January 31, 2007
I thought I had been burned by baseball’s hot stove.For nearly a week one of the league’s pre-eminent first basemen was dangled in front of my beloved Red Sox. It was a virtual certainty: Todd Helton – probable Hall of Famer Todd Helton – was leaving the Mile High City for Fenway.A host of journeymen have manned the corner for the Sox in recent years so my elation, while premature, was hardly unfounded. And all it was going to cost – I thought – was two aging players with expiring contracts. Start printing the No. 17 home and road jerseys and painting those “Shelton (Conn.) loves Helton” signs. Start pondering a name change, Hilton, N.H. Was this a tease? Hot stove discussions typically are.As quickly as they heated up, the talks ended as abruptly as a Rockies season come October. The main point of contention: Boston was not willing to part with two young, vastly unproven arms.Helton is staying put in Denver, MLB’s equivalent of the witness protection program. Heartburn accompanied my disappointment – until I took a moment to reflect.Sure, Helton is a lifetime .333 hitter – tops among all active players – and would be the best first baseman since Mo Vaughn nearly a decade ago. Still, recent history indicates his career is in sharp decline. His batting average dropped 45 points from 2004 to 2006, and so, too, have his home run and RBI productivity. Take into account that his numbers might deflate further at sea level and, with 90 million remaining on Helton’s contract through 2011, it’s understandable that Boston was indifferent about making the deal.What about those two prized arms with whom the Sox could not find the heart to part? Boston native Manny Delcarmen surrendered 68 hits and 32 runs in 53 innings last season. And Craig Hansen, the highly touted Big East pitcher of the year in 2005, didn’t fair much better, giving up 32 runs in 38 innings and recording a 6.63 ERA. Apparently Boston isn’t concerned that Delcarmen’s already a Tommy John recipient or that he gave up seven earned runs in 1 1/3 innings in August – to the Royals. Delcarmen is 24 and Hansen just 23. Young power arms are at a premium these days (we saw how things worked out with Jonathan Papelbon last season). Are these guys the future? It’s hard to say, but the Red Sox need as many options in their bullpen as possible. The thought of Julian Tavarez closing games this summer is enough to activate my gag reflex.But let’s not get caught up in this deal’s logistics or the dollars and cents. Could Helton help Boston? Most likely. Could the move have furthered his career? Absolutely. Moreover, I saw this as an opportunity to save a high-caliber, high-class player from the the sport’s doldrums. The 33-year-old has toiled in obscurity for 10 seasons and has played on a winning team only once – a lackluster 82-80 campaign in 2000. The player who has three times finished in the top 10 in MVP voting remains largely unrecognizable to the casual fan.Helton’s willingness to waive his no-trade clause may be a hint that not all is kosher in the land of Coors. But seriously, who wouldn’t want to play for a perennial power instead of a perennial disappointment? Would you rather play alongside Manny Ramirez or Manny Corpas? Helton continues to say all the right things. He repeatedly insists he is content and is bent on bringing a championship to Denver. In a recent interview, he even referred to the Al Davis adage, “Just win, baby,” to describe the future of the organization. “Just be mediocre, baby,” would’ve been more appropriate. Rockies CEO Charlie Monfort says he wants to produce a winner, but what has he done this offseason? He signed Jeremy Affeldt, who posted a 5.26 ERA with the Royals, and agreed to a contract with beleaguered catcher Javy Lopez, among others. Lopez batted below the “Mendoza Line” for 18 games before the Red Sox waived him. Pitcher Jason Jennings was unloaded for a utility man and a young pitcher with a history of arm problems. What’s next? Is management thinking of coaxing Dante Bichette out of retirement? Some things never change. New England would have welcomed Helton much like Denver embraced Ray Bourque. But for now, Helton has his free time in October and the Rockies have their franchise player and his gargantuan contract hanging over their heads. While the relationship has yet to yield success, all indications are that both sides are happy recent trade talks soured – for now. We’ll see you in the All-Star Game, Todd, but not in the playoffs.Jon Maletz (aka “The Hammer”) can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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