Rollins Retrospective: The Minors and Rookie Campaign
Sometimes a guy comes into the minors with high hopes and fails. Sometimes a guy comes in with little hope, or no hope at all, and fails. The successes are all rare, expectation or not. And careers like Jimmy Rollins‘…well…every year over 2,000 guys are drafted or sign internationally. Two win an MVP, like Jimmy did in 2007. He’s been the rarest of the rare.
Rollins was drafted in the second round of the 1996 draft out of Encinal HS, in Alameda, California. He signed quickly enough to take over 200 PAs at Martinsville in the Appalachian League that summer, on a team with future big leaguer Carlos Silva, (who last pitched in MLB in 2010 and in the minors in 2011). Rollins drew 28 walks that year, foreshadowing his ability to draw walks at a pretty fair rate – an ability for which plenty of people don’t like to give him any credit, because this one time he popped up. Jimmy passed the league, and would move on the next year.
A couple years before the Eagles whiffed on picking Ricky Williams and took some stupid quarterback instead, (BOOO!!!), the Phillies took the running back in the eighth round of the 1995 MLB draft. Two years later, Rollins and Williams would spend time together at Piedmont in the South Atlantic League, with Ricky unsuccessfully repeating the league as a part-time outfielder, and Jimmy OPSing an impressive .700 in full-season ball as an 18-year-old. He cracked 36 XBH and stole 46/52 bags (a remarkable 88% for a young guy in a league against more seasoned batteries). Williams, as you likely know, would go on to mixed results in the NFL, and once wore a wedding gown on a magazine cover with that guy who helped Buddy Ryan’s Defense to a Super Bowl win. Rollins would be promoted.
In 1998, Jimmy broke camp with A+ Clearwater. He scuffled a bit at the plate that year, posting just a .659 OPS, and only stole 23/32 bases (72%), but all as a 19-year-old. The next youngest real hitting “prospect” on the opening day roster was a 22-year-old catcher named Johnny Estrada, though mid-year, a 21-year-old draftee named Pat Burrell showed up. Burrell is 23 months older than Rollins. To say Jimmy was young for the league would be a severe understatement, yet he passed the aggressive assignment. Estrada and Burrell eventually played with Rollins in Philly, with the former ending his career with the Nats in 2008, and the latter becoming a scout with San Francisco after retiring at the end of 2011.
Aggressively assigned again, the spring of 1999 welcomed the young man to Pennsylvania for good. Reading’s friendly confines helped Rollins pop 11 AA homers, his first year in double digits. He racked up 41 XBH on the year, including a double in a cup of coffee at AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. One of Rollins’ mates in 1999 at Reading was Cliff Politte, who you may recall from a couple uneventful years in Philly (too generous?) and one very good season in 2005, as a member of the White Sox World Series Winning bullpen. He retired just one year later. Rollins was rated the #95 prospect in baseball by Baseball America after the 1999 season.
In 2000, JRoll went to Scranton out of spring training and OPSed nearly .800, with a walk rate above 10%, and 51 XBH, including 12 home runs. Again, his stolen bases were low, but the rate was fair, 24/31, or 77%. Teammates on that squad included Marlon Anderson, (ret. 2009), Tomas Perez (2008), and Gary Bennett (also 2008). Jimmy was called up to the show after rosters expanded, and made his debut on September 17, 2000. Here’s Harry Kalas calling his first big league hit. (Grown-man-welling-up Alert). Rollins was rated the #31 prospect in baseball by Baseball America after his 2000 season. The magazine wouldn’t get another shot at ranking him.
(As an aside, I’ll point out that among the best of his minor league teammates, only Pat Burrell and Carlos Silva played past 2010. Jimmy just netted the club two decent pitching prospects to play for one season in Los Angeles in 2015. That sounds like longevity to me. It’s also worth noting that while affiliates come and go, Rollins’ longevity with the organization has led to this: of the five clubs Rollins’ played for in the minors, only two are still Phillies’ affiliates.)
And so, after five years in the minors, the Phillies went into 2001 with Jimmy Rollins as their everyday shortstop, supplanting the Alex Arias/Tomas Perez “experiment” that replaced Desi Relaford when he was traded at the 2000 deadline. Rollins wasted no time getting his legs under him, as he lead the league in triples with 12, and steals with 46 (at a really strong 85% clip). He OPSed .743, hit 29 doubles and 14 homers. He was an All-Star, received a handful of down-ballot MVP votes, and placed third in the Rookie of the Year balloting behind Albert Pujols and Roy Oswalt.
I remember the pre-MLB.tv bit of Jimmy Rollins’ I saw living out of town that year as a revelation of cool for the team and the game I loved. He had come into a city high on basketball, following Allen Iverson’s remarkable 2001 Finals run, and high on football after Donovan McNabb lead the Eagles back to the playoffs in just his second season in 2000. Rollins was smooth in the field, lighting on the bases, and a budding terror at the plate – about to start a career that would make him into an equal to his city’s other stars. (Here’s a couple minutes of highlights from his 2000 cup of coffee and 2001 rookie season). Rollins was almost the missing piece to drive the Phillies back to the playoffs in 2001, but Atlanta held them off by two games, and Rollins would have to wait until almost all his rookie year teammates were out of town before making it back to the playoffs.
His importance to the club’s future was clear.
The star that had formed for years from the Appalachians, to the Piedmont, to the shores of the Gulf Coast and the mountains and valleys of Penn’s Woods had burst forth into the universe that is Philadelphia sports, and would shine brightly for fourteen remarkable years, long after most of its cohorts had flamed out. Each among us who sat in his light, day after day, night after night, every beautiful spring and long into each hot summer, and through to the autumn of every year and the autumn of his time with us, was a fortunate fan of this beautiful game.
Godspeed, James Calvin Rollins.
Oh and also if you boo him when he comes back you’re a friggin’ jerk and we’re not friends anymore.
(h/t to girlsbestphriend.wordpress.com/tag/jimmy-rollins-bio/ for the card image)