Cardinals finally pull off Rolen deal

By Jim Callis
July 29, 2002

The Cardinals finally closed a deal that had been rumored for weeks, acquiring all-star third baseman Scott Rolen from the Phillies on Monday afternoon. St. Louis already had a five-game lead over the Reds in the National League Central, and this trade will strengthen its postseason chances. Not only did the Cardinals get stronger, but they did so without having to part with their top prospect, righthander Jimmy Journell, and were able to find enough to satisfy the Phillies despite having one of the game’s thinnest farm systems. Philadephia, which also parted with Triple-A reliever Doug Nickle, received a young lefthander who let the Cardinals down in 2002 (Bud Smith), a utility infielder posing as a third baseman (Placido Polanco) and a 36-year-old reliever (Mike Timlin).

Rolen’s departure from Philadelphia has been imminent since last year. Rolen didn’t appreciate barbs thrown his way by Phillies manager Larry Bowa and senior adviser Dallas Green, nor did he like it when the club made it public when he turned down what it called a 10-year, $140 million offer last offseason. (The guaranteed amount was $90 million over seven years.) With the likelihood that draft-pick compensation for free agents will be eliminated, the Phillies ran the risk of getting nothing for Rolen if they didn’t trade him and he walked after the season. But in reality, they didn’t get much for him. Philadelphia had pursued Journell but St. Louis wouldn’t include him. The Cardinals had wanted the Phillies to pick up the roughly $2.8 million remaining on Rolen’s $8.6 million salary for 2002, but they reportedly won’t receive any financial consideration if they can sign him to a long-term deal. St. Louis will try to accomplish that quickly.

Rolen, 27, was the 1997 NL rookie of the year and has won won three Gold Gloves in his five full major league seasons. Though he has yet to have an MVP-type breakout season, there’s little he can’t do on the diamond. He hits for average and power, draws walks, can steal a base and is a tremendous defender, especially in terms of range—and he’s just entering his prime. Rolen made his first All-Star Game appearance in 2002, starting for the NL though he’s statistically having his worst season as a big leaguer. He’s hitting .259-17-66 in 100 games, with his worst batting average and on-base percentage (.358) and nearly his lowest slugging percentage (.472) since becoming an everyday player. Yet there’s no question he’s a huge upgrade at the hot corner for St. Louis. Cardinals third basemen, led by Polanco, ranked 13th in the league in on-base percentage (.299) and 14th in slugging (.371). In 844 big league games, Rolen has batted .282-150-559 with a .373 OBP and .504 slugging percentage. He appears to have recovered from back problems that hampered him in 1999 and 2000.

Smith, 22, was named Cardinals minor league pitcher of the year in 2000 and made his big league debut last year, going 6-3, 3.83 in 16 games. He no-hit the Padres in September in just his 11th major league start, and won Game Four of the NL Division Series against the Diamondbacks. St. Louis counted on him to be part of its 2002 rotation, and needed him even more following injuries to Rick Ankiel and Garrett Stephenson and the death of Darryl Kile. But Smith has been a huge disappointment, going 1-5, 6.94 in 11 outings (10 starts). Opponents are hitting .338 off him, and he has as many walks as strikeouts (22) in 48 innings. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has suggested that Smith wasn’t diligent in his offseason preparation, and that his arm wasn’t in very good shape when he arrived in spring training. He spent time on the disabled list with a strained left shoulder and was optioned three times to Triple-A Memphis, where he was at the time of the trade. Smith’s fastball is just average in terms of velocity, but his curveball, changeup and command have allowed him to achieve a lot of success before this year. He ultimately will determine whether this was a successful deal for Philadelphia.

The Phillies had insisted on getting a major league third baseman in any trade for Rolen, but they may be fooling themselves with the 26-year-old Polanco. He’s very versatile and he’s an above-average infielder, but he can’t provide the offense needed at the hot corner. Polanco is a career .296 hitter, but he doesn’t get on base much (.331 OBP) or offer much power (.385 slugging percentage). He batted .284-5-27 in 94 games this year for St. Louis. Polanco is making $1.75 million this year and will be eligible for arbitration afterward.

Timlin has posted the second-lowest ERA (2.52) of his 12-season big league career this year, going 1-3 and limiting opponents to a .215 average in 42 games. He still throws a low-90s sinker and a slider that can be overpowering at times. He’s extremely durable, as he’s on track to top 60 appearances for the fifth consecutive season. A pending free agent, he’s making $5.25 million in the final season of a four-year, $16 million contract he originally signed with the Orioles. He was included in the trade to help make the 2002 salary obligations closer on both sides. Timlin has a 42-48, 3.55 record and 114 saves in 634 major league games.

Nickle, a 27-year-old righthander, has appeared in 10 big league games over the last three seasons, with no record and a 7.00 ERA to show for it. Drafted in the 13th round in 1997 out of the University of California by the Angels, he was the player to be named later in the 1998 trade that sent Gregg Jefferies from Philadelphia to Anaheim. Nickle’s main pitches are a low-90s fastball and a knuckle-curve, and he also has been refining a slider. His control and mechanics aren’t always the smoothest, but he’s considered to have a closer’s demeanor. He has spent most of 2002 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he went 3-5, 2.97 with seven saves in 34 games. He posted a 37-16 strikeout-walk ratio in 61 innings. Nickle was assigned to Memphis.