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What to watch for in the 2009 season


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In his first seven full big-league seasons, Colorado first baseman Todd Helton was putting together offensive numbers that placed him among the game's elite. He averaged 35 home runs and 118 RBI and hit .340.

Then came a sudden decline. In the next four years, he never hit more than 20 home runs. He never drove in 100 runs. And he even slid below .300.

The whispers began.

Turned out, Helton was suffering in silence — mentally from his struggles and physically from a lower back problem that he finally had to admit last year when the problem became so severe that he lost the feeling in his left leg.

Suddenly, it appears, the obits on Helton's career were premature. He underwent surgery late last September to alleviate the pressure on the nerve that runs into his left leg, and after a winter of rehab, and a delayed start to spring training there were signs that at the age of 36 Helton is ready to once again torment National League pitchers.

He is at the top of the list of players braced for a big comeback in the National League this season.

With the season about to begin it's time for National League High Fives in:

Comebacks to Watch

1. First baseman Todd Helton, Colorado, is vital to the impact of the Rockies lineup. No coincidence that with him limited to two games after the All-Star Break last year the Rockies didn't have a player drive in 100 runs.

2. Left-handed pitcher Mike Hampton, Houston, has emerged in the middle of the Astros rotation. He was limited to 25 starts and 147 1/3 innings the last four years in Atlanta because of continual arm problems. The seven-year, $124 million deal he originally signed with Colorado finally completed, Hampton returned to the Astros looking to go out with a positive memory.

3. Right-handed pitcher Aaron Harang, Cincinnati, is healthy and threw this spring like the guy who had back-to-back 16-win seasons (2006-07), not the one who stumbled through a 6-17 debacle in 2008.

4. Outfielder Jeff Francouer, Atlanta, is considered a Chipper Jones-type player with a take-charge personality. He's only 25, and headed into his fourth full big-league reason, showing no reason not to expect him to rebound from the one smudge on his resume.

5. Right-handed pitcher Chris Carpenter, St. Louis, is being counted on to bounce back from missing virtually two full seasons with shoulder and elbow problems to fill a middle spot in the Cardinals rotation.

Key Injuries

1. Left-hander Cole Hamels, Philadelphia, had a breakthrough season in 2008, capped by earning World Series MVP honors. He has battled elbow problems this spring and the Phillies keep saying it's only minor, and he'll start the first weekend of the season, but are they whistling in the dark? He spent so much time pitching in minor-league games during the spring, nobody was sure how strong he really is.

2. Left-hander Jeff Francis, Colorado, was the Rockies rotation king in their World Series journey in 2007, but struggled through a four-win season last year, and then, a week into spring training this year, Francis finally gave into the aches in his left shoulder and consented to surgery. Turned out he had a labrum tear. He might pitch in September, but anything before 2010 will be a bonus.

3. Third baseman Troy Glaus, St. Louis, was acquired when manager Tony La Russa couldn't take anymore of Scott Rolen, and pulled a third base swap with Toronto. Glaus, however, is in a rapid decline, and after missing 255 games the last six years with injuries, shoulder problems should sideline him until at least June this time around.

4. Right-handed pitcher Trevor Hoffman, Milwaukee, wants to prove a point to San Diego, which shoved the game's all-time save leader out the door without any fanfare during the off-season. Then he suffers a strained rib cage muscle during training. The Brewers are hoping he can return by April 11, but the reality is he had limited mobility while the muscle was healing and any attempt to hurry back can only aggravate an injury that seems to go into remission only to flare up when least expected.

5. Right-handed pitcher Tom Gordon, Arizona, was signed to provide veteran presence to the Diamondbacks' unstable bullpen situation. It's going to be a while before his impact is felt. Early in the spring Gordon's elbow flared up and the Diamondbacks will be lucky to have him back a month into the season.

Rookies to Watch

1. Right-handed pitcher Jordan Zimmerman, Washington. A second-round draft pick in 2007, he threw only 130 innings last year so the Nationals are going to have to be careful with how hard they push him in his first big-league season. He, however, did claim a spot in a rotation that averages 24 years of age, youngest in the NL.

2. Center fielder Dexter Fowler, Colorado. He never took a pitch at Triple-A, but after a slow start this spring, he responded to work with hitting coach Don Baylor, and forced his way onto the roster. He's the fourth outfielder, for now, but within two months look for Fowler to assert himself. He's special, having the options of baseball at Miami (Fla.) or basketball at Harvard when he came out of high school and opted to sign with the Rockies.

3. Center fielder Cameron Maybin, Florida. Was a key part of the deal that led the Marlins to dump Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera on Detroit. He has five-tool ability, and with the Marlins he will have ample opportunity to settle in.

4. Center fielder Colby Rasmus, St. Louis. Has a history of struggling to start a season, and will need manager Tony La Russa to show patience. Once he gets comfortable, though, Rasmus has shown an abundance of instinct and talent that has made him one of the game's elite prospects the last two years.

5. Right-handed pitcher Tommy Hanson, Atlanta. Is going to have to wait his turn, but the wait will be worth it. With a slider in the upper 80s and fastball in the mid-90s, Hanson can dominate, considering his ability to work ahead in the count.

Stories Waiting to be Told

1. Did the Dodgers sign the good Manny, who isn't afraid to enjoy the game, is the most feared hitter in the game and makes everybody feel at home? Or did they sign the bad Manny, who if he decides to pout about only getting a two-year deal, albeit for $45 million, can make life miserable for everyone around him like he did in Boston last summer?

2. Where's Jake Peavy going to be pitching down the stretch? It's not going to be San Diego if the Padres have their say about it. The Cubs are the most willing, but given the dearth of pitching and the quality of Peavy's arm, his trade value should grow by late July.

3. Tom Glavine is intent on showing he can go back home. Bad arm and all, he wants to make a lasting impression when he finishes off his career with Atlanta, where the eventual Hall of Famer began his career.

4. The Mets don't have an unproven bullpen to kick around anymore. So what's going to keep the Big Apple media on edge now that the Mets not only have Francisco Rodriguez to close up games, but former Seattle closer J.J. Putz to set him up?

5. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa is never afraid to take a chance. Wanting offense, he is going to take a flyer on Skip Schumaker's ability to move from the outfield to second base.

Five Contracts That Won't Go Away

1. Outfielder Kosuke Fukudome has three years and $38 million left on the four-year deal he signed to leave Japan, but in his first year with the Cubs he played his way into manager Lou Pineilla's doghouse, which has not been known to have an exit.

2. Left-handed pitcher Barry Zito, San Francisco, has five years and $99.5 million remaining on the record-setting seven-year, $126 million deal he originally signed, and the Giants are just happy he was able to claim the fifth spot in the rotation.

3. Outfielder Juan Pierre, Los Angeles, was signed because the Dodgers didn't trust that Gary Matthews Jr. was more than a one-year wonder, but knew what Pierre was — a contact hitter with limited power, great speed and one of the weakest arms in the game. That was good enough to get him a five-year, $44 million deal two years ago. But it isn't good enough to appease manager Joe Torre, who has pushed the hard-working Pierre into a dark corner.

4. Outfielder Carlos Lee, Houston, has power but is a DH-in-waiting with an NL team, and the four years, $74 million remaining on the six-year, $100 million contract he originally signed is a hefty chunk of a tightening Astros budget.

5. Outfielder Eric Byrnes, Arizona, someone was given a three-year, $30 million deal prior to last year. He's been slowed by injuries, but truth is, he is a fourth outfielder, and all the enthusiasm in the world won't hide that.

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