What if -
There have been many catalysts that have led the Phillies to great playoff runs. A recent watershed moment is easily the signing of Bryce Harper. Hopefully, that continues to lead to relevant Phillies teams with perennial World Series aspirations. Other obvious watershed moments could be the signing of Pete Rose and Rollins "team to beat" comment.
However, there are other moments in Phillies lore that you have to wonder… What if
One personal moment was the time current HOF hopeful Scott Rolen rejected the Phillies' extension offer. This put the Phillies on a completely different trajectory and literally changed everything for the franchise.
For those that don’t know Scott Rolen is the second-best 3rd baseman in franchise history. He could make plays that a normal person should not be able to do. I had the pleasure of witnessing Schmidt play in person in the late 80s and was thrilled to watch Scott Rolen play in person on September 8th, 1996. Unfortunately that human rain delay known as Steve Trachsel ended Rolen’s season on September 7th with a hit-by pitch, ruining my first chance to see him live and also ensuring his eligibility for rookie status in 97 when he would win ROY. I also would get a chance to see him on a beautiful Sunday at the Vet in his official rookie year. Unfortunately, Hideo Nomo hit him on a Saturday, so once again, I was stuck watching Kevin Sefcik man the hot corner.
From 97-2001 Rolen won ROY, had 2 top 25 MVP finishes, 3 Gold Gloves, and a .286/.378/.514 line with 129 HR and 66 SB. Publicly the Phillies stated that they were willing to offer him $140M contract, a fact Rolen did not refute. He said he didn’t sign on principle. He didn’t think the team was committed to winning, and at the time, it would be really hard to argue with him. It would be like the Pirates offering a better version of Reynolds a big contract and him staying
"I looked at this whole thing. I looked at history. I looked at the whole deal. And let's start with a fact. Let's go back 15 years. Thirteen times in the last 15 seasons, they had losing seasons. That's history. That's fact. And that's a 15-year period. That's a long time. I'm not just a player. I'm a fan. I'm a fan of the game. And the way I look at this is: Fans deserve better than that. Fans deserve a better commitment than this ownership is giving them. I'm tired of empty promises."
That was word for word Rolen’s quote and the reason why fans hated him when he left. But with that ownership at that time, he wasn’t wrong. So in this What If scenario, let's say that a new ownership group came in and showed Rolen their commitment to putting a team together.
Change of Phillies History Number 1
The Phillies do not acquire Placido Polanco, Bud Smith and Mike Timlin.
Polanco was a mainstay in the lineup in 2003 and 2004, but many fans also didn’t like him at second, I’ll get to why later. Smith was a non-factor and Timlin was a reliable RP, but still a RP in the early 2000’s. Acquiring this group didn’t change the franchise, but the subsequent moves did.
Change of Phillies History Number 2
Phillies do not sign David Bell and Jim Thome
The Phillies essentially gave Thome the contract they were going to give Rolen and signed Bell to play Rolen’s spot.
The Thome signing was good, and their production was similar (using 2003-2005 numbers)
Thome - .260/.386/.543 OPS+139, 1 Allstar, 1 top 5 MVP, 1 top 20 MVP
Rolen - .289/.384/.533 OPS+137, 3 Allstar, 2 gold gloves, 1 top 5 MVP
What would they do instead? With the Travis Lee experiment gone, they could use a Bell-type at 1st. Maybe they sign the perpetually underrated John Olerud or try to squeeze another year or two from the 39 yr old Fred McGriff or Mark Grace knowing that something special is in the minors. There were some other names out there at 1st as well including some kid who was cut by the Twins named David Ortiz…
Having recently seen Olerud with the Mets though, I think it wouldn’t have been outside the realm of possibility that IF Rolen signed his deal with the Phillies, they would still address 1st base with a clear tier lower than Thome and bring in Olerud.
In the final year of the Vet the Phillies would send out
Punto and Utley
That year, the Phillies finished 86-76 with Bell putting up an OPS+ of 57 compared to Rolen’s 138. Thome was ridiculous and had an OPS+ of 154 while Olerud was only 107. However, you would still have two GG winners at the corner to help the pitchers defensively. Then there is one more aspect of signing Rolen instead of trading Rolen.
Change of Phillies History Number 3
Utley plays in 2003. The team thought Utley was ready in April. They called him up and played him from 4/24-4/28 but then sent him back down where he destroyed AAA pitching. So why did they? There was this guy named Placido Polanco playing pretty well in front of him. He ended up on the roster in Mid-August and never looked back (except vs lefties cause Bowa didn’t think he could). They then wait til May of 2004 to bring him up full-time. It could have been an extra 140 MLB games for Utley if Polanco was not in the picture. If Utley got an extra 140 game I think it would also strengthen his case for the Hall. He ended 115 hits away from 2000, 63 games away from 2000, and 16 HR away from tying Sandberg for 3rd all-time in HR from a second baseman (behind a tainted Cano and questionable Kent). Also the style of play of Rolen and Utley would have been amazing. I don’t think I have ever seen a more hard-nosed player than Utley other than Rolen. Two guys who always "played the game right."
After the final year of the vet, the Phillies bolster their pitching staff via trade. They added Milton to go with Millwood, Myers, Wolf and Padilla and added Wagner to close things out. Wade did a good job in the season getting Cory Lidle when pitchers didn’t perform as they hoped. You can’t help to wonder if a GG CIF would have helped. There was one other thing that could have helped.
Change of Phillies History Number 4
Down in AA and AAA there was a Mammoth of a Man destroying baseballs. Ryan Howard was hitting 46 minor league HR while Thome was hitting only 42. However, in the scenario, Olerud is manning 1st and struggled some in 2004. In fact, he was released by the Mariners in July and a combo of Scott Spiezio and Raul Ibanez filled in. If he were signed in 02 by the Phillies, the same fate would have happened and Howard would have been hitting homers at CBP a year early. By the All-Star break at CBP the Phillies, in my fantasy land would have
Byrd had a horrible year that year, but that is a great lineup and a solid defense. I think that team could have avoided the September collapse that cost Bowa his job.
This leads to the potential negative
Change of Phillies History Number 5
Charlie Manuel never becomes the manager for the Phillies. After the Astros ended the 04 team and eventually took the NL wild card, the Phillies cut ties with Bowa and the choice came down to Jim Leyland and Charlie Manuel. With Jim Thome here, the choice was obvious. But if Rolen is here and Thome elsewhere would they? I doubt it. With the team they have, I don’t think Bowa even gets fired. If he did then they probably would have gone Leyland and Abreu or Utley would have lead off over Rollins. The way I view it, the window becomes wide open to contend in 2004-2011 but it is a completely different team.
With Leyland in charge, his lineup may have looked like
Change of Phillies History Number 6
Pat Gillick is never hired. If the team Ed Wade put together was performing and making the playoffs there isn’t a reason to fire him in 05.
Change of Phillies History Number 7
Phillies never trade for Aaron Rowand. Without the Thome/Howard issue, there is no player to trade for Aaron Rowand. This also could open the door for the 2005 International League MVP to get the starting CF spot, Shane Victorino.
Change of Phillies History Number 8
Abreu never gets traded. If they are competing for the division why would he get dealt?
This would create a whole different dynamic on the team. When Abreu was dealt it was another watershed moment when the locker room transitioned to Rollins and Utley. Without these moves, it would have been Rolen and Abreu’s locker room. How does that impact the team?
If Rolen stayed it would have drastically changed this team in so many ways. I also think it would have a huge impact on his HOF candidacy. He would have been a legacy player with just one team and hopefully a ring or 2. In addition, him not being dealt could have a trickle-down effect on the careers of Utley where he plays extra 100-plus games and gets some extra counting stats to make his case for the HOF, it would have taken the Phillies out of the Thome bidding, and open up 1st a season earlier for Howard. That would have added at least 40 more homers to his career total. If he is closer to 450 does he try to hang on a bit longer to get to 500? Would it keep Abreu in a Phillies uniform for the entirety of his career and would a Leyland move him and his OBP to the leadoff spot as he did with a young Bonds in Pittsburg? I think voters tend to lean toward legacy players that have cemented themselves with 1 franchise. If there is a reasonable HOF case for a player like Rolen, Abreu, Utely, and Rollins, being seen as a franchise cornerstone takes them up a notch and could break the 75% threshold, especially if those players lead to historic postseason success.