Scott Rolen, We Salute You

The Cincinnati Reds folded against the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS, losing three games in a row at home after winning the first two on the road. Scott Rolen unceremoniously struck out to end Game Five and the Reds’ season, joining Alex Rodriguez and Omar Vizquel as the only players in baseball history to strike out to end a post-season series on two separate occasions. The 37-year-old eight-time Gold Glove award winner was also responsible for a costly error in Game Four, perhaps the biggest sign that he was running out of gas.

Bob Nightengale reports that Rolen is headed towards retirement:

Rolen played an important role in Phillies history although he played on some very, very bad teams. He burst onto the scene in 1997, hitting 21 home runs with a .377 on-base percentage, 16 stolen bases, and incredible defense at third base. It was no surprise when he took home the National League Rookie of the Year award unanimously. The 22-year-old was already drawing comparisons to former Phillies great — and the best third baseman in baseball history — Mike Schmidt for his all-around baseball talent.

Rolen continued to improve year after year, becoming the backbone of the Phillies’ offense. Between 1997-2001, Rolen posted an aggregate 128 adjusted OPS (OPS+) and 24.9 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference. Only 18 position players (min. 2,500 plate appearances) were more valuable to their teams in that span of time; only ten were infielders. The comparisons to Schmidt persisted and fans fantasized about a long and productive career ahead of Rolen, the 6’4″, 255-pounder donning only Phillies red.

After the 2001 season, Rolen’s potential free agency loomed and the Phillies were scrambling to get him signed to a long-term contract. In November, they offered him a ten-year deal with potential earnings north of $140 million — a gargantuan contract even now, but especially eleven years ago. Rolen, however, declined the offer, citing the Phillies organization’s lack of commitment to winning. Rolen said, “I’m not seeing that their number one goal is to put a winning team on the field.”

Realizing that Rolen was setting his eyes on free agency, the Phillies swallowed their pride and dealt their cornerstone third baseman to the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of July 2002. Rolen went with Doug Nickle to St. Louis in exchange for second baseman Placido Polanco, reliever Mike Timlin, and pitching prospect Bud Smith. It was a rather unexciting haul for a player who had been and was expected to continue to be so valuable, but the Phillies did not have any leverage to work with when negotiating.

After arriving in St. Louis, Rolen described his new location as “baseball heaven“, a phrase which infuriated Phillies fans and made him persona non grata in the city of Philadelphia. In fact, even in 2012, ten years separated from his last at-bat in Phillies red pinstripes, he was still booed lustily as he lugged his aged, time-worn frame into the batter’s box at Citizens Bank Park. Rolen spent five and a half of those years in St. Louis, including as part of the 2006 championship team; one and a half in Toronto; and three and a half in Cincinnati. He suffered from injuries almost constantly, robbing him of hundreds of at-bats and spectacular plays at third base, but even as he contemplates retirement, there is a legitimate Hall of Fame case to be made on his behalf. With 66.3 career rWAR, Rolen narrowly trails Ron Santo in sixth place with the most among third basemen either in the Hall of Fame or listed on the ballot.

Player WAR/pos From To Tm
Mike Schmidt 103.0 1972 1989 PHI
Eddie Mathews 91.9 1952 1968 BSN-MLN-ATL-TOT-DET
Wade Boggs 88.3 1982 1999 BOS-NYY-TBD
Chipper Jones 81.2 1993 2012 ATL
Brooks Robinson 72.7 1955 1977 BAL
Ron Santo 66.6 1960 1974 CHC-CHW
Scott Rolen 66.3 1996 2012 PHI-TOT-STL-TOR-CIN
Graig Nettles 62.8 1967 1988 MIN-CLE-NYY-SDP-ATL-MON
Buddy Bell 61.6 1972 1989 CLE-TEX-TOT-CIN
Adrian Beltre 60.7 1998 2012 LAD-SEA-BOS-TEX
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/11/2012.

In Philadelphia, though, that debate will be largely ignored under the black cloud of hatred that still permeates this city. Looking back on Rolen’s comments with the gift of time reveals that the third baseman was correct in his criticisms, however. The Phillies didn’t commit themselves to winning until after he was gone, when they had the new ballpark on the horizon and a throng of unhappy fans who weren’t showing up to games.

Following the end of the 2002 season, the Phillies signed third baseman David Bell to a four-year, $17 million contract and first baseman Jim Thome to a six-year, $85 million contract. GM Ed Wade also traded catching prospect Johnny Estrada to the Atlanta Braves for starting pitcher Kevin Millwood. Their 2003 Opening Day payroll went up to $71 million, well above the $58 million a year prior. The 2004 was even larger at $93 million following the acquisitions of Billy Wagner and Eric Milton as well as the signing of free agent Tim Worrell and the re-signing of Millwood.

In the meantime, the Phillies were drafting extremely well. Going back to 2002, the Phillies drafted Cole Hamels, Michael Bourn, Greg Golson, Lou Marson, J.A. HappJosh Outman, and Kyle Drabek, among others. Many of them were used to bring valuable established players to a team on the precipice of playoff contention. Eventually, the Phillies opted for a fresh face, firing Ed Wade and bringing in miracle worker Pat Gillick to lead the way.

2002 was the last time the Phillies finished below .500 and it is no coincidence. They have Scott Rolen to thank for that. He gave the Phillies the baseball equivalent of an intervention, telling them to straighten up and fly right. And they did. Even though he wasn’t on the payroll, it is quite possible that the Phillies’ success between 2007-11 — the greatest era of baseball in franchise history dating back to 1883 — never happens without him leaving in acrimonious fashion.

As Rolen heads into retirement, he deserves our respect and admiration. He was one of the best third basemen we have ever seen period, and one of the very best to ever play in this great city. He is a player you will, no doubt, tell your kids and grandkids about many years down the road while doing your best Dan Baker impression.

The Center Field Mine Field

Having traded away both Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence at the end of July, the Phillies now have a need for a center fielder going into 2013. The outfielders currently on the roster include Domonic BrownJohn Mayberry, Juan PierreLaynce Nix, and Nate Schierholtz. None of them are legitimate center fielders, so the Phillies are heading into the off-season thinking about one of the many free agents. In particular, six names stick out: Josh HamiltonMichael BournB.J. UptonMelky CabreraAngel Pagan, and Victorino.

Hamilton and Bourn are expected to be the most highly-sought after, and there are some very good reasons the Phillies should avoid them. They will likely be the first two to be signed, which means that if Ruben Amaro wants to sign either, he will have to set the market. It is better from a GM’s perspective to display patience because the more you wait, the more options close for the players, reducing their leverage in negotiations.

Player fWAR rWAR
Michael Bourn 6.1 5.8
Melky Cabrera 4.6 4.6
Angel Pagan 4.3 3.9
Josh Hamilton 4.9 3.7
B.J. Upton 3.2 2.1
Shane Victorino 2.9 2.1

With Hamilton, the Phillies would likely need to commit at least five years and nine figures for a player that will be 32 years old in May and tends to miss time due to questionable health issues. This table, via Baseball Prospectus, lists Hamilton’s injuries since the start of 2011:

Date On Date Off Days Games Side Body Part Injury Severity
2012-09-19 2012-09-24 5 5 General Medical Illness Sinus
2012-09-13 2012-09-14 1 1 Left Knee Soreness
2012-07-06 2012-07-06 0 0 Low Back Soreness
2012-06-15 2012-06-19 4 4 General Medical Illness Intestinal
2012-05-28 2012-05-29 1 1 General Medical Illness
2012-05-25 2012-05-25 0 0 General Medical Illness
2012-04-30 2012-05-04 4 3 Low Back Stiffness
2012-04-03 2012-04-03 0 0 Head Migraine
2012-03-31 2012-04-04 4 0 Left Groin Tightness
2012-03-14 2012-03-14 0 0 Right Foot Contusion Heel
2011-11-11 2011-11-11 0 0 Left Surgery Sports Hernia
2011-04-13 2011-05-22 39 35 Right Upper Arm Fracture Humerus
2011-01-10 2011-01-10 0 0 General Medical Respiratory Pneumonia

In the past, Hamilton has also had issues with drugsalcohol, and religion. Hamilton may lead all center fielders in wOBA since 2008 at .387, but he has plenty of other issues that should scream “somebody else’s problem” at the Phillies.

Once a top prospect in the Phillies’ system, Michael Bourn could become the Phillies’ new center fielder. Most of his value, though, comes from his legs and he turns 30 in December. His .329 wOBA in 2012 is just a hair above the league average for center fielders at .320, so the Phillies would be gambling on Bourn’s legs staying in tact over the next four or five years at a steep price. The Phillies have taken risks on old players not getting injured or slowing down before and it hasn’t worked out well (Ryan HowardRoy Halladay, Chase Utley).

Hamilton and Bourn are tempting because they had great 2012 showings, but they are ticking time bombs. The Phillies would be better served sitting back while other teams fight over the two premier center fielders, then making a play for a second-tier center fielder like Cabrera, Upton, or Pagan. Due to his recognition, Upton will likely be heavily sought after as well, but the Phillies would do well to attempt to capture the 28-year-old. Pagan will likely fly under the radar, but he would be a great Plan B for the Phillies assuming a short, relatively cheap contract. Those two will likely be taken off the board after Hamilton and Bourn, meaning that fewer teams will have CF needs and thus there will be fewer teams to compete against, dropping prices of the remaining players.

The Phillies aren’t necessarily committed to signing a free agent centerfielder, but it is the easiest solution to their very obvious problem. If they get creative, the Phillies could pry Denard Span away from the Minnesota Twins, as CSN Philly and Phillies Nation’s Corey Seidman suggested:

A trade, however, would require further diminishing of an already-barren Minor League system — one that ranks among the bottom-third or worse among almost every prospect expert. At any rate, it would be foolish to be inconsiderate of any trade opportunities.

It would be extremely easy for the Phillies to latch onto Hamilton or Bourn, especially since they own the league’s largest payroll, but the past few years have provided the Phillies all the evidence they need to conclude that throwing money around indiscriminately is no panacea. In the past, Amaro has shown the tendency to burst onto the market first (see: Howard, Ryan; Ibanez, Raul; Papelbon, Jonathan), but this off-season, perhaps more than any other he has seen, would punish him for displaying such impatience.