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:
|8||Home Run Baker||40.3||899||3436||573||1103||194||88||48||612||266||232||172||46||.321||.375||.471|
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:
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.