Rollins’ future depends on this season

Jimmy Rollins knows how owners think. Heck, he’s an owner himself, CEO of the Jimmy Rollins Entertainment Group, representing artists, publishing songs. He even talks like an owner sometimes, once telling the Philadelphia Daily News, “You get tired of dealing with divas.”

So next offseason, if the Phillies decide for whatever reason that they no longer want Rollins to be their shortstop, don’t expect him to go pouting into free agency. Rollins knows the Phillies’ payroll does not stretch to infinity, although it is getting pretty darned close.

“I do understand it’s a business,” Rollins said Sunday before going 3 for 3 with a solo home run against the Yankees’ CC Sabathia in a Grapefruit League game. “I have a little experience through the music side. You understand budgetary means, things you can do, things you can’t do.

“It isn’t all the time that you aren’t right or you don’t deserve it. (It could be), ‘You do deserve it, but there are limits to what we can do, and our future, it would be too much strain.’

“If I do what I’m supposed to do and I’m healthy, I’ll get signed somewhere, if not here. I’m not worried about that part. Just having a healthy season and feeling good, that’s the only thing I’m concerned with.”

No, this will not be Derek Jeter II, even though Rollins plays the same position as Jeter and also has served only one team. Rollins, 32, is four years younger than Jeter, a better defender, but not as accomplished a hitter or as iconic a figure. If he becomes a free agent, the stakes will not be as high as they were for Jeter, and the rancor almost certainly will be lower.

Really, this is all on Rollins, which, of course, is just how he likes it. He appeared in only 88 games last season due to calf and hamstring injuries and declined in OPS for the third straight year. The Phillies need him to be healthy and productive, especially now that free-agent right fielder Jayson Werth is gone and second baseman Chase Utley is certain to miss at least the start of the season with an injured right knee.

If Rollins bounces back, the Phillies likely will make a strong push to re-sign him — they lack a viable alternative in their farm system and surely would prefer a resurgent Rollins to the other top potential free-agent shortstop, the Mets’ Jose Reyes. On the other hand, if Rollins continues to slide, the team at least will need to explore other alternatives.

“Obviously, the facts are what they are,” Rollins said. “But as far as me playing baseball, maybe it was a good thing I was hurt last year.

“At the beginning of the season, even in spring training, I was thinking, ‘This is the year I can get it done and get the extension.’ I did get injured. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. Now it’s like, ‘Just stay healthy and play ball.’”

Rollins required two trips to the disabled list due to his right calf strain. Even when he was active, he said his foremost concern was avoiding re-injury — a difficult way to play. Now, after an offseason that included yoga and long-distance running, he said that his legs are back to normal, no longer a concern.

At this point, there is no way to know if Rollins will remain with the Phillies after 11 years of distinguished service. No way to know if he will perhaps return to his native Bay Area with the Giants or A’s, both of which might upgrade at shortstop in 2012. Three other west-coast teams – the Dodgers, Angels and Mariners – also could look for new shortstops next off-season.

Yet, the mere suggestion that Rollins might depart is chilling to his teammates.

“He’s been my shortstop ever since I’ve been in the big leagues,” said Utley, who joined the team in 2003. “I couldn’t imagine playing without him.”

Added first baseman Ryan Howard, who joined the team in ’04: “He’s been here from the time I first came up. It would just feel weird. Coming in not seeing him in the lineup, I wouldn’t want to imagine something like that.”

How about Rollins? Can he picture himself in another uniform?

“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” he said. “I’ve thought about it. But I haven’t done that for about the last eight years.

“My first few years when the Braves were whipping everybody, I was like, ‘What would it feel like to wear a Braves uniform? You know when you put it on, you’re going to win.’ Then I got that out of my head. I was like, ‘Nah, you gotta do it here.’

“Obviously, the last four to five years here (with the Phillies winning), it’s been the furthest thing from my mind. If I had to put on another uniform, it would be weird. I don’t think you really feel different until you actually put on a different uniform and you have to change the color of your spikes. Then you go, ‘Wow. For real?’”

Rollins was quick to add, smiling, “Red and white looks good, don’t get me wrong. I love the red and white.” In fact, he speaks with great enthusiasm about the transformation of the Phillies.

When Rollins was drafted in 1996, the team played at dreary Veterans Stadium and was in the middle of seven straight losing seasons. It wasn’t that long ago, really. But it’s difficult to remember now.

These Phillies are the winners of four consecutive division titles, participants in three straight league championship series and the 2008 World Series champions. They play at rollicking Citizens Bank Park and draw long lines for standing-room only tickets even to spring training games.

Rollins, the 2007 National League MVP, was a central figure in the turnaround, but so were Howard, Utley and others. This is about money, not which player, if any, is the face of the franchise. The Phillies’ 2011 payroll will surpass $160 million, but the burden should ease next season, when left fielder Raul Ibanez and closer Brad Lidge also could hit free agency and right-hander Roy Oswalt could retire.

The money, then, should be there for Rollins, but he will turn 33 in November and must prove worthy of a new deal. Phillies owner David Montgomery is on record as saying, “We would love to re-sign Jimmy.” To be sure, it will be difficult for the team to part with a player who is so closely identified with the team and city, even though his hometown is Oakland, Calif.

“I’m from the furthest place,” Rollins acknowledged, chuckling. “But that’s good. That’s great. It just means you’ve had an impact not only on the sports scene there but hopefully on the way that the city is perceived.”

Few players make such an impact, but the euphoria lasts only so long. Rollins said it himself — baseball is a business. To secure his future with the Phillies, he needs do the one thing he has always done best.