Phillies Need to Make Deal With Rollins

What would you pay the shortstop to stay?

Last month, I ran into a member of the Phillies front office at a Center City restaurant, and talk quickly turned to the team’s off-season moves. My chief concern was the fate of shortstop Jimmy Rollins. He was tight-lipped, of course—much like general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. always is in December—and deftly turned the tables on me. “You play GM,” he said. “What would you give him?” Rollins has reportedly been asking for a five-year deal; the team is said to prefer three. I split the difference and suggested four years. The exec nodded but kept his poker face intact. So it was encouraging this week when reports from the winter meetings in Dallas suggested that the Phillies were closing in on a contract with J-Roll. He’s a cornerstone player for this team, and while he’s headed for a decline in power and speed, he still has both tools when he’s healthy (and yes, that’s a big if). He also continues to be a clubhouse leader, and when you have a pitching staff like they do, you want a flytrap like Rollins who can scoop up anything near him and turns a double-play better than most.

Yet the Phils left Texas without a new contract for Rollins, and though I still think it’s critical to bring him back—especially considering the alternatives—even if they do, this is the team’s least-inspiring off-season since 2008. Yes, they lured All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon away from the Red Sox, and as much as I believe in Ryan Madson’s potential as a ninth-inning stud, Papelbon is an upgrade (even though every time I read his name, I hear it pronounced with a Boston accent—“Pehp-el-BAAHN!”).

The problem is that the Phillies didn’t need an arms upgrade. Some depth in middle relief would help, but what’s been lacking for the past two post-seasons, and for stretches throughout 2011, is offense. It’s no secret that the bats that once romped through the National League like Godzilla in downtown Tokyo have cooled. The Phils are older and injury-prone. Last season began with Chase Utley on the shelf; this year, it’s Ryan Howard who’ll miss significant time, with no guarantees he’ll be at full-strength when he returns. Jim Thome is back for a power boost off the bench, and Hunter Pence will have his first full season in right field. But Raul Ibanez isn’t aging in reverse, and Placido Polanco is destined for a few DL stints. For a team that’s struggled to find clutch hits when it counts recently, most of the guilty parties are still on Charlie Manuel’s lineup card.

That’s no reason not to sign Rollins, of course. With a four-year deal, he’d have a strong shot at eclipsing Mike Schmidt as the team’s all-time hits leader and would likely end up second in runs, all in fewer games played than the legendary third baseman. Keeping Rollins in red pinstripes isn’t just a nostalgia move; he’ll help the team win next season and hopefully beyond. Still, we saw what happened this year when having the best pitching staff in the majors wasn’t enough to carry the Phillies past the wild card round. It seems the front office is betting on a 2008 revival, when offense came from everyone, including some very unusual suspects (Eric Bruntlett, Joe Blanton and Matt Stairs, to name a few). Maybe Amaro, the David Copperfield of baseball GMs, still has something up his sleeve this off-season that will surprise everyone. With J-Roll on the roster, re-discovering their offensive mojo will still be a challenge in 2012. Without him, it might be impossible.