Looking for the magic

With Howard and Utley missing, Jimmy Rollins could be key.

(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

Shortly after the Miami Marlins made a major splash by signing Jose Reyes to a six-year deal worth $106 million, Jimmy Rollins used his Twitter account to offer congratulations.

"That was a great deal for him," Rollins said one day late in spring training.

Two weeks after the Reyes signing and six days before Christmas, Rollins re-signed with the Phillies for considerably less money, but still a substantial amount for a 33-year-old shortstop entering his 12th big-league season.

Rollins has no complaints about his four-year deal that is worth at least $38 million, but as gracious as he was after Reyes signed with an emerging National League East rival, the veteran shortstop is not about to concede anything.

That means he still believes the injury-depleted Phillies are more than capable of winning the division and that he is every bit as good as Reyes or any other shortstop.

"Only in negotiations," Rollins said when asked whether he thought Reyes was worth $68 million more than him. "Age only comes into play while you're negotiating."

Rollins, five years older than the 28-year-old Reyes, still believes he can duplicate his magical 2007 season, when he first declared the Phillies the team to beat in the NL East, then backed up his words by winning the league MVP award.

It's still amazing to look at Rollins' numbers - a .296 average, .875 OPS, 38 doubles, 20 triples, 30 home runs, 139 runs, 94 RBIs, and 41 stolen bases - from that season. As great as Reyes was at times for the Mets, he was never as good as Rollins was that one season.

"Do I have another MVP in me? Definitely, yes, I believe that," Rollins said.

He may be alone in that conviction, but the shortstop has never been a more important piece of the puzzle for the Phillies than he is now. With second baseman Chase Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard out indefinitely, the Phillies need Rollins to be healthy and at his best from opening day until the final day of the season.

By hitting him third to start the season, manager Charlie Manuel is telling Rollins he needs him to produce runs with his bat even more than with his legs. Rollins has batted third in 67 games during his career, hitting .248 with one home run and 21 RBIs. Those are not numbers that will make people forget about Utley.

Rollins will not be asked to play 162 games like he did during that MVP season, but they'll need him on the field more than he has been the last two years. Rollins said the injuries he has endured in recent years have prevented him from being the kind of player who is considered when it's time to vote for the MVP.

"You just have to be on the field," he said. "When you get hurt, one injury leads to another and you start finding ways to do things that lead to different habits. You alter your swing, you alter your stance, you learn new habits that you do in order not to feel hurt. You need to find a way to recognize that and get back to where you were at before those injuries. It's not like anybody just loses it. Sure, you slow down some as you get older, but I'm not slowing down."

One day during spring training, Rollins told a teammate his career was only half over. If true, that means he'll play well into his 40s.

"I was entirely serious," Rollins said.

For now, he's concerned only with the 2012 season, and he knows it's an enormous challenge for the team to win without Utley and Howard.

"We still have a good team," Rollins said. "It's not the same, by any means, but I'm not discounting our chances. It's going to be different. We didn't have a great team in '07 and we didn't have a great team in '08 and we found ways to win. Now, we're kind of back there. Then it was the staff that was always hurt, and now, all of a sudden, it's the guys with the bats. We have to find a way to execute."

And that starts with the shortstop who has been around since the turn of the century.


Contact Bob Brookover

at bbrookover@phillynews.com or on Twitter @brookob.