When Placido Polanco returned to town as a free agent before the 2010 season, the best offense in the National League was supposed to get better.
With Polanco batting second, the switch-hitting Shane Victorino could move down to seventh in the batting order and the Phillies would be lethal from top to bottom.
And they were.
For six entire games.
Then Jimmy Rollins strained his calf muscle running wind sprints before the 2010 home opener, and an avalanche of injuries has followed ever since.
The Phillies' daily lineup card has become known as the Charlie Manuel Shuffle over the last two seasons, and a big part of the problem has been the missing two-hole hitter.
Polanco, 36, averaged 145 games in his final three seasons with the Detroit Tigers, including a career-high 153 games when he won a Gold Glove as a second baseman in 2009.
It's no wonder general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was so excited after Polanco signed a three-year, $18 million contract that includes a $5.5 million option for 2013.
At the news conference announcing Polanco's signing, Amaro extolled all the virtues of his new third baseman: Great defensive player, team-oriented, savvy contact hitter who is perfect for the two hole.
It was all true, but in two seasons with the Phillies, Polanco has missed 70 games because of an assortment of injuries, including one that required double-hernia surgery this past offseason.
Even when Polanco was in the lineup last season, he was unable to drive the ball into the gaps, and he was not close to the player he had been. After batting .398 in April with nine extra-base hits, he hit .243 with 10 extra-base hits the remainder of the season.
By the time the postseason arrived, Manuel had moved Chase Utley from third to second in the order and placed Hunter Pence in the three hole. Polanco was moved down to seventh in the order and went 2 for 19 during the Phillies' five-game division series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
With Utley and Ryan Howard out, Polanco will be back hitting second in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates. All signs throughout spring training pointed to Polanco's being back on track. Not even a week off because of a sprained left ring finger was able to dampen his enthusiasm.
"Maybe if I was more of a rookie, but I've been through a lot of things, and after a while you learn how to handle those situations and you take the positive things out of it," Polanco said. "So I'm happy this happened now rather than in the season. I'm happy it's the left hand rather than the right [throwing] hand. I only missed a week with what was almost a dislocated finger, so I feel great."
As much as the injuries hindered Polanco over the last two seasons, he remains positive about those years, too.
"The first year, I hit .298, we went to the playoffs and I played good in the playoffs," Polanco said. "Last year, I was in the All-Star Game, I got a Gold Glove, but it could have been better. There is always room for improvement.
"You do think of the negative things, but only as a way to improve, not to stab yourself with. That's the way I look at it. I think if you approach every at-bat with the same focus, at the end everything adds up and you're going to be fine."
It seems unlikely that Polanco will be back next season - his option includes a $1 million buyout - but he's not worried about it. That's the advice he gave to his friend Albert Pujols last year when he was in his free-agent season and it's also the advice he said he will eventually offer to Victorino and pitcher Cole Hamels.
"Honestly, I went through free agency before, and you go nuts if you think about it too much," he said. "I'm at the point where I know the Phillies have treated me great, and I know if they don't pick up my option it's because this is a business, and they have a different idea."
Contact Bob Brookover
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