Utley and Rollins: Bright Spots for 2005

There haven't been the big name free agents like Jim Thome, signing with the Phillies this winter. There hasn't been a huge trade to bring a player like Billy Wagner to town. In fact, some of the moves have been somewhat disappointing to many fans. Perhaps, the real excitement of the offseason is in thinking about the strong, young double-play combo that the Phillies should have for years to come.

Most Phillies fans are not expecting to get what they want this coming year.

The pitchers we had hoped for, the trades we had designed in our minds and the improvements we'd hoped for did not exactly come to fruition. We've gotten Jon Lieber, a veteran pitcher who certainly has the stuff to be dependable and productive. However, many had hoped for a shot at the younger Tim Hudson or the extraordinarily talented Carl Pavano, one of the best pitchers in the National League last year. We had set our sights on Carlos Beltran as our new centerfielder in some kind of feverish moment when we wondered if it was possible. It wasn't. Instead, we got veteran (A pattern you say?) Kenny Lofton, whom the Phillies also acquired from the Yankees. Lofton is a player who brings with him a less than respectable reputation in the clubhouse. Some hoped for a Mike Leiberthal trade. He did not produce at the plate last year and there have long been complaints about his defensive skills. But so far, it doesn't appear to be happening though GM Ed Wade did say they had "shopped" the longtime Phillies catcher around a little bit. Honesty is certainly not Ed Wade's strong point but I digress.

I realize that this coming season is not inspiring any real excitement in the hearts of Phillies fans and it is incredibly depressing when I turn on any of the number of sports talk shows and there is not a mention of the Phillies. From what I have seen and heard, no one is talking about us. So what do we focus on to ignite some kind of spark of hope as we await the start of spring training and the new regular season? The pitching? Lieber is our proposed ace even though he was a number five guy with the Yankees. Brett Myers had a serious lack of focus last season and there was a major dose of injuries both in the starting rotation and out of the bullpen. Our so called power hitters, Jim Thome and Pat Burrell, went through some serious dry spells and also faced the injury bug. Plus, Mike Leiberthal's hot bat from 2003 was not present in 2004. While Thome is always good for a helping of homeruns and Burrell started off the season in fine form, Thome batted .203 with RISP and Burrell's difficulties seemed to haunt him again in the second half of the season. No one is sure what to believe about Leiberthal. All in all there is simply not a lot to draw us in at this point. The ballpark trick isn't going to work now that it is a year old. Sorry Mr. Montgomery.

Chase Utley gets his chance in 2005 and figures to make the most of it. Utley and Jimmy Rollins give the Phillies an impressive double-play combo that they hope to keep in town for years to come.

What we can raise our weary heads for, I believe, are two players that for their own special reasons, are something to put our faith and interest in. For all of our cynicism and frustration, who can deny the excitement of the moment Chase Utley takes over at second base full-time as we have all been desperately anticipating? Utley was at times an absolute miracle worker in his at bats when Placido Polanco was given the day off or taken out late in a game. Utley batted .266 in 267 at bats and hit 13 homeruns and during the time Polanco was on the DL, Utley was so good and so productive that Polanco felt compelled to call former manager Larry Bowa to ask if he was still going to be welcomed back. Polanco was assured, but he seemed to sense what all of us did. There was of course a lot of talk in the press about the situation, which added fuel to the fire and certainly didn't make the veteran Polanco feel very at ease.

The reality is this: Chase Utley is one hundred percent primed and ready to be an everyday major league baseball player. The wait is over and he, as well as Philadelphia fans, have waited long enough. In all fairness to Polanco, he is a fantastic all around player. His defensive and offensive abilities cannot be denied and many clubs have shown interest in him. But the Phillies would like to keep Polanco in a reserve role and bring him off the bench on off days for Utley. They have offered him arbitration and right now it is unclear what he wants to do. Polanco has made it clear how difficult he would find not playing everyday and at this point St. Louis and Anaheim have expressed interest in him. A player like Polanco should not be in a reserve role. He is an excellent athlete and should be playing everyday. And that too goes for Chase Utley. As much as I would like to have both Polanco and Utley on the Phillies I will quote a famous song and say you can't always get what you want. In Utley we will get what we need and then some.

Jimmy Rollins is also on the verge of something big as he negotiates a long term contract with the Phillies, which is something I doubted he would ever be open to, since he had always preferred one year contracts. Rollins is an extremely savvy and ambitious person who knows his potential can take him anywhere. I am more than thrilled that he is now giving the Phillies pinstripes more of a commitment. His struggles early on last season didn't last long but during that period you could see him battling himself at the plate. He was extremely close with Larry Bowa, who told the press that Rollins believed he would bounce back doing the same things he always did that made him successful. His stubbornness could have led him wrong, but it is clear that he knew exactly what he needed to do. Once he got past the slump, he was a gem both offensively and defensively. He hit his career best in RBI and his OBP was a healthy .348. His field work was superb and he certainly deserved consideration for a Gold Glove. The issue now is where Kenny Lofton will bat and if Jimmy Rollins will in fact be the lead off hitter when Charlie Manuel makes out his first line-up card as the Phillies manager. It seems most likely that Lofton will bat second. Jimmy Rollins is the lead off hitter that Phillies fans have waited for since Lenny Dykstra and in many ways he is a lot like him; Fiery, energetic, fun to watch and a natural hitter.

Ed Wade's favorite words "championship caliber" actually applies to some of the players on this team and Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are examples of that. So as you tear your hair out wondering if we have a winner to field in the 2005 season just keep those two in mind. We may not have ourselves a "championship caliber" team but those two will bring the excitement in what could otherwise be a difficult and disappointing year. I'm counting on it.

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