Leading Off: Is J-Roll The Answer?

Buried under the spring training spotlight of the off-season acquisitions of Kevin Millwood, Jim Thome and David Bell was a question that had been bouncing around in many Phillies fans minds. Can Jimmy Rollins be the lead off hitter on this team?

After busting on the scene in 2001, Jimmy Rollins suffered through a "sophomore slump" in 2002. It appears that Larry Bowa took notice of Jimmy's struggles last year and that reflected on his lineup cards. He moved his lineup around quite a bit, rotating Placido Polanco and Ricky Ledee into the one hole on occasion with Rollins seeing time in the #2 spot and the #8 spot.

When you gauge the success of great lead off hitters your eyes should drift to three specific stat columns; batting average, on base percentage and bases on balls. Stolen bases can be factored in, but they depend on how willing the skipper is to turn his guys loose. Currently, Rollins has a .298 average, a .344 OBP and has walked 4 times. Polanco is hitting .367, has a .475 OBP and has walked 7 times.

While Rollins is my guy for the job, he needs to concentrate on the finer points of being a leadoff hitter. Perhaps a phone call to Lenny Dykstra and a discussion on the leadoff hitter's mentality would be in order. The line up should stay as it is - with the exception of the placement of the 3-4-5 hitters - partly because Polanco is better suited for the second spot. Would you rather see Polanco taking off from first with Rollins trying to poke the ball into the vacated hole at second base or vice versa? The better situation is to have Rollins on base with the speed while Polanco uses his ability to put the bat on the ball to put him into scoring position for the heavy hitters. Polanco also gives the Phillies a strong OBP out of the two hole to cover the the times Jimmy fails to reach base.

Another knock on J-Roll has been his tendency to strikeout. In 2001 he made the right turn back to the dugout from the batters box 108 times. He dropped that total to 103 in 2002. This year he has struck out 11 times already. Big strikeout numbers from power guys like Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome and Pat Burrell are part of the game, but not from a lead off hitter. Jimmy started the 2003 campaign 3-for-19 with a severe upper cut in his swing. Suddenly, he ripped Pittsburgh with a 5-for-6 day at the plate and the upper cut seemed to have disappeared. That started a seven game hitting streak, which ironically ended with Sunday's 13-1 win in Cincinnati. Let's hope it's a sign of things to come.

Each night when you settle into your Lazy Boy and hear Harry Kalas' golden voice deliver the starting line-ups, it's a list of strong, talented players in this Phillies lineup. No more Travis Lee or Marlon Anderson or even the unhappy Scott Rolen. These names make up one hell of a potent line up. In 2001 and 2002 the Phillies had a few star quality players but nothing compared to what we see now. That doesn't just mean stats, it means the clubhouse mentality and maturity level. Gone are the days of players rebelling because they couldn't take Larry Bowa's emotional style of managing. These days are filled with players who live, breath and talk the game of baseball. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this new outlook should be Jimmy Rollins. He can benefit from veterans like Thome and David Bell, instead of hearing Lee and Rolen rip into Bowa and members of the Phillies front office. These things might seem miniscule, but they really do matter. Three words to remember: Cohesion. Chemistry. Continuity.

The talent, mentality and maturity level on this 2003 Phillies team is going to help Jimmy Rollins on the field. He no longer has to press to put up huge numbers. He no longer has to pressure himself into providing too much of the Phillies offensive attack. He can concentrate on the little things in the game like bunting, slapping the ball to the opposite field and chopping the ball off of the Veteran's Stadium "flubber" to utilize his speed. Once Jimmy figures this out, he will be one of the better lead off guys in the game.

Some still may not believe Rollins is the man for the job at the top. But this season is young and Rollins deserves the chance to warm to the challenge just as we need to bear through the slow starts of Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell. If Jimmy isn't producing like a true lead off hitter by the All-Star break, then we can all worry. For now though, let's reserve our healthy chorus of boos for the likes of Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen and JD Drew. As the temperature rises in Philadelphia so will Jimmy Rollins. And when our Phightin's are battling for a World Series title in October, number 6 will be setting the tables with the best of them.

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