Note to Rockies: Is Helton free?

April 19, 2005|By Laura Vecsey

IT'S BEEN more than a year since the Orioles identified first base as a prime location for a serious talent upgrade. The platoon of Jay Gibbons and Rafael Palmeiro so far this season has done little to extinguish that desire.

Needed: More offense. Better defense.

So with 13 games gone, we look back and remember the parade of candidates who the Orioles had hoped would take the job, and the money, to play first base at Camden Yards:

Derrek Lee. Richie Sexson. Carlos Delgado. Troy Glaus, had he been willing to move from third to first.

Great interviews, serious negotiations, stout offers. Nothing.


As aggressive at the plate and on the bases as the team has been so far this season, the Orioles ought to continue that mode in one other significant category.

We're talking phone lines, as in: calling Colorado.

The Orioles say they are willing and eager to take the super-talented Todd Helton, complete with monstrous contract, off the hands of the Rockies - if and when the Rockies raise the white flag.

That could be any day now. Or at least by June. The Orioles could sure use the 31-year-old first baseman against all the National League teams during that first stretch of interleague play.

The sooner, the better for this serious upgrade, especially after seeing how the Yankees took their frustrations out on the Devil Rays last night, pummeling Tampa Bay after suffering a sweep in Baltimore.

The way Yankees boss George Steinbrenner is steaming, the Orioles might find the Yankees in the Helton sweepstakes, too. Just because they've got Jason Giambi (at $120 million) and Tino Martinez doesn't mean the Bombers won't be lurking if and when Helton hits the market. Surely, Steinbrenner will let us know, via press release, his intentions in this area.

Meanwhile, the Orioles have run the numbers and figure that Helton's presence would swing a significant number of games from the loss to the win column. The Orioles call Helton one of the three best first basemen ever. He is wanted here.

The question is whether the Rockies can take the heat from their fans and do the right thing for the long-term benefit of that foundering franchise. Sometimes love means never having to say you're sorry. The Rockies' front office ought to try that on their already disenchanted fan base.

The Rockies (2-10 after last night's loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks) are nothing more than Todd and the Toddlers, with no other star player to speak of. Already, the Mile High team has sunk to the depths of the standings.

Helton might be a franchise player who thought his nine-year extension would keep him in Denver until 2011, but a quality player like him can't possibly bear this new fate. No one to drive him in. No one to pitch.

Another point in the Orioles' favor is that there's little way the Rockies can justify paying Helton an average of $15.7 million a year, not when they're at ground zero in terms of talent, or the lack of it. The Rockies need to strip naked and rebuild with prospects stockpiled from helpful trade mates.

Enter the Orioles, with offer No. 1 for Helton:

Gibbons, outfielder Nick Markakis, starting pitcher Hayden Penn and lefty reliever John Parrish.

The Orioles would make that deal in a heartbeat. They might even throw in Sidney Ponson, with cash.

Ponson's troubles have done nothing to inspire confidence in him. His solid opener in New York was followed by a shellacking in Tampa Bay, leaving the club with little hope that Ponson will ever overcome his personality and penchant for trouble.

He's needed to eat up innings, at very least, but his 70-81 career record and continued inconsistency could be as much a liability as an asset. If the Rockies want him, the Orioles might oblige.

Is it too early to make that call on Ponson or the situation at first base, should Helton become available?

It's never too early, not after the Orioles made a dent against the Yankees this infant season. With some rousing early victories, the wheels have started to turn. Maybe, just maybe, the Orioles are ready to step up and swing with the big boys in the American League East.

Certainly, the Orioles are in a position to make this deal. Money is left from deals turned down. Money is freed up after Peter Angelos' settlement with Major League Baseball on TV rights.

Living proof of the Orioles' seriousness about upgrading the club and contending, soon, could come in the form of Helton. It would be a gigantic step in the right direction, turning one of the best lineups in the American League into possibly the best.

Now, it's about backup catcher, left field and No. 1 and No. 2 starting pitchers. ...

Maybe Helton has a slider.

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