

Here are five things worth examining as the Rockies begin the post-Helton era:

STAYING HEALTHY: Gonzalez was succinct when summing up how vital it is for the Rockies’ stars to remain healthy for a full season.

”No. 1 key,” he said.

Lately, that’s been easier said than accomplished. Tulowitzki has played in 438 games of a possible 648 over the past four seasons because of an assortment of injuries that’s included a broken wrist, a serious groin injury and a broken rib.

Gonzalez dealt with a strained right middle finger last season, which affected his power. Even Cuddyer was sidelined at times with sore ribs and an inflamed cervical disk.

”If we all stay together and healthy, we’re going to be a tough team to beat,” Gonzalez said.

New reliever LaTroy Hawkins couldn’t agree more.

”We have to stay healthy. We need CarGo and Tulo to be in 150 games and not the number they were in last year,” Hawkins said.

CENTER STAGE: Just who will be roaming center field for the Rockies this season? That’s something manager Walt Weiss is still figuring out after a trade in December sent Dexter Fowler to Houston.

It could be Brandon Barnes, one of the players acquired in the Fowler deal. Or perhaps even Drew Stubbs, the veteran Colorado picked up from the Indians.

There are two in-house candidates as well, with Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson making compelling cases.

”One of the toughest decisions we have,” Weiss said.

STARTING ROTATION: The Rockies upgraded their rotation in the offseason, acquiring Brett Anderson from Oakland. He’s steadily settling in and could be the No. 2 starter, especially with Jhoulys Chacin dealing with a sore right shoulder this spring.

The opening day starter is hard-throwing lefty Jorge De La Rosa. Tyler Chatwood also will be counted on after a season in which he finished 8-5 with a 3.15 ERA.

”We’ve got a lot of good pitching here,” De La Rosa said.

REVAMPED BULLPEN: The bullpen was inconsistent last season, posting an NL-worst 4.23 ERA. So the Rockies made some major changes, adding Hawkins, who will compete with Rex Brothers for the closer’s role.

The team also brought in Boone Logan to add stability and hopes for a bounce-back season from Matt Belisle.

INCREASED COMFORT LEVEL: Of course Weiss had a lot to learn being a first-year manager in the majors last season. Weiss looking forward to this second go-around, simply because he knows what to expect on a day-to-day basis.

”The routine is a lot more familiar,” Weiss said. ”It’s knowing our club better that gives me some comfort.”

AP freelance writer Mike Cranston in Scottsdale, Ariz., contributed to this report.