Spokane Indians players benefit from Colorado Rockies legend Todd Helton minor league mentor role

After a long and storied career with the Colorado Rockies, when Todd Helton retired he decided he wanted some time away from baseball.

But that was in 2013 and at the end of a 17-year career for the five-time all-star, four-time Silver Slugger and three-time Gold Glove winner.

So, when the opportunity recently came up to contribute once again to the only organization that he’s known, he approached it with the same determination and concentration he did as a player.

The Rockies announced in April, after the start of the MLB regular season, that Helton would be joining general manager Bill Schmidt’s staff as a special assistant.

The role means different things in different organizations. During the Spokane Indians series against the Hillsboro Hops last week, Helton was in uniform before and during batting practice working with the first basemen on their footwork around the bag and giving pointers to the young sluggers taking their hacks.

Based out of his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, Helton manages his travels from there.

“When I retired, I was tired of baseball and I needed a break and never thought I would come back in this capacity,” he said at Avista Stadium on Thursday.

“But as the years passed, I started missing baseball more and more. I wanted to get back into the game, but I didn’t want all the travel that comes with it, you know, leaving every other week for weeks at a time. So, I still get to be at home and still get to work with young kids. And you know, that’s what they pay me to do now.”

He’s thrilled to be back on the diamond.

“I love it so far,” Helton said. “It’s my third minor league city I’ve been to this round and getting to know the players a little bit, getting to see what Minor League Baseball is all about now and it’s been great so far.”

Helton’s new role will include some draft preparation and scouting, but will mostly focus on field work in the minors.

“First baseman, that’s what I know about right?” he said. “But all the hitters, just watching them and seeing if there’s anything that they need to be corrected on or anything that they can do better.

“But I’m here to help them win games and they’ve won two games since I’ve been here, so I will take credit for that.”

Helton was selected by the Rockies with the No. 8 overall pick in the 1995 draft out of the University of Tennessee, so he knows one thing or two about coming up through the minors with expectations.

Helton managed those expectations well on the field, ending up as the Rockies’ all-time leader in runs (1,401), hits (2,519), doubles (592), homers (369) and RBIs (1,406) among other categories.

Helton came away impressed with first baseman Grant Lavigne at bat and in the field. As with most at the High-A level, Lavigne is a work in progress.

“It’s OK he’s not a slugger right now,” Helton said. “I mean, that’ll come with age, come with time, experience. He’s still hitting the ball the other way. He staying on pitches. (Class) A ball to me, and Double-A, are the hardest places to hit even, you know, even for the big leagues.

“You got a lot of guys who’ve got good stuff that don’t really know where it’s going. It’s hard to look one spot, one pitch and do something with it.”

Helton said the full impact of COVID on the minor leagues the past two years will be felt for a while.

“It set some people behind,” he said. “You see guys maybe going to the big leagues a little greener than in previous years. You also may see guys that are a little bit older get to the big leagues just because of the lack of time on the field.”

One of the players that stood out to Helton while he was in town was catcher Drew Romo. The Rockies’ top catching prospect, who was drafted with a defense-first reputation, is hitting .297 with five homers and 39 RBIs after hitting a go-ahead home run in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Hillsboro.

“He swings the bat very well – has a great approach, works on all the right things,” Helton said. “He could swing the bat at higher levels right now, I think.

“He has a great approach and a great work ethic – two things that you need for him to get to the big leagues.”

Another hitter with that potential is outfielder Zac Veen, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2020 draft. Helton hasn’t had much of a chance to work with Veen but said, “He’s swinging the bat fine, not too much he needs to work on.”

Veen, 20, has had his shares of ups and downs so far this season, with equal stretches of streaks and slumps. Helton said it’s par for the course with young players.

“That’s what the minor leagues are here for – so guys can hone their craft, can learn how to deal with failure,” Helton said.

“That’s part of the deal is learning how to fail. You know, learn how to minimize your bad stretches, and all that stuff you learn in the minor leagues.”