Raising Questions

What if … Scott Rolen was never traded?

As we simulate seasons and look back at the past this week, we figured this would be a good time to ask ‘What if?’ So each Phillies Nation writer is posing a what-if question this week.

Today, it’s Michael Sadowski and the franchise player …

In 1997, I was interning for WPHL-17, which had the broadcast rights to the Phillies at the time. I went to most home games and kept stats, hanging out in the booth with Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn and the rest of the broadcast team. Ashburn, my father’s favorite player, was nice enough to sign a birthday card for my dad and also announce my parents’ anniversary on the air (he died a week later).

Basically, it was a young Phillies fan’s dream. Except for one thing — the Phillies sucked out loud underwater. They were awful.

“Dutch” Daulton and his immovable knees would be traded before the deadline and “Schilling and the Space Cadets” might as well have been the nickname of the starting rotation. But there was one, major bright spot … one hope for the future:

It was Scott Rolen’s rookie year.

When Rolen came to Philly, he was everything we as Phillies fans wanted. Big, powerful, smart, willing to get dirty, Rolen might as well have been the walking epitome of what we look for in our baseball players. His talent was more than evident, as he won the National League Rookie of the Year and looked the part of a true franchise cornerstone.

But as the seasons progressed, Rolen’s star lost its luster for fans. That big, powerful man turned out to also have big, powerful rabbit ears that heard every word said about him in the press, in the stands or seemingly on Pluto. At different times, he bristled at things said about him by manager Larry Bowa, front office guru Dallas Green and even the fans. By the time 2002 rolled around, when the Phillies traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals, it became clear that Philadelphia had fallen out of love with Rolen. And actually, Scott, it was you. It wasn’t us.

The Phillies are believed to have offered Rolen a big contract before the 2002 season, upwards of 10 years and $140 million. He balked.

But for as hurt as we were by Rolen’s defection to his own personal “baseball heaven,” we quickly saw the spoils of his departure when the Phillies turned around the next offseason and signed Jim Thome, who bested Rolen on the field and off. Thome’s signing started the steamroll of the Phillies’ Golden Era, even though he then had to leave before it could be complete.

So … what if Rolen developed some thick skin and never forced his way out? What if he took that 10-year contract and was a Phillie until 2013? Here’s what happens:

Jim Thome isn’t a Phillie in 2003. Phillies brass made it pretty clear that the money the Phillies gave Thome was the money they had budgeted for Rolen. When Rolen left, the money was just sitting there, burning a hole in their pockets. That allowed general manager Ed Wade to make a free agency splash with Thome, a splash that probably never would have happened with Rolen still on the team.

Ryan Howard comes to the majors a year earlier. The minor-league perception of Ryan Howard was that he might not ever amount to much, because he was always playing too old for whatever league he was in. And this was true, but it wasn’t Howard’s fault. The Phillies brought him along slowly to keep him out of Thome’s wake, or just to make sure he played every day while Thome held down first base. They tried Howard in the outfield, but that was an abject failure. When he hit 46 minor league home runs in five months and added two more during a September cup of coffee in the majors in 2004, he was rewarded with a return trip to Scranton to start 2005. But when he slugged .690 to start the year, the Phillies couldn’t keep him down any longer. It took injuries to move Thome off first, but when Howard got there, he didn’t give up first base until 2016. Without Thome blocking him, Howard may have been starting in Philadelphia in 2004 instead of mid-2005.

Chase Utley develops faster. The Rolen trade brought the Phillies Placido Polanco, a solid infielder that wasn’t meant to replace Rolen, but at least give the Phillies back somewhat of a warm body. But when Chase Utley came to the majors in late 2003, Polanco was entrenched at second base. He and Utley formed a platoon through 2004 where Utley saw almost no at-bats against left-handed pitching. It wasn’t until  2005 that Utley got the everyday job, and not until 2006 that we saw Utley minimize the extremity of his unseemly splits against left-handers. If he got to play every day when he came up, maybe he would have developed that kind of balance a year earlier.

The Phillies could have had a historically good infield through the 2000s. Even as the Phillies won the NL East from 2007 to 2011, their weak link was always third base. The homegrown, infield core of Howard, Utley and Jimmy Rollins already was the best infield in baseball no matter who the Phillies threw out at third. David Bell, Abraham Nunez, Pedro Feliz, Polanco … they were lesser talents the Phillies hoped could just field the ball when it got hit to them. And especially if Utley and Howard were up in the majors earlier and developed faster, perhaps this could have been a playoff team in 2005 and 2006 instead of waiting until 2007. With Rolen, that could have been four perennial MVP candidates in the same infield. Except …

Rolen’s contract would have been an albatross. After Rolen’s 2004 season where he had an OPS of 1.007 and came in fourth in MVP voting in leading the Cardinals to the World Series, his body failed him. He never had another year with more than 22 home runs, he only had one more year of 500 at bats and only won two more Gold Gloves after winning six previously. Just four years into what would have been that 10-year contract, he looked like he was toast. That surely would have been a distraction on a young team learning how to win when Greg Dobbs would have been getting 350 at bats a year and playing 80 games at third.

The result was a world championship in 2008 and those five straight National League East Championships, so you don’t want to screw with that kind of history. And for the player (and person) Rolen was turning into in Philadelphia, he had to go. It was painful at first to lose a player like Rolen, who we all wanted to be a Phillie for life, but you can’t argue with the results that came only when the Phillies cut ties with their one-time golden boy.

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