The Importance of Being Jimmy Rollins

Like it or not, the key to the Phillies season is Mr. 100 Wins

There have been so many unfortunate distractions for Phillies fans this spring that it has been practically impossible for them to focus on the one person who will determine whether the team thrives or dives.

Here’s a hint: He doesn’t pitch.

He isn’t injured, either.

And he doesn’t have a mammoth contract, at least in relation to many of his teammates.

I speak, of course, of Jimmy Rollins. With Chase Utley likely out for a long time—maybe the whole season—Brad Lidge beginning the season on the shelf (again), the outfield situation still in flux and Placido Ballgame’s elbow something of a concern, Rollins becomes vital to the team’s success. In fact, he is the most important player on this team, especially with Utley unavailable.

Let’s start with his early-March prediction that the Phillies would win 100 games. One would imagine he knew at the time that Utley’s knee was not merely dinged, so the brash prognostication was not likely based on an expected monster contribution from the second baseman. Rollins couldn’t have been forecasting triple-digit success based on what he figured would be a 30-homer, 90-RBI season from Ben Francisco, either. And as much as the Philadelphia area has become consumed with the “Greatest Pitching Staff Ever,” it’s not unreasonable to think a veteran of 10 full big-league seasons would understand that no quartet of pitchers is capable of winning big by itself. [SIGNUP]

Nope, Rollins was no doubt expecting big things from himself, and that’s good. He is, after all, in the last year of a five-year deal signed back in 2006 and needs to produce if he wants to stay in Philadelphia—at least at a premium. Rollins has backed up his big talk in the past, so he has a track record. But Phillies fans are not being disloyal by wondering whether the shortstop will be able to put up this year.

It’s no secret Rollins’ production has slid considerably since his out-of-nowhere MVP season in 2007, when he established career highs in hits, runs, homers, RBI, triples and slugging percentage—numbers he hasn’t come close to replicating since. Rollins’ batting average, slugging percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging) have dropped each year since 2007, and Rollins has played 154 games in only one of the past three seasons. In other words, anybody expecting a big season out of Rollins is relying more on faith—and the shortshop’s motivation to get paid—than hard evidence that he will come through.

When Rollins was interviewed by Mike Missanelli on 97.5 The Fanatic earlier this month, he blanched at the idea that he would try to be more of a classic leadoff man. You know the one, willing to walk more than strike out (something he did once in his career: during his truncated 2010 season), able to slap pitches for singles instead of swinging for the fences and generally interested in getting on base first and triggering success. Rollins said defiantly that he wasn’t changing for anybody.

It’s one thing to believe in yourself, Jimmy, but when the evidence of your decline is rather compelling, it’s not a bad idea to reconsider your approach. America has become a nation of egomaniacs, and self-confidence has replaced self-analysis as a default setting. Change is often viewed as weakness, so people cling to their stubborn views of what’s successful, even when convincing arguments that favor a new perspective mount. Perhaps Rollins was sandbagging people, and he plans to adjust his style. He already did that with his off-season regimen, choosing to focus on improving his strength and flexibility for the first time.

If Rollins can get on base and start some mayhem, the Phillies will be in business. He’ll allow Polanco to move him around and help create opportunities for Ryan Howard to see some fastballs he can drive. This is not a secret. But at a time when the Phillies will be without big guns Utley and Jayson Werth (perhaps the Phils should have focused on signing him before deciding to give a 36-year old Howard $23 million in 2016) Rollins must be more than just competent. He has to be great. For a guy who has spent the past three years struggling to stay healthy and produce when he is in the lineup, that’s tough to imagine.

An aside: I think part of his problem the last three years has been some envy over bigger deals given to teammates, even though his contract was a biggie when it was signed. He won’t get a bank-breaker next year, even if he has a phenomenal 2011, but he will get a good deal as a reward.

Since Rollins wants to get paid, he came to spring training in great shape. Now, he has to prove that he has enough left to be a difference-maker at the top of the lineup, rather than a veteran scuffling through a final hurrah in his long-time home. The season will turn on how the Rollins story plays out.

* * *

Now on to the business of forecasting. The Phillies will not win 100 games. But they will win the NL East. They’re helped by a National League that does not include a mighty juggernaut poised to mount a major challenge. And don’t give me the Giants. They may be confident after last year’s Cinderella story, but you can’t expect Cody Ross and Pat Burrell and new pickup Miguel Tejada to catch the magic twice -– no matter how good their pitching is. The Phils will win the East, reach the World Series –- and lose to Boston.

Unless Rollins has an MVP season. Then it’s parade time, baby.


* Three cheers for Virginia Commonwealth and Butler for sticking it up the noses of the big-conference shills who think a tournament with mediocre Colorado, Alabama and Virginia Tech is better than true Madness. Can those myopic folks finally see that parity is all over the game? Probably not. Get ready for more nonsense next March.

* The Sixers learned the difference between a contender and a so-so team Friday in Miami when the Heat hit the gas in the fourth quarter and sped away. As for lessons learned in Sunday’s ugly home loss to the crappy Kings, look no further than a 58-36 rebounding deficiency and lousy defense. The Sixers aren’t great and can’t take anyone -– even Sacto -– for granted.

* Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen summed up the team’s predicament succinctly after last night’s 2-1 loss to Boston: “We only have seven games left. You can’t go into the playoffs playing up-and-down hockey.” He isn’t kidding. If the Flyers think they can mount a serious Cup challenge playing the kind of erratic hockey they have been, they’re dreaming. It’s time to tighten up or face the consequences.