Jimmy Rollins at shortstop and Jim Thome at first are carved in granite. The rest of the infield hinges on the health of third baseman David Bell's back. If Bell is healthy – and he says he is – then he'll be the same anchor at third he was in San Francisco, with his clutch hitting, strong leadership skills and unparalleled professional acumen. Baseball men around the league insist Phillies fans have not yet seen the real David Bell. His contributions extend beyond his stats.
Should Bell not be 100%, the Phillies will likely deal in the same way they did last year: move second baseman Placido Polanco to third and start Chase Utley at second. Or they could go to a platoon system with Utley at second and Shawn Wooten at third, moving Polanco back and forth. However, those are not ideal long-term scenarios – they weaken the team defensively – and Utley could be used as part of a trade package for an experienced third baseman.
Our Phillies Preview series continues with a look at the infield which, if all the pieces fall into place, could be the most exciting since Rose-Trillo-Bowa-Schmidt.
Jim Thome – L/R
Last year: Thome came to Philadelphia as the most ballyhooed free agent since Pete Rose, and did not disappoint. He led the league in homers with 47, scored 111 runs and drove in 131. He hit .266, about 20 points below his career average, but was adjusting to a new league at the age of 32. Considering he carried the team on his back in September, most fans didn't even notice. Like most sluggers, he went through his share of slumps, but won the hearts of the fans with his even-keeled disposition, work ethic, and hustle. And speaking of his back, the health of which was the biggest question mark surrounding his signing, it was never an issue outside of the Astro-concrete in Montreal. Thome was a living legend in Cleveland, and quickly showed Philadelphia why.
What could go right: Thome has another year like the ones he's had the past eight.
What could go wrong: His back flares up and costs Thome games, which would leave the Phillies with a gaping hole in the middle of their lineup.
Outlook: Thome has been the model of consistency for about a decade, and there's no reason to think he won't be again. With a year in the Senior Circuit under his belt, he may even improve.
Placido Polanco – R/R
Last year: Polanco was probably the Phillies' most pleasant surprise in 2003. Since coming over from the Cardinals in July of 2002 in the Scott Rolen deal, he has impressed the fans and the team with his baseball sense and professionalism. Although limited to 122 games due to injuries last year, he set career highs with 14 home runs and 63 RBI. When David Bell went down in July, Polanco, ever the good soldier and despite playing Gold Glove-caliber second base, moved to third without complaint. He does not have blazing speed, a cannon arm, or Herculean power, but does the things it takes to win ballgames. Little wonder his teammates considered him the club's MVP.
What could go right: Polanco plays a full year at second base, hitting .300, winning a Gold Glove, and making the All-Star team.
What could go wrong: Really, the only problem that can be foreseen is that Bell becomes a non-factor and Polanco gets shuffled between second and third so often it begins to affect him at the plate.
Outlook: Polanco was initially only supposed to keep second base warm for Chase Utley, but surprised everyone (except for those in the St. Louis organization, who knew what they were giving up) and played himself into the Phillies' plans for at least 2004 and possibly beyond. A .294 lifetime hitter, his popularity should only increase, as underappreciated pros like Polanco only become more and more ingratiated into the collective consciousness of the fan base. He is an asset, one the Phillies should consider signing long-term.
Jimmy Rollins – S/R
Last year: Rollins was spectacular in the field, infuriating at the plate. He plays an elite shortstop, with great range and a strong arm. But he was undisciplined at the plate, swinging for the fences, chasing high fastballs, and popping up and striking out far too much. With the speed of a leadoff hitter, Rollins hit himself out of that role by displaying a nose guard's mentality in a slot receiver's body. He did set career highs in doubles with 42 and RBI with 62, but the latter is more attributable to hitting lower in the order than to his hitting prowess.
What could go right: Rollins becomes the top-of-the-order sparkplug he could be, setting the table for the mashers in the middle. He shows patience at the plate, bunts for base hits, raises his OBP to .360 and scores 100 runs.
What could go wrong: He reverts to his old ways, and the Phillies begin considering other long-term options at short.
Outlook: Rollins comes in to spring training with a new attitude, inspired by watching Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo ignite the Florida Marlins' offense in the postseason and by working with Tony Gwynn in the off-season. If Rollins' new mindset translates to the field, the Phillies could have the most dangerous lineup in baseball.
David Bell – R/R
Last year: Bell's back cost him half the season, and limited his production the other half. He hit only .196 for the year, far below his career average. The domino effect of his injury has been well-documented, and was felt throughout the organization.
What could go right: Bell fully recovers from his injury and becomes the player the Phillies inked to a four-year, $17 million deal.
What could go wrong: His back continues to affect his play, causing the Phillies to again shuffle their lineup to a less-than-ideal situation.
Outlook: All reports say Bell will be ready to go for 2004. If he is, he will solidify the infield, the lineup, and the clubhouse.
Tomas Perez – S/R
Last year: Perez again was the übersub, playing all four infield positions and appearing in a career-high 125 games. He struggled as a pinch-hitter, though, hitting only .162 in 37 at-bats. But he helped assuage the loss of Bell, starting 36 games at third and hitting .273 at the hot corner.
What could go right: Perez continues his solid role-playing and improves his pinch-hitting. And maybe, if and after the Phillies clinch the division and home-field advantage, he fulfills his dream of playing all nine positions in a game.
What could go wrong: Perez made 327 plate appearances last year. If he makes as many in 2004, it would not likely bode well for the teams' fortunes.
Outlook: Is there any player out there who shows as much pure joy to be playing baseball for a living as Perez? He is valued for his enthusiasm, his versatility, and yes, his pies-in-the-face for unsuspecting interviewees. His love for playing the game is infectious, and he is simply great for the game.
Chase Utley – L/R
Last year: Utley dominated at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, hitting .323 with 18 homes in 431 at-bats. He had an auspicious major league debut, belting a grand slam in his first career start, but struggled in a starting role, hitting .239 with two homers in 134 at-bats.
Outlook: That depends on his role. Ideally, he would spend 2004 as a bench player and twice-a-week starter, giving the Phils a power bat from the left side off the bench and David Bell and Placido Polanco the occasional rest, and getting 250-300 at-bats while gaining major league seasoning. Or, circumstances dictate Utley become a full-time starter and he blossoms into the .300-25-100 hitter he has the potential to be. The Phillies may decide he may benefit more from another year at AAA, but considering his domination of that level, that may undermine his confidence and do more harm than good.
Should the Phillies lose one their starters for an extended period of time, they would likely look outside the organization for a replacement, as they really have no major-league-ready infielders in their minor-league system. Shortstop Anderson Machado, first baseman Ryan Howard and third baseman Juan Richardson are the remaining infielders on the 40-man roster, but none appear to be ready, and the Phils are historically loathe to rush prospects. Howard may be the best bet, but only if the team feels he can make a Pujols-like adjustment to the majors. Otherwise, the Phillies would go shopping.