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:
Scott Rolen is preparing for retirement, but will delay any official announcement. #Reds
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) October 11, 2012
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.
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. Happ, Josh 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.