Where Are They Now: Scott Rolen

Troy Glaus, Brian Barden, Joe Thurston, Mark DeRosa, David Freese, Pedro Feliz. All these men have manned third base since the Cardinals traded away Scott Rolen before the 2008 season. Rolen’s trade (for the aforementioned Glaus) ended six years of stellar play, frustrating injury, and conflict with management. Let’s take a look back at the Rolen Years in St Louis.

Prologue. Rolen was a superstar in Philadelphia, the 1996 Rookie of the Year and widely seen as the heir to Philie great Michael Jack Schmidt. Scott had become increasingly frustrated with the Phillies’ lack of success on the diamond, and around 2000 began to complain Philadelphia was not committed to winning. He also started a verbal sparring match with Larry Bowa, his manager, over a variety of things. Before the 2002 season he was offered a 10-year/$140 million deal to stay with Philadelphia for the rest of his career. He signed a one-year deal for $8.6M instead, and made it clear he would become a free agent after that season.

Rolen,born in Jasper Indiana, was a Cardinal fan growing up. The Cardinal third sacker in 2002 was Placido Polanco, who was competent on both sides of the ball but didn’t possess the power Rolen did. With it now obvious Rolen would be moving on from The City of Brotherly Love speculation grew he was headed to St Louis. The Cardinals did indeed get him, trading Polanco, Mike Timlin, and Bud Smith to Philadelphia on July 29, 2002. Rolen made his Cardinal debut the next day, and his St Louis debut on August 6 to a prolonged standing ovation.

2002-2004: Stellar Play. The Cardinals led the NL Central by 5 games on July 29, and were playing .569 ball. They played .650 ball after acquiring Rolen and won the Central title, finishing 13 games ahead of Houston. Rolen hit 14 HR and posted a .915 OPS in his 55 regular season games, solidifying an already dangerous lineup. In the playoffs, the Cardinals avenged their NLDS loss to Arizona the year before with a series sweep. In what was a harbinger of things to come, however, the club lost Rolen for the season in Game 2 when he and Diamondback Chad Moeller collided between second and third while Rolen was attempting to field a slow ground ball in the seventh inning. Rolen injured his left shoulder on the play.

Still, it was an auspicious start with the Cardinals. In 2003 he carried his .910 OPS pace for the entire season, hitting 49 doubles, 28 HR, and posting a .286/.382/.528 line in 154 games. He also led the majors in UZR and was second by 0.1 point in UZR/150.

In 2004 the Cardinals were picked to finish third in their division, behind the defending champion Cubs, and Houston. Things did not quite work out that way. Leading the early charge was Rolen, who got off to an absolutely blistering start. As of Memorial Day he was hitting .348, with an 1.032 OPS and 13 HR. At the break he’d slowed down a little bit, having only added 5 more homers, but he was still slugging .600 and was the leading candidate for NL MVP.

Assisted by his MV3 (as they later came to be called) compadres Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds, the Cardinals took over first place on 11 June, and after a memorable comeback win at Wrigley on July 20 simultaneously led the Division by 9.5 games and broke the Cubs. Their lead eventually ballooned to 17 games on 7 September.

Three days after their divisional lead reached its zenith, the Cardinals were in Los Angeles to start a 3-game set with the NL West leading Dodgers. In the top of the third Rolen fouled a ball off his shin. Innocuous enough. He then hit a bases-clearing double to give the Cardinals the lead. In actuality he had severely bruised the shin with the foul, and running out the double aggravated it. Rolen came out of the game the next half-inning and missed 18-games in September.

He struggled to get his timing back the last 6 games of the regular season and went oh for 12 against those same Dodgers in the NLDS. MVP-Rolen returned against the Astros in the NLCS, where he hit 3 HR, including an epic 2-run shot off Roger Clemens to give the Cardinals the lead for good in Game 7. Sadly that was his last hit of the year, as he went 0-15 in the World Series while the Cardinals got swept by Boston.

Still, in the 2+ years after the trade St Louis had advanced to the NLCS twice and the World Series once, and Scott Rolen was key to that success.

2005-2007: Frustration. 2005 started very slowly for Rolen. He hit only 4 HR in his first 30 games, and although his OBP was still high he was only slugging .453. On 10 May while running out a slow grounder to the pitcher, Rolen collided with Dodger first baseman Hee-Seop Choi on the first base line. While bracing for the collision Rolen turned his shoulder into Choi, and although no obvious injury could be seen on the replay it did significant damage. The Cardinals placed him on the DL after the game, and he had surgery on the ailing shoulder. Rolen returned to the lineup on 18 June, but over the next 26 games he hit no home runs, only 5 doubles, and looked lost at the plate. The Cardinals shut down Rolen for the season on July 21, and he underwent a second surgery to repair the shoulder.

As 2006 unfolded, it appeared the surgeries had worked. Rolen rebounded in 2006 from the 2005 setbacks, and looked like his old self. After homering on July 2, he had 12 HR on the year and was chugging along with a .992 OPS. He hit 10 more homers the rest of the way, but began to struggle driving the ball, as his OPS fell over 200 points from that 2 July high. More ominously, the first signs of problems between himself and manager Tony LaRussa began to appear in the media. LaRussa sat Rolen for a 21 Sept game against the Astros, which Rolen characterized as ‘a benching’. The feud continued to simmer through the Cardinals’ improbable run to the World Series Championship.

In that post-season, he again struggled in the NLDS, only getting one hit against the San Diego Padres. He went 0-3 in Game 1 of the NLCS and did not start in Game 2. After that, he caught fire. Rolen ended with a 10-game hitting streak, slugged .541, and homered in Game 1 of the World Series.

Whatever mistrust and hard feelings existed between he and LaRussa continued to fester, and the weakness that surfaced in Rolen’s shoulder the second half of 2006 continued to linger. He got off to a slow start in 2007 and never really got going. He only hit 8 home runs on the year, and after 112 games with a .265/.331/.398 he finally came out of the lineup and was placed on the DL 2 September. He underwent the knife for a third time on 11 Sept, which cleared out scar tissue that had built up, among other things. Most observers began to doubt Scott Rolen would play much longer for the Cardinals. The end came faster than expected.

That winter LaRussa sent Rolen a letter detailing what he expected out of the former All-Star in 2008. The contents of the letter are not known even today, but whatever was said did not sit well with Scott. It became clear the two men could not c0-exist in the same locker room. Faced with the choice of removing his manager or trading his now 0ft-injured third baseman, the Cardinals GM John Mozeliak opted for the trade. The Scott Rolen Era ended on 14 Jan 2008, when he was traded to Toronto for Glaus in a straight-up swap of third basemen recovering from injury.

Epilogue. Rolen played only 88 games for Toronto before being dealt to Cincinnati at the 2009 trade deadline. Walt Jocketty, who had been the Cardinals GM that traded for Rolen in 2002, was now the Reds GM and willing to try again. Rolen played 40 games for the Reds in 2009, then resurrected his career in 2010. His 129 OPS+ last season was his highest since 2004, and his veteran leadership was again key to a team’s success as the Reds made a surprise run to the NL Central championship. Scott will again man third for the Reds in 2011.

Rolen should be remembered as the second-best third baseman to date to play for St Louis. In his 6 seasons with the Cardinals he won 3 Gold Gloves and was an All-Star 4 times. Rolen had his highest career OPS while with the team (.879), he hit 111 home runs, and was the pre-eminent defensive third baseman of the time. Only injuries were able to slow him down. If he had not lost 2.5 seasons fighting the shoulder issues, he may well have passed Ken Boyer and become the best third baseman ever to play for St Louis.

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