Blake certain he can make difference in Denver
Club hopes veteran can stabilize third, increase production
DENVER -- Third baseman Casey Blake made three trips to the disabled list in 2011 with the Dodgers, but he was effective enough in those brief periods of health to believe he could make a difference for a team in 2012.Blake, 38, didn't have to look far for a team that needed a difference-maker at third. Blake stayed in the National League West by signing a one-year contract with the Rockies recently in hopes of being just that. "That's a big plus, being familiar with who you're playing, and I've played a lot of games at Coors Field," Blake said. "For the first time in my career, I'm playing in a hitter-friendly park as my home park. To be able to add to an already potent lineup is going to be fun." The Rockies hope Blake brings them good times by settling a troublesome position and increasing run production, something the Rockies struggled with last year. Blake attracted the Rockies' interest by convincing them his health has returned. Last year, he was slowed by back tightness that first flared during Spring Training, a staph infection in his left (non-throwing) elbow that required cleanup surgery in April, and a pinched nerve in his neck that knocked him off the field after Aug. 31 and required surgery. Blake hit .252 with four home runs and 26 RBIs in just 63 games. From 2003-09, Blake hit .267 with 144 home runs, 519 RBIs and a .438 slugging percentage. Even though he slumped to .248, but with 17 homers, in 2010 and was hurt most of last season, Blake finished 2011 with no doubt he could return to form if healthy. "Even though I went to the DL three times, each time I came back for however long I was healthy, I was productive and helped the team in some capacity," Blake said. The Rockies never expected to need to be rescued at third base. In recent years, two players developed by the organization, Garrett Atkins and Ian Stewart, flashed power and run production, only to disappoint in the end. Atkins is out of baseball, and Stewart was traded to the Cubs this winter. Last year, with Stewart spending much of the year in the Minors because of slumps and injuries, Rockies third basemen finished 14th in the 16-team NL, and 25th among 30 teams in the Majors, in OPS -- on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. The Rockies are putting their future hopes in another one of their products, Nolan Arenado, who turns 21 in April and led the Minors in RBIs last year and was the Arizona Fall League Most Valuable Player. Arenado will receive a look this spring, but he has not played above Class A and will need a prodigious spring to make himself part of the big league picture this season. There will be competition at third from other players. Chris Nelson, who has shown some potential in callups the last two years, has played well at third defensively, but he is likely to compete at second with DJ LeMahieu, who came from the Cubs in the Stewart deal. Jordan Pacheco, a catcher for much of his Minor League career, saw time at third during his late-season trial last year. Utility man Jonathan Herrera has played some third, but like Nelson is more in the mix at second than third. If Arenado breaks down the big league door, Blake still has value because he has played first, second and the outfield. However, Blake's experience and accomplishment should make him the front-runner at third. "We obviously like Casey a lot, and for many reasons," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "But he is also very versatile, so a lot can happen in the spring. We'll just see how things go." Blake has plenty of incentive to make sure third base goes his way. His contract calls for a $2 million base salary, but he can earn an extra million in incentives. He will earn $200,000 for reaching each of the following plate-appearance thresholds: 350, 400, 450, 500 and 550. Another incentive for Blake is a club that he sees as having playoff possibilities, despite the 73-89 disappointment the Rockies turned in last season. "They've had some success and have shown they can put together a bunch of wins in a row -- they know how to win," said Blake, who made postseason trips with the Indians in 2007 and the Dodgers in 2008 and 2009. "I wanted to be a part of a team that knows how to win, expects to win, and has been in the postseason and the World Series. They have a lot of good, young arms. If they stay healthy and pitch to their potential, we definitely are going to have the offense."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.