CLEARWATER, Fla. -- This Phillies spring has been filled with talk of the Big Four starting pitchers.
This Phillies spring, most recently, has been filled with Chase Utley updates -- and non-updates.
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But in this Phillies spring, we also ought to be thinking about Jimmy Rollins, because if the Phillies are about their great starting pitching and their outstanding but ailing second baseman, they're just as much about the shortstop capable of changing everything.
"When Jimmy hits, we win," one Phillies official said. "When Jimmy rolls, we roll."
When Jimmy Rollins is Jimmy Rollins, it changes the entire look of the Phillies. When Jimmy is Jimmy, it affects everyone.
"I don't get saves," closer Brad Lidge said with a smile. "When he's on base, I'm putting my feet up in the bullpen, because we're scoring 9-10 runs that night."
The hype about the rotation is justified. The concern about Chase Utley is real. The questions about a middle of the order without Utley or Jayson Werth are worth asking.
But it well could be that the issue that most affects how good -- or how great -- the Phillies can be is whether their shortstop and leadoff hitter can show that he can still be the same guy at age 32 that he was in his 20s.
It's also the question that most affects the Phillies' future, because Rollins is the one Phillies star who can be a free agent at the end of 2011. For an organization that has given out one long-term deal after another (including a five-year deal Rollins signed in 2005), Rollins is the guy up next for a decision.
He knows it. He also knows that if he hadn't been hurt last year, and if his numbers hadn't slipped, there would be no decision. He'd have a new contract.
Bounce-back player ... Brad Lidge: When most Fantasy owners think of Lidge, they still think of his 2009 meltdown, when he blew 11 saves with a 7.21 ERA and a 1.81 WHIP. He had his chance to redeem himself last year but was deemed a lost cause after posting a 5.57 ERA through July. But take a second look at his final numbers. Lidge was a completely different pitcher over the final two months. In 26 appearances, he had a 0.73 ERA and 17 saves in 18 opportunities. Finally recovered from the elbow and knee injuries that led to multiple surgeries last offseason, he was back to being the same lights-out pitcher who put together a perfect season in 2008. With the Phillies loaded pitching staff, Lidge is going to get the save opportunities of an elite Fantasy closer, but nobody is willing to trust him as more than a No. 2 option.
Bust ... Jimmy Rollins: The Phillies' aging nucleus gives them several candidates for this category, but Rollins is the most obvious. His batting average, slugging percentage and OPS have declined every year since his 2007 MVP season, to the point they were below average even by shortstop standards last year. He can still hit some homers and steal some bases, and those raw talents are enough incentive for Fantasy owners to approach him as an elite option at a position increasingly scarce on talent. But he'll have to reverse more than few trends to live up to that title. He'll also have to stay healthy. At 32, Rollins has reached the age when other notable shortstops -- most recently Edgar Renteria -- have fallen off the map, making him too much of a risk to justify his draft position.
Sleeper ... Domonic Brown: For whatever reason, manager Charlie Manuel doesn't trust Brown, giving him only 62 at-bats in a 68-day span after the Phillies promoted him in late July. And even with Jayson Werth out of the equation, Manuel planned to give the right field job to Ben Francisco or John Mayberry over Brown, who only sealed the deal by breaking his hand early in spring training. But with that disappointment comes new opportunity in Fantasy. The injury will be enough to scare most Fantasy owners away even though it's the same one that cost Troy Tulowitzki only five weeks last year. Brown is rated the fourth-best prospect according to Baseball America and is coming off a minor-league season in which he hit .327 with a .980 OPS, so clearly he offers something that journeymen like Francisco and Mayberry never could. The Phillies won't need long to realize that.-- Scott White
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"It'd be a done deal," Rollins agreed.
He says he doesn't worry about it. He says he's healthy now, that he can still run like he once did, and that he has no doubt he still can be the player he was a few years back. He hasn't shown that speed much this spring, but manager Charlie Manuel says confidently that he expects to see it any day now.
Rollins' teammates agree.
"He looks damn good right now," Lidge said. "I know he feels he has something to prove, and when he's got a chip on his shoulder, he can do special things."
Manuel knows that, too. With the strong possibility that Utley will miss at least the start of the regular season because of his sore right knee, Manuel has experimented with lineups, some of which have Rollins in Utley's former role as the No. 3 hitter.
He likes the fact that Rollins can drive in runs, well aware that he had 94 RBI in 2007, when he batted leadoff almost exclusively. But Manuel also knows that the Phillies lose something important if Rollins isn't atop the order.
There's a swagger that is part of this team, and it comes from Rollins. And there's a different feeling when it comes right at the start of games.
"It is a swag," Rollins said. "It's a confidence, a certainty."
"And it really does trickle down through the lineup," Lidge said.
It wasn't always there last year, in large part because Rollins wasn't always there. The Phillies still won 97 games, the most in the big leagues, but they scored the fewest runs they had in any of Manuel's six years as manager, more than 100 fewer runs than they did in 2007, Rollins' MVP season.
There were any number of reasons, and Rollins was far from the only Phillie who got hurt in 2011. But the fact is that he played only 88 games, was bothered all year by the calf and scored not even half as many runs as he did the year before.
Rollins said he only thinks about the calf now when he warms up for games, because that's when he hurt it last April. What he thinks about more is how good the Phillies could be.
"We have such a great opportunity," he said. "Nobody wants it to go by. We all understand what we have here."
They also all understand how big a part of it Rollins can be. They know how big a part of this Phillies renaissance Rollins has already been.
And the closer says he's fine with Rollins costing him a bunch of save opportunities.
"I'll deal with it," Lidge said, smiling again. "I mean, I'll take 50 saves. But I have a lot of fun watching our guys when they score 10 runs. If that happens, I don't care if I end up with 15 saves."
If Jimmy is Jimmy, maybe that does happen.
When Jimmy hits, they win. When Jimmy rolls, they roll.