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Evaluating the Scott Rolen trades

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Years later, how did the Cardinals do in each trade involving Scott Rolen?

MLB: 2006 World Series Photo by Albert Dickson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

On this date tomorrow, Scott Rolen was traded for Troy Glaus in 2008. It was the second move in a month that essentially dismantled the MV3 of years past. In light of this, and with recent clamor for Rolen to make the Hall of Fame, I thought I’d take a look at the trade that brought him here and the trade that sent him away.

In 2002, Rolen was uninterested in playing for a Phillies organization that had, during his tenure, not been all that great. He felt ownership wasn’t committed to winning and demanded a trade. The Phillies had their first winning season since 1993 in 2001 and missed the playoffs by two games. Then they spent the offseason not adding a whole lot, with the biggest moves being reliever signings. In the middle of 2002, Rolen got his wish.

It seems to be popular consensus among Cardinals fans to lump this trade with the Jimmy Edmonds trade, and that consensus is tremendously wrong. For a half a season of Rolen, the Phillies received a 3 WAR infielder with two years of team control left after the 2002 season, a former #39 prospect in baseball having a down year, and a half a season of Mike Timlin. The Cardinals also received Doug Nickle for some reason, a 27-year-old non-prospect put on waivers (and claimed) a month later. Neither Nickle or Timlin make any sense to be in this trade to me, and I assume would never be in a trade like this if it was made today.

Anyway, when the Cardinals made the trade, they were up 5 games on Cincinatti and this trade was hoping to stomp on their throat, which worked... eventually. August didn’t exactly go as planned, with the Cardinals lead falling to 2.5 games on August 29th. September went better, with the Cardinals going 21-6 thanks in part to a 157 wRC+ by Rolen. They finished 13 games in first. Rolen’s impact was not a 13 game swing, but he did have 3 WAR in just two months with the Cardinals. Polanco though was worth 1.4 WAR so it does seem doubtful they miss the playoffs with Polanco there instead. Unfortunately, Rolen got injured two games into the playoffs, but he made his two games count: He went 3-7 with a HR and HBP.

It’s not quite that simple though. In September, Rolen and the Cardinals agreed to an 8 year, $90 million deal. Normally, you can’t really count if a player later resigns with a team when assessing trades, but he did it during the season, and he explicitly said before he got traded, he was interested in signing an extension with the Cards when rumors indicated a trade would get done.

But first, let’s look at the players the Phillies received: Polanco and Smith. Polanco followed up his strong finish to 2002 with a combined 6 WAR in 2003 and 2004. He delivered on his end of the deal. Bud Smith did... not. Interesting note on Smith though. Before the 2001 season, he was the #39 prospect in baseball and actually had a pretty good 2001 (4th in ROY voting). Smith had a rough 2002 in the MLB with as many walks as strikeouts and a 6.94 ERA in 48 IP. He also had six starts in the minors, and they were really good. He was also only 22-years-old. I would never have guessed at the time that he would never throw an inning for the Phillies. Since he’s a pitcher, it was because of injuries. He threw just 55 innings in 2003, 17 innings in 2004, and 6 innings in 2005. He was in independent league ball at 26.

The cost of a win in 2003 was $2.8 million. Rolen was 28, coming off a 6.5 win season, and had six straight years with at least 4+ fWAR. Projections are hard to find from 2003, so I’ll just guess that he was a projected 5 WAR player then. Using the DRaysBay surplus value calculator, Rolen’s contract had $6.1 million surplus. Polanco meanwhile made $7.41 million with the Phillies for his 7.4 WAR, which was $13.66 million in surplus value at the time. Rolen made just $2.9 million for his 3 WAR season, which was $4.9 million in surplus. Combine that with the benefit of signing the contract early - it was under market value - and the $11 million is still under the Phillies. That is essentially the difference of a win in value, and I’m willing to say that’s a fair penalty to have him in the playoffs when they were pretty sure they’d make the playoffs . Still though, even with Bud Smith not working out at all, this was basically an even trade. (The fact that Rolen outplayed his projections while here is irrelevant for the purposes of grading this trade in my opinion. But they do deserve some credit for signing a seemingly below market deal.)

Cut to: five and a half years later, Rolen is traded for Glaus. ZiPS does have publicly available projections from 2008 so this will be easier. Rolen’s projections are eerily close to his 2007 performance, so even though ZiPS didn’t provide WAR then, I think we can be reasonably close here. With a .331 OBP and .397 slugging (2007: .331, .398) and with about 40 less PAs, I think ZiPS had him pegged as roughly a 2.2 WAR player. With his remaining contract at 3 years, $37.875 million, and with the cost of a win being worth $5.3 million, Rolen had a surplus value of -$9,965,624.

Glaus, meanwhile, was projected for a .247/.350/.469 line, which would have been slightly worse than his 2007. Given that, plus his expected defense, I’d say his projection would be pretty damn close to 2.2 WAR, if not exactly that. Glaus was owed $24.5 million over the next two years, once he agreed to exercise his 2009 player option if traded. The extra year made a big deal, since his surplus was only $-2.4 million. Considering Rolen was in a very public feud with La Russa at the time, and asked to be traded once La Russa signed an extension, it was a pretty nifty deal by John Mozeliak.

Now of course, Rolen played quite a bit better than expected with the Reds. Rolen was worth 11.4 WAR and had a surplus value of $25 million. Glaus meanwhile, was essentially worth his contract exactly ($161K of surplus value), thanks to missing most of the second year. Glaus would have had to repeat his 2008 in order to match Rolen’s value so while the trade was good at the time, it didn’t really work out in the Cardinals favor.

Of course, if Rolen didn’t have the late career resurgence, there’s zero chance he would ever make the Hall of Fame, so I’m happy the Cardinals lost that particular trade.