Can you imagine if Scott Rolen made his Major League debut with the Philadelphia Phillies as we know them today?
If you had told 20-year-old me that the young third baseman the Phils selected in the 2nd round of the 1993 amateur draft, the kid they developed through a then sketchy minor league system, used to be the heir apparent to Mike Schmidt, a today being elected to the Hall of Fame, I would have assumed that Rolen spent his entire career in Phillies pinstripes, piling up playoff appearances, All-Star nods and MVP awards, rising to franchise legend status, an icon and Philadelphia’s next megastar.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
As Phillies fans of that generation remember, Rolen’s divorce from Philadelphia was ugly, and I’m sure some of the animosity with then-manager Larry Bowa was his fault as well, but whether it was fights over slumps or simple personality differences, the two men just couldn’t get along. There were also contract extension negotiations that became contentious and doubts (rightly so) from Rolen about management’s reluctance to spend money on salary, which ultimately resulted in the disastrous trade that sent the best young third baseman in baseball to the St . Louis midway through the 2022 season, his first and only All-Star campaign as a Phillie.
The Phils handed the Cardinals a career-best Hall of Fame player for Placido Polanco, Bud Smith and Mike Timlin.
Rolen made his major league debut in the depths of perhaps the worst Phillies season in 40 years – 1996. The last vestiges of the 1993 pennant winners were fading into obscurity and the future looked bleak for the 67-win Phils, led by Jim Fregosi in his final season. The role would be here during Terry Francona’s lackluster four seasons, where the team never won more than 77 games in any of Scott’s first five seasons with the team. The Phillies routinely ranked near the bottom in payroll, pleading poverty while playing games at rancid Veterans Stadium.
So here is Rolen, in the prime of his career and staring down the barrel of a contract extension with a franchise that has made no attempt to improve, playing every day on a hard, concrete vet surface that was almost certain to shorten his playing career, playing for a manager he felt was domineering and unreasonable.
When he saw all that, he talked himself out of town. And in retrospect, Rolen was right about everything.
In his new contract, he wanted the team to promise to set a floor on the payroll that they would have to go over each season, a poison pill for any front office, and Rolen knew it. But Rolen wanted to make sure he wouldn’t be left to fend for himself, playing for a team with one failed prospect after another and no big-money free agents on the horizon.
And while the team improved when Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell were called up in the early 2000s, it wasn’t until the Citizens Bank Park deal was done that ownership started investing in players in a real, meaningful way .
Jim Thome showed up and everything changed. But by then, Rolen was gone, manning the hot corner in “baseball heaven,” making the first of five consecutive All Star appearances, including his career year in 2004, when he was worth 9.2 WAR, finishing 4th. in the NL MVP voting and went to the World Series with the St. Louis.
Can you imagine if Rolen made his big league debut today, with the Phillies as we know them now? With John Middleton as owner? With a phenomenal stadium and a fanbase on fire? Can you imagine if he was drafted and called up just three or four years later and was part of that 2007-11 juggernaut, one quarter of a homegrown infield of Rolen, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard?
At the end of the day, Rolen’s most productive year was in Philly. He accumulated more WAR (29.2) there than with the Cardinals (25.9) and played more games for the Phils (844) than the St. Louis (661). Despite that, he’ll likely enter Cooperstown with a Cardinal on his cap, an understandable if disappointing result for a player who, with better timing, would likely have his number retired this summer at Citizens Bank Park.
On the latest episode of Hittin’ Season, Justin Klugh, Liz Roscher and I took a look back at Rolen’s time in Philadelphia and the legacy he left in his seven-year Phils career.
Be sure to check out the full episode here, where we also discuss:
- The many interesting moves the Marlins are making this offseason.
- Why the Hall of Fame voting system is so screwed up
- Our highly controversial snake draft for the all-time greatest home run in Phillies history.
Do not miss it!