Phillies Smart to Extend Rollins

The Phillies decided yesterday to pick up the 2011 club option on shortstop Jimmy Rollins’ contract. Rollins will earn $7.5 million in ’10 and $8.5 million in ’11. It’s a no-brainer for the Phillies as there are no options to replace Rollins from within the Minor League system. John Sickels posted the team’s top-20 prospects, riddled with pitchers and outfielders. You have to squint to find the Phillies’ shortstop prospects Freddy Galvis and Jonathan Villar.

Galvis, a 20-year-old switch-hitter with defensive prowess, did not appear ready for AA last year, posting a .465 OPS in 63 plate appearances. His Minor League high in OPS is .610, posted in the Gulf Coast League last year. He strikes out very rarely and has some speed, but needs to make strides at the plate before the Phillies can begin to think about him as a potential successor to Rollins.

Villar is even further away. Only 19 years of age, he spent about two-thirds of 2009 in the Gulf Coast League and the other one-third in the New York-Penn League. He posted slightly better offensive numbers than Galvis with higher strikeout and walk rates, but hasn’t shown much power. Unlike Galvis, he appears to be a smarter base runner, stealing 17 bases in 19 attempts (89.5%), compared to 30 in 46 attempts (65%) for Galvis.

The Phillies won’t be able to promote a shortstop from within, which meant that if they didn’t pick up Rollins’ option, they would have to either trade for a shortstop or sign one via free agency. That list is lackluster: Alex Gonzalez, Cristian Guzman, J.J. Hardy, Cesar Izturis, Derek Jeter (who is almost guaranteed to be extended by the New York Yankees), Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria, Ramon Santiago, Ramon Vazquez, Jack Wilson. Shortstops with 2011 options that may not be used: Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta, and Jose Reyes.

Fans may look at Rollins’ 2009 season and wonder why it’s worth keeping him around for two more years. Like Cole Hamels, Rollins’ ’09 season was tarnished by BABIP misfortune. Despite his speed, Rollins only has a .295 career BABIP, yet it was a low .253 last season. Perhaps influenced by his futility at the plate, Rollins’ walk rate dropped as well, by over 33% from 9.4% to 6.1%.

According to FanGraphs, both Bill James and the fans expect a significant bounce-back from his ’09 wRC+ of 89 to 106 and 109 respectively (100 is average).

Defensively, Rollins still provides value. He posted his lowest UZR/150 since 2005 last season, but there’s reason to believe he’ll be much closer to his 2006-07 6.3-7.0 than ’08’s +15.0 and last year’s +2.9.

The question with Rollins isn’t so much about his bat or his ability to field ground balls; it’s whether or not he’s slowing down with age. He’s 31 years old and got caught stealing eight times last season, which is almost as many as ’07 and ’08 combined (6 and 3 respectively). His range factor, after improving every season since 2004, dropped down to a career low. He has performed increasingly worse against the fastball and hit 10.5% more fly balls last season with corresponding drops in ground balls and line drives.

Should we label ’09 an aberration and expect Rollins to age gracefully? Or should we expect Rollins to fall off of that proverbial cliff? The answer, most likely, is somewhere in between: he’s probably not as bad as he showed last year, but we shouldn’t expect him to hit, field, and run much better than the average. However, don’t be fooled by the label — an average player absolutely provides value.

Even with last year’s nightmare season, Rollins provided 2.4 wins above replacement. That alone was worth nearly $11 million in free agent dollars. If we expect slight upticks in offensive and defensive fortune, Rollins should provide close to 3.0-3.5 WAR (which is a conservative estimate, considering he’s been worth 4.0-6.7 WAR from 2004-08). And the Phillies are only paying him $16 million in the next two years (Ed Wade’s “greatest gift to the Phillies franchise” notes Dajafi at The Good Phight).

Considering all of the possibilities, the Phillies picking up the 2011 option is by far the best move for the team — even if Rollins is declining rapidly, which he likely is not. If, in the next two seasons, Rollins produces anywhere close to his previous landing points, he’ll be providing the Phillies anywhere from two to four times their investment on him annually.