Can you imagine if Scott Rolen made his Major League debut with the Philadelphia Phillies as we know them today?
If you’d have 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, groomed to be the heir apparent to Mike Schmidt, would one day be elected to the Hall of Fame, I would have assumed Rolen spent his entire career in Phillies pinstripes, piled up playoff appearances, All-Star nods and MVP awards, ascending to franchise legend status, an icon, and Philadelphia’s next megastar.
Sadly, 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 too, but whether it be fights over slumps or simple personality differences, the two men just couldn’t get along. There were also contract extension negotiations that turned contentious, and doubts (rightfully so) by Rolen of management’s reluctance to spend money on payroll that ultimately resulted in the disastrous trade that sent the best young third baseman in baseball to St. Louis midway 2022 season, his first and only All-Star campaign as a Phillie.
The Phils handed the Cardinals a Hall of Fame player in the prime of his career for Placido Polanco, Bud Smith and Mike Timlin.
Rolen made his big league debut in the depths of perhaps the worst Phillies season of the last 40 years — 1996. The last remnants of the 1993 pennant winners were fading into obscurity and the future looked bleak for the 67-win Phils, managed by Jim Fregosi in his final season. Rolen would be here for Terry Francona’s lackluster four seasons, with the team never winning more than 77 games in any of Scott’s first five seasons with the team. The Phillies routinely ranked near the bottom in terms of payroll, claiming poverty while playing games at rancid Veterans Stadium.
So here’s 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 get better, playing everyday on a hard, concrete Vet surface that was almost certain to shorten his playing career, playing for a manager that he felt was domineering and unreasonable.
Seeing all that, he talked his way 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 payroll that they would have to go over every 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 did improve once Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell were called up in the early 2000s, it wasn’t until the Citizens Bank Park deal was lined up 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,” starting the first of five straight All Star appearances, including his 2004 career year when he was worth 9.2 WAR, finished 4th in the NL MVP vote, and went to the World Series with 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 the 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 a part of that 2007-11 juggernaut, one-quarter of a homegrown infield consisting of Rolen, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard?
At the end of the day, Rolen’s most productive years were in Philly. He accumulated more WAR (29.2) there than with the Cardinals (25.9), and played more games for the Phils (844) than St. Louis (661). Despite that, he will likely enter Cooperstown with a Cardinal on his cap, an understandable if disappointing result for a player that, with better timing, would probably have his number retired this summer at Citizens Bank Park.
On the most recent 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.
Make sure to check out the full episode here where we also discuss:
- The many interesting moves the Marlins are making this off-season.
- Why the Hall of Fame voting system is so screwed up
- Our highly controversial snake draft of the all-time greatest home runs in Phillies history.
Don’t miss it!