I'm glad the detour from today's baseball inaction was well-regarded, because I enjoyed writing it—and also because the brief Scott Rolen detour made me want to think more about Scott Rolen, Former Hall-of-Fame-caliber Third Baseman.
There's no right way to start, with these, so I started with cardball's suggestion—how does the good Scott Rolen compare to Mike Schmidt? The go-to move, as an avowed peak-over-career partisan, is each player's best five year run.
Rolen at his best was an all-star caliber corner outfielder who played brilliant defense at a more premium position, which is definitely a Hall of Fame combination. But while he was always among the best-hitting third basemen at his peak, he was rarely a cut above, often behind fluke years (Bill Mueller, Adrian Beltre), immobile future first basemen (Phil Nevin, Miguel Cabrera, Garrett Atkins), and Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez. Among third basemen in the aughts his best years rank ninth, 23rd, 34th, 35th, 44th, and 48th in OPS+ (he also managed 13th and 45th in the nineties.) That's good, and nobody's defensive value approaches his, but it's not the positional dominance existed by peak cases like... well, Jim Edmonds, who ranks 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 8th, and 13th among center fielders from 2000 to 2009.
Given Rolen's reputation as the perhaps the best third baseman since Brooks Robinson, the way his peak extends two years or so in the other direction, and the way he's progressed post-injury—considerably better than George Sisler, if not as well as alternate-universe Scott Rolens have made out—that's not a bad run on which to hang a Hall of Fame career.
And now—look, I've cheated. I looked at the numbers already. Rolen at his best was clearly not as good as Mike Schmidt as his best. Schmidt led the league in OPS five times, took eight home run crowns, four RBI titles. He wasn't as good a fielder as Scott Rolen, but he was good enough. George Brett and Eddie Mathews, too, were simply too brilliant offensively to match up to Rolen.
The problem for Scott Rolen—and Ron Santo, and Ken Boyer—is that there's not much in the way of second tier talent in the Hall at third base. First basemen like Keith Hernandez compete with lesser lights like Harmon Killebrew or Tony Perez; the last second underserving or even questionably deserving third baseman elected was George Kell, who retired in 1957. Hall of Fame third basemen, by and large, are either forgotten or considerably better than Scott Rolen. It's an awkward place to be.
Rolen's already a fair comparison to Ron Santo, the gold standard of third basemen who are not as good as the third basement that get elected in the recent climate. But if you look at Rolen compared to other players, at better-represented positions, he looks like a much better candidate. You'll find him on the WAR list next to Ryne Sandberg, Dave Winfield, and other solidly-in candidates in recent memory. On the Keltner List he does pretty well, having been the best third baseman of his era; a key cog on several playoff teams; a player able to play well after his prime, as we know all too well; and, after Chipper Jones is inducted and Rolen tacks on a few more years with the Reds, arguably the best player at his position to not be inducted in the Hall of Fame.
And at third base, that's a long list.
I was happy to see Chris Duncan latch on with the Nationals—really, with anybody, although few teams have more at-bats to fill in the outfield and fewer players to fill them with. When he was cut from Pawtucket in August I thought he might really be done—and he might really be done. But he's got one more shot.