SO NOW that Jimmy is a Phillie again, the next order of business is this: Do you continue to bat him leadoff? After a season that ended via a shutout, followed a few days later by your general manager saying, "I think abilitywise, there is no question in my mind . . . this is a championship-caliber lineup with championship-caliber players. I think we have to go about it a little differently,'' isn't some of that a re-evaluation of how you put the pieces together?
I'll say it again: Re-signing Jimmy Rollins would have been a great move even if the fourth year were guaranteed, even if the money were a little more. There simply are not that many shortstops who can make the plays he does, run the bases as he can, provide uncanny pop for a man just a tad too big to be a jockey. That he is a veteran at a key position, a guy Ruben Amaro Jr. yesterday touted for his "calming presence,'' that he plays big in big games, is all gravy. People who weigh his maddening impatience at the plate and occasional issues with effort and punctuality to be more significant than all of that - well, they're just wrong.
That said, I am not sure the lineup Amaro is looking for starts with J-Roll anymore. I think it starts with Chase Utley, at least on nights they face a righty.
First and foremost, Utley is more patient. Only Ryan Howard saw more pitches per at-bat than Utley's 3.89 average last season, and that was in a year in which injuries sapped him of both strength, and early on, at least, speed. Presuming he's the guy who ended the season, and assuming his 30-homer days are behind him, Utley is in many ways a perfect leadoff hitter. He wastes good pitches, is fast enough to steal and reach third on a well-placed single. He can set the tone that Amaro harped about when it all ended so badly in October.
Utley's career on-base percentage is 48 points higher than Rollins'. His advantage over Shane Victorino in that category is only 33 points, but again, your eyes tell you Utley is a much tougher out.
So why not try it? Especially at the start of a season in which your cleanup hitter still will likely be convalescing, a season in which more will be expected of such players as John Mayberry Jr. and perhaps, Domonic Brown, a season in which you are just not sure what to expect from Placido Polanco, now 36.
I would bat Utley first against righties, and either Rollins or Victorino - whoever's in a better groove - first against lefties. If both are going well, it's Rollins. If not, he slides to the third hole.
Yesterday, Rollins said he was never told where the Milwaukee Brewers planned to bat him had he accepted their 4-year deal. Maybe the two-hole, he mused.
"Whether it's the one, or the two spot, I've never, ever been opposed to that,'' he said. "I can still get on base, steal bags, not worry about big, slow guys being in front of me. So over the course of this contract, as long as I'm able to steal bases, have an impact on the game, change the way a pitcher delivers the ball to the plate, I'll be at the top."
There is no doubt that he would prefer to be at the tippy top. There is little doubt that Utley would prefer not to. But Amaro's mandate to "go about it differently" should not only be about the batting-cage wisdom imparted by Greg Gross and Charlie Manuel. If Tony La Russa and the Cardinals taught us anything this past postseason, it is that healthy lineups can be tinkered with, and tinkered with again.
Presuming better health in 2011 than they had in 2010 - "a big if," Amaro said of his veteran squad - the lineup should try to become more flexible, especially at the start when Howard likely will be missing and the pitching staff is likely to buy plenty of trial and error. Maybe Utley becomes a lesser player at the top and Rollins struggles behind him. Or maybe they become a handful that buys people such as Mayberry better pitches, allows him to finally convert that potential of his.
It's worth a try, anyway, if you truly hope to go about things differently this season.