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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
------------------------------------ Ken Caminiti 24 35 12 years
Ron Santo 21 33 13 years
Darrell Evans 25 33 9 years
Eddie Mathews 20 34 15 years
Matt Williams 24 33 10 years
Ken Boyer 24 35 12 years
Clete Boyer 23 33 11 years
George Brett 21 33 13 years
Average 23 34 12 years
ST = Age of player in first season as a starter
LR = Age of player in last he played regularly


  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.


Jason Tuohey Posted: August 05, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 4 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. McCoy Posted: August 05, 2002 at 12:38 AM (#605730)
Nice article but one thing I should mention is that the Phillies didn't really offer Rolen a ten year deal. It was more like a 5 year deal with a ton of team options for the rest of the years. That was the biggest reason Rolen turned it down. He wanted a long-term guaranteed contract from the Phillies and they gave him a 5 year one with tons of out-clauses.
   2. Dan Scotto Posted: August 05, 2002 at 12:38 AM (#605731)
I agree with most of this article (I didn't like the Rolen deal for the Phils); I've always thought that Rolen was a bit overrated as an elite player. The thought that the Phils would pay him $14 million/year is quite depressing in retrospect (I thought that was just a ploy to show a commitment to winning). I doubt he'll get that much, especially with the potential for a work stoppage and the fact that salaries could see some sort of a drop after the season. If the system stays as-is, I would guess that he'd get 7 years, but only $10-$12 million a year.
   3. tangotiger Posted: August 05, 2002 at 12:38 AM (#605732)
Very good article.

A suggestion - When you selectively choose your sample set, you can offer evidence to support any statement. You can't say "here are some thirdbaseman...", and then make any kind of inferences and conclusion on Scott Rolen.

What you should do is present ALL of the players that satisfy certain conditions (above average hitting, above average fielding 3B, by age 28, min 5 years as a regular, etc, etc). From that sample set, what happens to the thirdbasemen? And how is this different from say the 2B or RF (the 3B's closest positional comps)?
   4. Srul Itza Posted: August 06, 2002 at 12:39 AM (#605748)
I enjoyed your article, but I wondered at this comment:

However, Rolen hasn't shown the type of upward progression one sees in the careers of hitters like Sammy Sosa and Jason Giambi.

Actually, Rolen has shown a similar progression to Sammy, but that is only because Sosa had a bizarre career path:

1989 20 .303 .366 .669
1990 21 .282 .404 .687
1991 22 .240 .335 .576
1992 23 .317 .393 .710
1993 24 .309 .485 .794
1994 25 .339 .545 .884
1995 26 .340 .500 .840
1996 27 .323 .564 .888
1997 28 .300 .480 .779
1998 29 .377 .647 1.024
1999 30 .367 .635 1.002
2000 31 .406 .634 1.040
2001 32 .437 .737 1.174

Indeed, through his year 28 season, you culd almost say the same thing about him that you would about Rolen -- he did not appear to be progressing, but rather regressing, and he had missed some time in prior years, I believe through injury. He certainly was not on anyone's radar screen as "Sammy" Then he hit 20 home runs in June 1998, and there has been no looking back.

By contrast, Giambi showed a continuous progression as measured in his OPS:

Yes there was a big jump in 2000, but not 250 points of OPS after a regression.

No, I don't see Rolen doing anything even faintly reminiscent of Sammy. I just don't think he is a good point of comparison for anyone.

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