MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees

Ryne Sandberg inherited a tough job. After taking over from Charlie Manuel towards the end of the 2013 season, the former second base great must now confront a roster lousy with two things – veteran players and expectations.

Veteran players tend to be expensive players, drawing huge paychecks after prosperous careers. Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and the rest certainly earned the spoils of their spectacular early careers. But with big money comes an expectation of a winning product. The Phillies might have a great new TV deal but they don’t trot out this expensive roster for fun.

This is a team expected to win. Rather than break up his underachieving group, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. doubled down this offseason. The Phils added veterans Marlon Byrd and A.J. Burnett in addition to Cuban pitcher Miguel Gonzalez.

So Sandberg must do what he thinks he must to wring all the wins out of roster presented to him by Amaro. His chosen method for getting the most out of his guys? Needling and benching starting shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

Sandberg came at Jimmy Rollins with both barrels passive-aggressively blazing today, first offering a “no comment” when asked about the hustle and energy level of his veteran shortstop. After fawning over the little things Freddy Galvis (career OPS: .644) does on the field, he offered no comment when asked if Rollins was a positive influence on the field.

His words later became actions, as Jimmy Rollins found himself out of the starting lineup for the Phillies Grapefruit league game today – the third straight game his name does not appear in the starting lineup. When asked about his status, Rollins appears baffled.

“Oh, it is unusual,” Rollins said to Philly.com’s Matt Gelb. “But I’m not going to try to second guess or predict or come up with a reason why…Obviously he is upset about something,” Rollins said, noting he’ll wait for the manager to come to him.

Nobody will argue that Jimmy Rollins in the twilight of his sterling career. Entering his age-35 season, Rollins comes off his career worst season looking to turn it around for a team that needs every player to hit their mark if they wish to make an impression in the NL East.

If Sandberg thinks tweaking Jimmy Rollins or critiquing his hustle will motivate either 1) Rollins or 2) everybody else, that’s his prerogative. Unless the rest of the club resents Rollins “attitude” and Sandberg acting on their behalf, it is hard to imagine a veteran group like the Phils taking well to one of their longest serving members being publicly run down in this way.

It isn’t the first time a sitting Phillies manager questioned Rollins’ hustle. In 2012, Rollins and then-manager Charlie Manuel had a “pre-game chat” about the shortstops interest in running out a routine ground ball. At that time, Rollins mentioned conflicts like this only come to light when teams’ lose. I’ll take it one step further – does MVP-level Jimmy Rollins receive this treatment from a manager looking to claim the first trophy oif his law and order regime?

Let’s conservatively say…no. Rollins serves as a much easier mark when Sandberg is praising the hustle of a younger, presumably hungrier player. For Sandberg’s sake, Phillies fans have to hope his actions are based on feedback or a sense within his club that Rollins’ performance is problematic. Otherwise, what is he playing at? Reacting to the Phillies lackluster offense in Spring Training games?

As a player, a Hall of Fame player, in fact, perhaps this is how Sandberg liked to be treated. Who knows? Hopefully Sandberg, lest he wants his first full season as a big league manager to be a very long one. Though it appears he’s learning on the go.