By Joe Giglio
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg shouldn’t have anything to prove on a baseball diamond. After all, the Hall of Fame second baseman dominated the sport for years, winning an MVP award and nearly lifting the Chicago Cubs to unprecedented success in the 80s.
Yet, despite a baseball career littered with accolades, Philadelphia’s new leader is treating his seat in the dugout like he did every inning at second base during his time in the National League.
The Sandberg vs. Jimmy Rollins drama emanating from Clearwater makes for bombastic headlines, “no comments” that profile as the exact opposite, and further distraction for fans in Philadelphia that could soon be paying to watch one of the league’s worst teams.
Beyond the play-by-play of how or why Rollins wasn’t in three consecutive Grapefruit League lineups this week, an underlying theme has emerged from Phillies camp: Like it or not, this is Sandberg’s team now.
Charlie Manuel’s attitude and demeanor couldn’t be further from Bright House Field. For fans who want the Phillies to play a different brand of baseball in 2014, that’s probably a wonderful thought. For veterans — like Rollins — expecting to go about their day-to-day business without input from the coaching staff, it’s a sobering reality.
Rollins is too smart and prideful to take on Sandberg past this week. If he does, he’ll lose. Not just 2014 at-bats, but also a vesting option on his contract that will automatically activate if the 35-year-old shortstop makes 600 plate appearances this summer.
When dissecting the Sandberg-Rollins fallout, look to how the manager handled his business. If it was a precursor to future issues within the clubhouse, an uncomfortable season could be ahead for the 25-man roster.
Sandberg’s reasoning for benching Rollins is irrelevant. The purpose matters much more. As the skipper traverses through his first spring training as the main man in charge of the team, it’s clear that he’ll do whatever it takes to win in 2014 and beyond. For the first time in a long time, the recent past doesn’t matter within the decision making process in the Phillies dugout.
When the season starts, prepare to replace “Jimmy Rollins” with “Ryan Howard” or “A.J. Burnett” or “Jonathan Papelbon” in talk radio discussions of manager vs. player.
Howard’s issues against left-handed pitching are well documented, but Charlie Manuel refused to make the former league MVP a platoon player. As Sandberg effuses praise upon Darin Ruf in Clearwater, the natural right-handed complement to a Howard platoon becomes more evident by the day.
Last year, despite a 3.30 ERA in Pittsburgh, Burnett was critical of Pirates manager Clint Hurdle deploying radical defensive shifts across the infield. If the veteran pitcher had bothered to look at the numbers, he would have noticed a strategy saving his team runs. Instead, it became a point of contention.
Ironically, the Phillies have begun deploying defensive shifts this month in exhibition games. With Sandberg attempting to coerce extra wins out of a flawed roster, expect more of this in April and May. Also, expect Burnett to offer a critical comment or two.
It’s been surmised that Rollins’ comment about wins and losses in March may have been the precursor to a benching. If that’s truly what ticked Sandberg off, then get set for a fun summer if Papelbon talks about a lack of adrenaline when pitching in tie games or in non-save situations.
Over the next few months, Sandberg’s style is going to become abundantly clear to Rollins and a cast of veteran teammates: the past is over. With a manager eager to prove his worth, awkward moments are inevitable.
Time will tell if the strategy leads to more wins along the way.
Joe Giglio is a host on WIP and WFAN, and covers MLB as a Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Find him on Twitter @JoeGiglioSports. Catch Joe’s next show on WIP Friday night at 10 p.m.