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Should the Phillies Extend Rollins?

Is it possible that Jimmy Rollins is underrated? Following two consecutive sub-par years — by his standards — the contract extension that seemed to be guaranteed is anything but now. The Phillies picked up his $8.5 million option for the 2011 season, meaning that barring an extension, the organization’s long-time shortstop will be a free agent for the first time in his career in less than one year.

It isn’t quite a Derek Jeter-type situation, but both the Phillies and Rollins need each other. Rollins has been the face of the franchise as the opening day shortstop every year since 2001. There are no shortstops in the Minor League system ready to take the reins from Rollins, and the free agent market for shortstops isn’t exactly booming. With few shortstops available, that implies few openings for jobs — fewer teams will be available and willing to engage in a bidding for for the 32-year-0ld’s services. Rollins has been insistent on being a lead-off hitter with the Phillies to which manager Charlie Manuel has conceded. The shortstop is highly unlikely to receive that treatment elsewhere.

A contract extension behooves both sides, and better for that business to be completed now rather than during or after the season, when a renaissance season could increase the interest on the potential free agent.

Rollins’ last extension, a five-year, $40 million deal, was signed in June of 2005 when Rollins was 26 years old. Soon to be 32 years old, coming off of an injury-plagued 2010 season and two consecutive years of below-average offensive output, Rollins could be had for another team-friendly deal.

The question is — is he worth it?

A comment by Kevin H on Thursday’s article inspired this look at Rollins because it was very critical of the shortstop. Kevin wrote:

But why, oh why, would the Phillies want to extend Rollins? In 2010 the only regular players with lower OPS in the NL were: Bourn, Y. Molina, M. Cabrera, Schumaker, O. Cabrera, Theriot, Morgan & Escobar. In 2009 the only regular players in the NL with a lower OBP were: Clint Barmes and Benji Molina. So, for the last 2 years he has been one of the worst, non-pitcher, batters in the NL and he isn’t getting any younger or better. You can get a lot of guys who can field and be one of the worst hitters for minimum salary. If they actually work with the hitting coach and improve its a big bonus. Rollins says he doesn’t need a hitting coach despite his horrible hitting.

As mentioned above, it’s true — Rollins has been below-average offensively over the last two years. But he’s never really been anything more than an average hitter, his 2007 MVP season notwithstanding. His career .336 wOBA is within about 10 points of the league average, not all that much higher than his .316 and .317 marks the past two seasons. Overall, Rollins was debited 10.6 batting runs in 2009-10, but was credited 10.8 for playing a premium position — essentially a wash.

Where Rollins still provides tremendous value is on defense and on the bases. Since 2003, Rollins never finished a season with a negative UZR/150. With a career 5.3 mark, his grades the last three seasons have been incredible: 15.2, 5.0, and 12.3. In aggregate over the past three years among shortstops with at least 1,000 defensive innings, Rollins has the fourth-highest mark at 10.5.

Despite calf and thigh injuries that forced him to miss about half of the 2010 season, Rollins still finished as the team’s second-best base runner behind Shane Victorino. Using Equivalent Base Running Runs (EQBRR), Rollins added 2.7 runs on the bases. Although his base running has declined along with his offense — partly a function of not having those additional opportunities presented by better offense — he still provides value as the following chart displays.

Under the tutelage of Davey Lopes, Rollins became not only an aggressive base-stealer, but an extremely efficient base-stealer. He was a big part of the Phillies’ consistently MLB-best running game that eventually led to a World Series title in 2008. With limited opportunities last year, Rollins stole 31 bases in 39 attempts — an 80 percent success rate that is well above the break-even point of 70 percent.

Overall, since 2008, Rollins ranks fourth among all MLB shortstops in WAR at 10.3. Why? What he lacks in offense he makes up for with defense, base running, and playing a premium position. The 2012 free agent class for shortstops is underwhelming. Jose Reyes may be the best option available but it is likely that the New York Mets hand him a contract before that ever becomes an issue. The Phillies should do the same for Rollins. Although aging and injury prone, Rollins still ranks among the best shortstops in baseball. His value has nonetheless depreciated, making now a prime opportunity to secure themselves a productive shortstop for three more years while they try to groom a replacement.