Rolen Back History

I think we can safely say that the 2000s were the best decade ever to be a Phillies fan. Actually, that’s not true, because 1975-1984 probably has it beat. Let’s compare the two eras:

Era 1975-1984 2000-2009
Record 872-693 850-769
Win pct. .557 .525
Playoff Appearances 6 3
Division Titles 5 3
Pennants 2 2
WS Titles 1 1
Winning Seasons 9 (plus an 81-81 season) 8
Major Awards* (ROY, MVP, Cy Young, Manager of the Year) 5 4
Best Record 101-61 (1976 and 1977) 93-69 (2009)
Worst Record 81-81 (1984) 65-97 (2000)

Now, all of this could change with another winning season and division title or pennant next year, plus a Cy Young for Roy Halladay or another MVP for Howard (or a first one for Chase Utley) isn’t out of the question.

I say this because even though the past 10 years have been great, they could have been much, much better, once you consider one of the greatest “What If?” questions in Phillies history. I’ve been arguing this in social settings for years, but never really crystallized the argument. Until now.

In the winter of 2001, the Phillies’ best player was third baseman Scott Rolen. Rolen, going into the 2002 season, was entering his age-27 season, his sixth full year in the majors. In his first five, he had collected a Rookie of the Year award and three Gold Gloves. In that time, he had hit between 21 and 31 home runs and posted OPS marks between 119 and 139. Rolen had also won (and deserved) a reputation as the best-fielding third baseman of his generation and as one of the best baserunners in the game, despite limited speed and stolen base totals.

Rolen was just entering his prime and headed for free agency in the winter of 2002, and Phillies GM Ed Wade offered Rolen a 10-year contract extension worth $140 million, a contract that, to this day, is the richest offered by the Phillies to any player.

Rolen, an Indiana native who never felt totally at home in Philadelphia, had become frustrated with the miserly ways of the turn-of-the-century Phillies, who had just run Curt Schilling out of town. Who could blame him? Yes, that 2002 team had Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, and Brett Myers, but none of them were at anywhere close to realizing their potential, even though Rollins was a 2001 All-Star and led the league in stolen bases as a rookie (and would have been ROY in any season that didn’t feature Albert Pujols).

So Rolen instead accepted a one-year deal worth $8.6 million with the intention of testing the free agent market. You all know how this ended. On July 29, 2002, the Phillies traded Rolen and reliever Doug Nickle to the Cardinals for Placido Polanco, Bud Smith, and Mike Timlin. Smith, who famously pitched a no-hitter as a rookie, was never worth anything again. Timlin left immediately after the season as a free agent, and Polanco gave the Phillies three solid years before they shipped him to Detroit for Ugueth Urbina in 2005.

Rolen went on to sign an eight-year, $90 million deal and post three monster seasons for the Cardinals in 2003, 2004, and 2006  (he was hurt in 2005) before injuries started to catch up with him. In that time, St. Louis managed to eke out two pennants and a World Series title of its own.

So what happens if Rolen accepts the Phillies’ offer before the 2002 season? I think Rolen’s departure, through a somewhat convoluted chain of events, delayed the Phillies’ return to the playoffs by at least two years, if not three, and may have cost the team not only a World Series title, but the chance to trot out the greatest infield ever assembled. Bill James lists the best infield of all time as the $100,000 infield of the 1910s Philadelphia A’s, if memory serves. Now, he didn’t calculate for this year’s Yankee infield of Rodriguez, Jeter, Cano, and Teixiera (though A-Rod was hurt part of the year), but I think a 2006 Phillies infield of Rolen, Rollins, Utley, and Howard might take them. If not, it’d rank right up there.

Ok. So, if Rolen signs, here are some things that don’t happen.

1) Jim Thome never signs with the Phillies

Essentially, the Phillies used the money they spent on Rolen to sign Cleveland first baseman Thome to a six-year, $85 million contract before the 2003 season. Thome became an immediate fan favorite with the Phillies, and put up two good seasons before he, too, caught the niggling injury bug in 2005. He was traded the next year for center fielder Aaron Rowand.

2) Chase Utley becomes the full-time second baseman Opening Day 2004, instead of summer 2005

Utley’s path to the majors was blocked by Polanco, who, remember, was the only player we got from St. Louis who was worth a crap. By 2005, Utley had marinated in the minors so long that the Phillies brought him up as a part-time replacement for the injured Thome at first and a left-handed power bat off the bench. By midseason, it had become abundantly clear that the Phillies had the best two second basemen in the NL, so they traded Polanco to Detroit for a relief pitcher (Ugueth Urbina) who was OK for the rest of the season, then murdered his gardener in Venezuela over the winter and was never heard from again.

3) Ryan Howard becomes the full-time first baseman Opening Day 2004, instead of summer 2005

All we heard about during the 2004 season was how this dude from a small college in Missouri hit more than 50 home runs between Reading and Scranton, and how neither he nor Thome was athletic enough to play the outfield, so he was chilling in the minors. When he came up in 2005 to replace Thome, he stepped right into the lineup and won the rookie of the year award on 2/3 of a season. I say that if he comes up in early 2004 (remember, Thome isn’t blocking his path in this scenario), he has that great minor league season in Philly. He probably doesn’t hit 52 home runs, but he probably hits 30 at the very least, batting behind Rollins, Utley, Abreu, and Rolen and ahead of Pat Burrell.

4) The Phillies don’t trade Bobby Abreu in 2006 and Shane Victorino opens 2006 as the Phillies’ starting center fielder

Ok, this seems like a stretch, but not an enormous one if you think about it. The Phillies traded Abreu before the deadline for four Yankee prospects, one of whom is playing for the University of Kansas basketball team, and two of whom I can’t name right now to save my life. They did that in part because they had Aaron Rowand in center field and Shane Victorino burning a hole on the bench. Without Thome, there’s no Rowand and Victorino plays center from the get-go. They don’t have a solid fourth outfielder to plug into right field, so that might give them pause. Also, consider the fact that they traded Abreu midseason and had some combination of David Bell and Abraham Nunez playing third base and only missed the playoffs by three games anyway.

In 2006, Bell was worth 1.9 wins. Rolen was worth close to six. So let’s replace Bell with Rolen, Rowand with Victorino, and say the Phillies don’t trade Abreu. This team, I’ll remind you, only missed the playoffs by one game. If Rolen’s in that lineup instead of Bell, maybe the Phillies think they’ve got a shot to make a run in 2006 and either try to re-sign Abreu or keep him and take the two first-rounders when the Yankees inevitably sign him anyway later on.

And, by the way, the Phillies only missed the playoffs by three games anyway. And you’re never going to guess which team won the pennant and the World Series that year—the St. Louis Cardinals, who won only 83 regular-season games, started Al Reyes (Al Reyes!) in Game 7 of the NLCS in Shea Stadium, and still won the World Series in five games. By the way, playing third base and batting cleanup for that team? Scott Rolen.

5) Jayson Werth becomes the starting right fielder Opening Day 2007 (assuming the Phillies, emboldened by their 2006 World Series victory, don’t re-sign Abreu) instead of 2008

This one’s not as big a deal as the rest, but Werth’s 2007 OPS+ was 120 in 94 games and 304 plate appearances. So for all those people who’d miss Rowand’s monster 2007 season and say the Phillies couldn’t have made the playoffs without it, his OPS was only 4 points higher than Werth’s. And the two players who played third the most, Wes Helms and Abraham Nunez, OPS+’d 69 and 55, respectively. At the time, I described the 2007 Phillies’ third base situation thusly: they’ve got a righty who can’t hit righties, a lefty who can’t hit lefties, and switch-hitter who can’t hit either. Rolen struggled with injuries and only played 112 games in his last season in St. Louis and was still worth 2.6 wins.

So let’s look at the lineups for the Phillies in 2004 (missed the playoffs by six games), 2005 (missed the playoffs by one game), 2006 (missed by three), and 2007 (swept in the first round).

2004

Without Rolen With Rolen
SS Jimmy Rollins SS Jimmy Rollins
2B Placido Polanco 2B Chase Utley
RF Bobby Abreu RF Bobby Abreu
1B Jim Thome 3B Scott Rolen
LF Pat Burrell 1B Ryan Howard
C Mike Lieberthal LF Pat Burrell
3B David Bell C Mike Lieberthal
CF Marlon Byrd CF Marlon Byrd

2005

Without Rolen With Rolen
SS Jimmy Rollins SS Jimmy Rollins
2B Placido Polanco 2B Chase Utley
RF Bobby Abreu RF Bobby Abreu
1B Ryan Howard 3B Scott Rolen
LF Pat Burrell 1B Ryan Howard
C Mike Lieberthal LF Pat Burrell
CF Kenny Lofton C Mike Lieberthal
3B David Bell CF Kenny Lofton

2006

Without Rolen With Rolen
SS Jimmy Rollins SS Jimmy Rollins
2B Chase Utley 2B Chase Utley
RF Bobby Abreu RF Bobby Abreu
1B Ryan Howard 1B Ryan Howard
LF Pat Burrell 3B Scott Rolen
CF Aaron Rowand LF Pat Burrell
3B David Bell CF Shane Victorino
C Chris Coste C Chris Coste

2007

Without Rolen With Rolen
SS Jimmy Rollins SS Jimmy Rollins
RF Shane Victorino 2B Chase Utley
2B Chase Utley 3B Scott Rolen
1B Ryan Howard 1B Ryan Howard
LF Pat Burrell LF Pat Burrell
CF Aaron Rowand RF Jayson Werth
3B Abraham Nunez CF Shane Victorino
C Carlos Ruiz C Carlos Ruiz

The practical upshot of this is that you can insert Rolen into the lineup and get pretty much an apples-to-apples replacement of him for any third base bat. I stopped here because Pedro Feliz was OK for two years and the Phillies won the pennant 2008 and 2009 anyway, so let’s not get too greedy. But it’s worth noting that Rolen’s past two years in Toronto and Cincinnati have been three-win seasons, despite the fact that he’s fighting off injuries and essentially playing out the string, while Feliz’s past two seasons have been worth about a win and a half each.

Of course there are a few good counterarguments. I’ll list some of them here.

1) If your aunt had balls, she’d be your uncle

This is absolutely true. Also, there was no chance Rolen would have stayed, no matter how much money Ed Wade threw at him. And there are a lot of “ifs” in this argument.

2) If the Phillies don’t sign Thome, they don’t hire Charlie Manuel to manage the team

A lot was made of Thome’s ties to his buddy Manuel when he was hired to replace Larry Bowa. I don’t know that the Phillies don’t sign Uncle Cholly anyway, or if whoever they might have gotten instead wouldn’t have been better, but if I’m saying the Phillies keep Bobby Abreu until the end of the 2006 season, I might as well acknowledge that someone other than Uncle Cholly might have been managing the team.

3) Rolen was hurt in 2005 and might not have produced as well as he did in St. Louis.

This one I don’t buy. The concrete cathedrals of Veterans Stadium and Busch Stadium I can’t have helped Rolen’s career totals. There’s no telling what numbers he might have put up at the Bank, starting in 2004. And it’s true that every move I proposed the Phillies might have made or not made since the Rolen trade would have weakened the bench, so maybe there’s no cover at third if Rolen pulls a hammy or tweaks an ankle, as he did so many times with the Phillies and Cardinals.

4) There’s no telling how Werth, Victorino, Howard, and Utley would have played if they had gotten into the lineup a year sooner

I also don’t buy this one, but it’s worth noting. All four were inserted into the lineup after spending at least a year behind an established starter, and all four replaced that starter’s production (with the exception of Victorino with Abreu, though he wasn’t half-bad) immediately. I think we can say with certainty that Howard was kept in the minors at least a season more than was absolutely necessary, maybe more. (UPDATE: Likewise, Utley spent at least the first half of 2005 on the bench when he was ready to play, and probably could have played from opening day 2004. Commenter Badfinger took me to task on this point, and while I hate being told I’m wrong as much as anyone else, I’m willing to concede that I am in this case. Utley, whose early-career struggles against lefties I had forgotten, probably wouldn’t have hit the ground running the way I thought, so we’d have suffered through a Feliz-like season from him in 2004 while he learned to walk and hit lefties.)

Werth and Victorino were sort of risky options to start when they did, but both produced well when given the chance. I say they produce anyway, but there’s no way to be sure.

Regardless, I think we can agree on the following principal points:

  • Scott Rolen, from 2003-2007, was far better than David Bell, Abraham Nunez, and Wes Helms
  • The Polanco-Thome-Rowand chain reaction that the Phillies got instead of Rolen wasn’t a whole lot better (if at all) than the players who were sitting behind them on the depth chart
  • Missing Rolen probably cost the Phillies at least one playoff appearance and it’s not a stretch to say it cost the Phillies at least two Wild Card berths and a pennant, perhaps as many as two pennants and a World Series.

That’s really all I wanted to say.

Follow Mike and Paul on Twitter: @atomicruckus and @Phrontiersman

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29 Comments

Filed under General Bull

29 responses to “Rolen Back History

  1. The 2002 versions of Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu were about as good as you get from them. Abreu was a legitimate superstar from the moment they put him in the starting lineup, we just didn’t notice.

    Utley was NOT a superstar when he first started in ’04. His on base percentage was .308 and his hitting against lefties was Ryan Howard-level atrocious. If you read his PECOTA card on BP, the comments as he comes up are that he’s not a full time 2B, and then suddenly learns how to walk and hit lefties after he’s already a starter. (link in website line)

    Victorino probably would have found himself a way onto the team, but who knows if the Phillies would have looked outside the franchise for a CF if they’d kept Abreu. If Bobby wasn’t traded there’s little doubt in my mind Jayson Werth never becomes a Phillie. He was injured the entire 2006 season and was signed after the season when Abreu was long gone. He couldn’t have gotten into the lineup a year earlier no matter what.

    Who’s to say if they signed Rolen they wouldn’t have traded Abreu anyway? It was a salary dump plain and simple on a team that nearly made the playoffs anyway.

    I would have killed to keep Rolen, and have him like it here but some of your chain doesn’t work.

  2. Max

    This made my head hurt. I’m going to go watch some Keyboard Cat now.

  3. daz

    If we make the playoffs once because Rolen stayed, Ed Wade keeps his job, Bowa stays longer, we don’t likely win a playoff round, no Gillick, no Gillick adds (Werth, among others), we trade for a crappy reliever at the deadline every year, not Cliff Lee or Roy H….

    it’s best we got rid of the crybaby!

  4. But wasn’t Ed Wade’s failure to keep Rolen more or less the final nail in the coffin? If Rolen stays then maybe Wade stays, and if Wade stays then Werth and Victorino probably end up elsewhere.

  5. Mike

    2006 NLCS. Anthony, not Al, Reyes started game 4. Jeff Suppan started game 7.

  6. Noor

    It was not Al Reyes who started game 7 of the NLCS. Al Reyes was injured and missed the entire 2006 season. Rather, it was veteran starter Jeff Suppan who was lights out for the Cardinals in previous playoff games and actually beat Roger Clemens head to head in game 7 of the NLCS against the Astros in 2004.

  7. Zaphod

    Jeff Suppan started Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS for the Cardinals and Oliver Perez started for the Mets.

    Rolen batted 5th and 6th (never clean up) during the NLCS and was benched in Game 2, as he started his crybaby fit with LaRussa by then.

    Al Reyes was out for the season with Tommy John surgery while with the Durham Bulls (TB Rays).

    Anthony Reyes started and pitched a masterful Game 1 of the WS for the Cardinals in 2006.

    Finally, you’re an idiot if you think 10 years of Scott Rolen would have been a good thing for any franchise.

  8. Chris K

    “Finally, you’re an idiot if you think 10 years of Scott Rolen would have been a good thing for any franchise.”

    As a Cards fan, I can tell you Rolen was the deserving MVP of the 2006 WS, not Eckstein.

  9. Bob

    One other point. As I recall, the loss of Rolen also was the death knell for Ed Wade. Since I believe organizations win from the top down, the addition of Gillick and Manuel played as great a role in the Phillies success of the 2000′s as did player development.

  10. Mike

    This is a really interesting analysis, but I think there is one HUGE factor that you are not considering: contracts.

    I’m not a Phillies fan, but I remember continually hearing about all the huge contracts they were handing out ~2002-2003, and wondering what the hell they were going to do when they all maxed out ~2006:

    What the Phillies owed players in 2006:
    Abreu: 13.6 million
    Burrell: 13.3 million
    Lieberthal: 7.5 million
    Thome: 14.2 million (traded before 2006)
    Lieber: 7.6 million
    Wolf: 9.1 million

    That’s $65 million they had committed already to just 6 players. Turns out they managed by trading Thome and letting Abreu walk the next year.

    In the scenario you describe, though, if you swap out Thome for Rolen (Rolen made 12.5 mil in 06, so close), a few of these contracts would most likely HAVE to be shed in the same fashion as happened in real life. So it would be even more unrealistic that Abreu would never get dealt, and highly likely that either Rolen or Burrell would have to be dealt to shed money at some point from 2005-2007 as well.

  11. Mike

    *instead of “letting Abreu walk”, that should be “trading Abreu as well”

  12. Jeremy

    What’s more interesting in this sense is that Rolen and his injury history are due to one single incident. He slide into Hee Sop Choi of the Cubs and racked his shoulder into Choi’s knee. Without that, he never has shoulder problems which sapped his 2005 and on seasons and now denies him the same power production that he once had.

  13. Huge(like SAFCO)

    I like this kind of thing, and generaly agree with you up until the points about Victorino and Werth. If we sign Rolen there’s really no way to know if that infeild of dreams would of saved Wade’s job, and if so would those guys would have been on his radar. My Gut says that we would have won more games and that Bowa and Wade would of lasted longer, so another fun “what if” is weather those guys could of pushed enough of the right buttons to get us a championship.

  14. Joe

    Just think as well, if Bobby Abreu and Corey Liddle are never traded to the Yankees, Liddle might still be alive today.

  15. It seems Rolen’s crybaby fits to be traded are for the course. The same things happened in St Louis and Toronto

  16. Roy

    Interesting read. Sometimes what if scenarios are painful to go through. Although, they’re a lot more bearable when your team is still good during the period in question.

  17. Charlie

    Losing Rolen and delaying our ascent to the top of the N.L. by a couple of seasons is a fair trade for getting rid of Wade and Bowa.

  18. R Sully

    Remember Rolen’s injury’s were due to a freak collision in the ’02 playoffs and one at 1st base in ’05. I went to 12 cardinal games in ’04 and in all of them Rolen made a spectacular defensive play that few if any other 3rd basemen would make. The cardinals never lost a post season series in which Rolen was healthy for the entire series.

  19. Jim Niggly

    Proper title should be:

    If the phillies fired GM Ed Wade 3 years earlier, what would this team look like now.

    Guy had some great drafts obviously, but cannot put together a baseball team

  20. Karilee

    Actually, Rolen’s initial injury go back to ’99 at the Vet. That is the only year in a Phils uniform that he did not receive an award and that’s because he missed about 4 or 5 weeks. The one in ’02 just re-activated the other injury.

    I loved Rolen when he was in Philly. He’s actually the player that made me start really paying attention to the game. I didn’t know that baseball players could be young and athletic (I grew up watching the early ’90s team, they were mostly old, fat guys). With that said, he needed to leave. I have regularly imagined an infield of him, Rollins, Utley and Howard and just can’t get past it.

    Is it baseball time yet?

  21. NateB

    No need for “what if’s” when the Phils are AWESOME right now! But I did enjoy reading the article, thanks.

  22. Mark

    This article is very unfair. You taking 10 random years from the middle 70′s to the middle 80′s and comparing them to the 00′s. Your time frame strectches from the middle of one decade to the middle of the next than comaparing to oo’s. This team was not so much assembled back in 2000, 2001, 2002, etc. How about you wait and compare the 1975-84 to say 2006-2015 or something like that. Make it more fair in comaprison

  23. zeke

    I gotta say that I never liked Bobby Abreu and I feel that he didn’t have enough heart.
    He cost the Phillies about 10 games with his defense the last year he was here. If they had traded him that year the phillies would have made the playoffs. In my opinion the phillies became a more exciting team after they traded him

  24. Max

    Wait, I just thought of something? Would keeping Rolen have kept Bruntlett from ever becoming a Phillie? The answer to that question will help me decide whether I would have wanted him to stay or not.

  25. Ben

    Absolutely fantastic article, very, very interesting. Great work, really thought-provoking. Never really considered how keeping Rolen would have changed things.

  26. Philsmania

    I think a better “what if” is what if they didn’t sign Bell who was mediocre and kept Polanco at third all those years. Polanco’s prime years would have been spent in Philadelphia instead of in Detroit. After sticking it out with Anderson at second in 2003, Utley would get the starting job in 2004. We still have the Thome-Howard continuum. When all was said and done after the Cards closed the book on Rolen after 2007, we would have probably gotten the better of that deal, especially after the Phillies won a WS with Polanco in ’08.

  27. Pingback: Dr. Strangeglove: Saying Goodbye | philyphills.com

  28. Pingback: Dr. Strangeglove: Saying Goodbye | Local Philadelphia News Aggregator

  29. Pingback: Crashburn Alley » Blog Archive » Crash Bag, Vol. 67: It’s Important to Score Runs

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