Phils need Rollins to produce in middle of the order

The Phillies need erstwhile leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins to produce out of the No. 3 spot in the batting order.
The Phillies need erstwhile leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins to produce out of the No. 3 spot in the batting order.
Posted: April 03, 2011

The clubhouse doors swung open Friday, and the media shuffled in. A handful of Phillies were inside - lingering and talking and waiting, mostly. Off to the right, near the back, one player sat alone. Timing and patience have given him trouble in the past, but he got this particular moment exactly right.

When a good-size audience had finally gathered - a mix-and-match assemblage of reporters and players and team personnel - Jimmy Rollins rose from his chair. It was a little like a curtain going up on a planned production. Rollins reached into his locker, deep into the back where he had something hidden, and grabbed a new garment for a special unveiling. And then it was time: With a smirk, he donned a plush white bathrobe with red pinstripes made to look like a proper Fightin's uniform. It had the usual Phillies script across the front, and on the back was his name and number.

Rollins, in his uni-robe (trademark pending), strutted across the clubhouse. Everyone noticed - Rollins made sure of it. For a guy who was largely invisible last year, it was some powerful symbolism.

Baseball is a stat-heavy sport. The game's truth is often rooted in numbers, but not all important data come in handy digital form with nerd-tailored abbreviations. For some players, the intangible - principally, attitude - is equally important.

If swagger is any indication, Rollins - who, before spring training really started, gave another bold and patented prediction about the Phils winning 100 games - might be heading toward a bounce-back year. That would be an excellent development for the Phils. On a team full of question marks, it sure would help if Rollins served as an answer.

A nagging leg injury kept Rollins out of the lineup quite a bit last season; he appeared in a career-low 88 games. The Phils will need more from him this year, a lot more. This just in to the Page 2 breaking-news desk: Chase Utley is out indefinitely, and Jayson Werth has long since headed south for this summer and all the ones to follow. Because of that, a man who has been a leadoff hitter for much of his career - in practice, if not always in approach - will be forced into a different role.

At least for now, Rollins will have to drive in runs and hit in theNo. 3 spot. Only a couple of seasons ago, Rollins bristled at being dropped in the lineup. He was defiant about being a leadoff man. If he's still displeased, he's done a good job keeping it to himself.

Not that he has a choice. Charlie Manuel has made it clear that he'll move the pinstriped pieces around as he sees fit. Manuel has said publicly that he thinks Rollins will be just fine this season - if not better than fine. During spring training he told The Inquirer's beat writers that Rollins "is a guy who has knocked in 90 runs before, and he did that in the No. 1 hole. So why can't he do it in the No. 3 hole?"

You wouldn't expect anything else from Manuel. He has always been - to his great credit and, at times, his detriment - the biggest advocate for his players. Maybe he believes what he said about Rollins, or maybe it's just another motivational technique. Either way, not everyone is quite so confident in the Phils shortstop.

Rollins is in the final season of a six-year, $46.5 million deal. The thinking generally goes that contract years squeeze the most out of players, but he's had limited success hitting third in the past. Entering this season, he had a .234 average in that slot for his career. And though Rollins said he's in terrific shape, he's also 32 now.

"He's slowed down," one major-league scout told me. "He plays a demanding position. He's still a great fielder, but no matter what anyone says, that takes a toll on you at the plate. You have to wonder about his bat speed. He's never been a very selective hitter. Look up and down the lineup. When he was a leadoff hitter, if he wasn't going right, you could move [Shane] Victorino up there. With Utley out, who else is going to hit third? Charlie doesn't have many options."

And so it will be Rollins for now. He is a leader and an integral part of any potential success. Last year, he was absent or underproductive, but the Phils won 97 games anyway. This season, it seems far less likely that they'll be able to carry Rollins. He'll have to do a significant portion of the lifting himself.

Rollins wore another piece of clothing in the clubhouse that signaled he understands all that. It was a red Nike T-shirt with a simple but important message stamped on the chest in black block letters: "I'm that dude."

He'd better be.


Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or gonzalez@phillynews.com

Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gonzophilly

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