Scott Rolen rumors—the Dodgers are interested?—may mean the Hall of Fame case can wait

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

After an offseason's worth of retirement rumors, it looks like Scott Rolen might end up with the rest of the free agents: On the Los Angeles Dodgers.

I'm excited to hear about this latest set of Scott Rolen rumors—the Los Angeles Dodgers are interested, apparently—for a few reasons. The first reason: As weird as it seems, Rolen, despite being an affordable 38-year-old on the verge of retirement, could probably start for the Dodgers. The internal option for baseball's new tycoons is Luis Cruz, a 29-year-old minor league shortstop who hit .297/.322/.431 in last year's rookie half-season. He's got a career line of .280/.310/.441 in almost 500 AAA games.

If Rolen can still play his formidable defense, then, he would basically be a high-upside version of Cruz. (That he is also more expensive-sounding might also appeal to the Dodgers' new ownership group.)

More selfishly, though, I just want more chances to watch Scott Rolen play. And I want Hall of Fame voters—who are otherwise occupied right now—to have those same chances, as well as an extra year away from the Steroid Nexus ballot.

Unfortunately, every year Rolen plays pushes us one year further away from the way he looked at his best. In the eight seasons between his first full season in 1997 and the end of his healthy career in 2004, Rolen hit .287/.389/.524, with an OPS+ of 133, 28 home runs and 102 RBI (and 11 stolen bases!) a season, and six Gold Gloves. He'd already put together the bulk of a Hall of Fame career, and capped it off with his MVP-caliber 2004 season. This is one of those things WAR is good for—here's the best third basemen of all time (since 1901), through age 29:

Rk Player WAR/pos G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG
1 Eddie Mathews 65.5 1482 5466 1032 1548 223 55 370 992 930 886 55 26 .283 .387 .547
2 Ron Santo 54.9 1536 5658 816 1592 247 54 253 937 768 896 27 33 .281 .366 .478
3 George Brett 52.8 1235 4843 762 1532 303 98 125 704 417 319 131 68 .316 .369 .497
4 Mike Schmidt 48.9 1084 3713 674 947 183 31 235 666 689 958 117 54 .255 .374 .511
5 Scott Rolen 44.1 1195 4389 777 1254 296 28 226 831 600 944 91 33 .286 .378 .520
6 Wade Boggs 42.6 872 3329 582 1178 218 23 56 411 522 254 10 13 .354 .439 .484
7 Buddy Bell 41.4 1375 5232 671 1483 237 35 109 634 409 446 35 56 .283 .335 .405
8 Home Run Baker 40.3 899 3436 573 1103 194 88 48 612 266 232 172 46 .321 .375 .471
9 David Wright 39.1 1262 4742 790 1426 322 19 204 818 616 1009 166 54 .301 .381 .506
10 Adrian Beltre 38.4 1570 5836 774 1581 321 26 242 862 459 1010 98 36 .271 .327 .459

His inability to stay on the field—and his lost power—have left Rolen a shadow of himself since. But for all his struggles, he's played another 843 games and had two or three more All-Star-caliber seasons. And at 38 he might still be starting for a World Series contender.

His shoulder injury was incredibly disappointing, then, and it deprived us of an inner-circle Hall of Fame career. But the thing about most Hall of Famers is that they don't look good when you take out their eight best seasons, either; it just happens that Rolen's eight best seasons came in a row, and were interrupted not by decline but by Hee Seop Choi. Even when you ignore career shape and just start everybody's career at 30, Rolen stays competitive:

Rk Player WAR/pos G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG
1 Mike Schmidt 54.1 1320 4639 832 1287 225 28 313 929 818 925 .277 .385 .540
2 Wade Boggs 45.7 1568 5851 931 1832 360 38 62 603 890 491 .313 .401 .419
3 Chipper Jones 44.6 1405 4943 846 1486 312 15 241 886 860 800 .301 .402 .516
4 Brooks Robinson 39.8 1490 5418 593 1375 226 26 134 685 480 470 .254 .314 .379
5 Graig Nettles 35.6 1799 5860 790 1463 218 22 263 906 692 808 .250 .328 .429
6 Alex Rodriguez 33.4 932 3467 653 1000 174 5 218 724 487 767 .288 .383 .530
7 Stan Hack 31.3 1000 3818 639 1155 200 32 29 272 626 233 .303 .401 .394
8 Ken Boyer 29.3 1145 4101 574 1160 178 37 136 638 422 601 .283 .348 .444
9 Jimmy Collins 28.6 955 3769 520 1074 206 68 25 450 204 170 .285 .327 .396
10 Eddie Mathews 26.4 909 3071 477 767 131 17 142 461 514 601 .250 .357 .442
11 Ron Cey 26.3 1293 4407 608 1148 220 7 204 668 595 824 .260 .351 .452
12 Bob Elliott 26.0 931 3228 512 919 169 26 120 562 538 337 .285 .388 .465
13 Larry Gardner 24.1 1094 3763 471 1110 192 56 14 576 368 185 .295 .360 .387
14 Adrian Beltre 22.7 545 2129 315 646 142 4 104 353 120 291 .303 .343 .520
15 Scott Rolen 22.5 843 3009 434 823 221 15 90 456 299 466 .274 .344 .447

Adrian Beltre, obviously, is on his way up that list. But it's important to not just look at how good Scott Rolen was—to keep him from turning into a what-if stereotype. In his 20s, Scott Rolen was on pace to be the fifth-best third baseman of all time. In his 30s—while we sang his eulogy every time he walked to third or sprinted the bases—he was only on pace to be the 15th-best.

I think there's a Hall of Famer somewhere in there.

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