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Revisiting the Jimmy Rollins Contract

Shortstop Jimmy Rollins is wrapping up year two of his three-year, $33 million contract signed back in December 2011. At the time, I wrote it was “a huge coup” for the Phillies considering he potentially could have gotten more money and more years elsewhere had his options not vanished when other players signed. Additionally, the Phillies were bereft of other options to fill the position, with an unproven, light-hitting Freddy Galvis being the only player even in the conversation.

2012 was a typical year for the older Rollins, finishing with 2.4 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference. It was his third consecutive season posting a WAR in the 2.0 (average) to 2.5 range. On the open market, a 2-WAR player is worth about $10 million, so he was paid equivalent to his value last year.

This season has been a different story. Rollins has lost nearly 35 points in wOBA, dropping from .322 to .288. His power has been halved as his ISO dropped from .177 to .093. He continues to strike out at a rate we hadn’t seen since 2003. After stealing 30 bases each in 2011-12, in 38 and 35 attempts respectively, he has stolen 20 in 26 attempts this season. FanGraphs credited him with eight base running runs last year but just 2.5 this year. And by all accounts — scouting, stats, and otherwise — Rollins is having the worst defensive season of his career.

All told, Baseball Reference lists him with 0.0 WAR, or exactly replacement level. This means that if the Phillies hadn’t had Rollins at shortstop to start the year, they could have plucked a John McDonald-type from free agency for the minimum salary ($490,000) and gotten the same production (e.g. McDonald this season: -0.1 WAR). In other words, while the Phillies paid Rollins exactly at his value last season, the $11 million they will have paid him in total for the 2013 season will have been $11 million too much based on what he has done at the plate, on the bases, and in the field. Going into the final guaranteed year of his contract, Rollins would need to have a 4-WAR season for the Phillies to break even. Rollins hasn’t had a 4-WAR season since 2008.

Needless to say, the Phillies will emerge losers on the Rollins contract when all is said and done. Now the important question is, can Rollins salvage that final guaranteed year? All of his offensive peripherals are similar to those last year; the only difference, and the biggest difference, is the power. Michael Young dropped from a .160 ISO in 2010 to .136 and then .093, but recovered slightly this year with the Phillies at .114. However, it was mostly a BABIP-fueled recovery — Young has hit the same amount of home runs as he did last year (eight), and a similar amount of combined doubles and triples (30 to 28). His BABIP, though, rose 20 points this season. Rollins posted a .277 BABIP this year, his highest since .290 in 2008.

It is tough for older players to recover their power once they lose it. Since 1993, only five shortstops have posted a .150 or better ISO at Rollins’ age (34):

Player Year ISO Age Tm Lg PA
Jose Valentin 2004 .258 34 CHW AL 504
Mike Bordick 2000 .158 34 TOT ML 644
Barry Larkin 1998 .195 34 CIN NL 626
Shawon Dunston 1997 .151 34 TOT NL 511
Cal Ripken 1996 .188 35 BAL AL 707
Cal Ripken 1995 .160 34 BAL AL 613
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/14/2013.

It’s been tougher to do it at 35, even if we lower the threshold to .125:

Player Year ISO Age Tm Lg PA
Derek Jeter 2009 .131 35 NYY AL 716
Miguel Tejada 2009 .142 35 HOU NL 674
Omar Vizquel 2002 .143 35 CLE AL 663
Barry Larkin 1999 .127 35 CIN NL 687
Cal Ripken 1996 .188 35 BAL AL 707
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/14/2013.

While it is possible that Rollins bounces back and hits like he did last year, it isn’t likely. He may be done being a 15-20 homer, 25-30 double threat. Instead, he may be a 10-15 homer, 20-25 double hitter with continuously-declining base running and defensive contributions.

One last important thing to point out is the option year on Rollins’ contract. His 2015 option vests at $11 million if he racks up 600 plate appearances in 2014 or he combines for 1,100 between 2013-14 and is not on the disabled list at the end of the ’14 season. If the option doesn’t vest, the Phillies can pick up a club option at $8 million, or Rollins can opt to return to the team with a $5 million player option. Rollins has already logged 598 PA this season with 15 games left to go. Unless he suffers an injury, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the ’15 option vests at $11 million, which makes this contract look even worse. While it is nowhere near as destructive as Ryan Howard‘s, five-year, $125 million contract, it becomes another in a long line of multi-year contracts that haven’t panned out for the Phillies in recent years.

Fortunately, Freddy Galvis has made progress and the team has two shortstops with potential in the lower levels of the system in Roman Quinn and 2013 first-round draft pick J.P. Crawford. Rollins may be a sunk cost but their future at the position looks brighter now than it did at the time the contract was signed.