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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Monday, August 05, 2002
What’s in the Cards for Rolen?
Did Scott Rolen do the Phillies a favor when he turned down their $140 million offer?
The Phillies finally ended the suspense by shipping hot commodity Scott Rolen on last Monday. Phillies GM Ed Wade really had no choice but to trade Rolen, as he became a free agent after the season and had already refused to resign with Philadelphia. With the draft pick compensation rule potentially changing, Wade had to get something for Rolen while he still had the opportunity. And Wade didn’t do too badly. He snagged a promising young starter (Bud Smith), a serviceable utility man (Placido Polanco), and a solid middle reliever (Mike Timlin).
As for Rolen, he makes the Cardinals a formidable playoff opponent. The trade also gives the Cardinals a good shot at signing Rolen to a long term contract. Rolen makes $ 8.6 million dollars this year, and he’s due for a nice raise. At 27 and coming off his first All-Star appearance, Rolen seems an ideal player to lock up to a long term contract, as the Phillies tried to do by offering him a 140 million dollars over ten years. But is Rolen really worth signing long term?
Rolen is a difficult player to assess because his skills are diverse and because there’s always been a level of hype surrounding him, due to his early success in the league. Offensively, Rolen’s been a pretty good hitter, but not a great one, as his OPS numbers support.
Year OPS '96 .722 '97 .846 '98 .923 '99 .893 '00 .921 '01 .876 '02 (to date) .830 Career .877
As you can see, Rolen’s OPS has actually digressed over the past two years, and he’s four years removed from his best season with the bat. Only 27, Rolen could still become an offensive stalwart; many players have peaked later. However, Rolen hasn’t shown the type of upward progression one sees in the careers of hitters like Sammy Sosa and Jason Giambi. He’s basically established the offensive level he plays at. Rolen is a good offensive player, he hits about 25-30 homers a year, he walks enough to offset the fact that he’s not a contact hitter, and he can run a little. But, he’s not an elite hitter who can carry a slumping offense for weeks at a time, and there’s little evidence to suggest he’ll become one.
Therefore, much of Rolen’s value must be placed on his defensive abilities. And Rolen is a hell of a defender. While defensive statistics can be misleading, Rolen routinely pumps out excellent numbers with the glove, year after year. He’s won three gold gloves, and virtually everyone in baseball, from SABR-abhorring managers to Baseball Prospectus, considers Rolen a great defensive player. Rolen’s outstanding glove elevates him above the rest of the "pretty good" hitters in the game, and ensures he’ll command a long, expensive contract this offseason. However, I’m not sure he’s worth it.
The player Rolen reminds me of most is Ken Caminiti. Caminiti was another hard-nosed Gold Glover who, like Rolen, played his early years on turf and developed a reputation for sacrificing his body to stop balls. In 1998, at the age of 35 (his 12th year as a starter), Caminiti suddenly lost his ability to play third base. His range factor, which had been 2.78, 2.85 and 2.86 over the previous three years, plummeted to a meager 2.25. This staggering one year drop of .61 points can’t be explained by the slight adjustments the Padres made to their pitching staff, Caminiti just lost it. This season wasn’t a fluke, Caminiti never played the position regularly again.
Caminiti’s sudden deterioration isn’t a special case, it’s a trend that follows third basemen throughout history. This table below charts the careers of some of the greatest third basemen ever, all of whom possessed similar defensive skills to Rolen and all of whom experienced precipitous declines in their ability to play third.
Player ST LR Shelf Life
After their "last season at third" all of these players either split time between two positions or played third sparsely (and poorly). Their offensive statistics show a sharp decline as well. Except for Clete Boyer (who was never really a good hitter), all of the above were very good offensive players the year preceding their "last season at third." Of the eight listed above, only Evans and Brett retained their hitting skills after that year. The rest of them went from "very good" to "useless" over a two year span. These guys weren’t chumps either, they’re among the best (and most durable) third basemen in history. That’s how fast it can happen when you play a position that debilitates the body.
Third basemen, to borrow a phrase from Neil Young, burn out rather than fade away. Like catchers, they don’t rescind from their peak gracefully and productively. They instead fall off a cliff into obscurity. In fact, the reason why so few third basemen are in the Hall of Fame is that the position wipes them out in their thirties, where most players pad their career stats to impress the voters.
This isn’t to say that all third-basemen break down early. Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt defied convention with their longevity at the position. Other players, like Graig Nettles and Wade Boggs, reduced their workload at third after about 10 years to extend their careers. However, Rolen’s primary value is through his glove, not his bat. Even if Rolen can still hit after his defense falters, he wouldn’t be nearly as valuable a player if moved from third, especially at the salary he’s going to command. If Rolen can’t play third regularly, he loses much of his value as a ballplayer.
Rolen’s great defense may be the very factor which shortens his career. I think there’s a good chance that Rolen will break down even sooner than any of the aforementioned players. At twenty-seven, he’s already missed significant time in two seasons to injuries. He’s played the past six and a half years on an unforgiving turf. His aggressive style of defensive punishes his body. He’s got a bad back. And as much as his drooping offense over the past two years might reflect his unhappiness in Philadelphia, it may also signal the beginning of his decline. Rolen’s shelf life as a third baseman may be very short.
This is Rolen’s sixth season as a starter, and in another six he may have completely lost his ability to play baseball. The Cardinals should remember this when attempting to resign him. The best thing that ever happened to the Phillies may turn out to be Rolen’s refusal of their ten year offer.
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