Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
19. Darryl Kile
18. Ryan Ludwick
17. Kolten Wong
16. Carlos Martínez
15. Woody Williams
14. J.D. Drew
13. Brian Jordan
12. Edgar Renteria
11. Ray Lankford
10. Matt Morris
7. Mark McGwire
The greatest St. Louis Cardinals team of the last twenty-five years, and probably of all-time, was the 2004 squad. A 105-win team which won the National League Central by thirteen games (and over a team that won the Wild Card, no less), 2004 was the season where everything went right for the Cardinals. It was a season in which the great players were great, the good players were good, and their otherwise career sub-Replacement Level second baseman (Tony Womack) was the team’s fourth most valuable player. There was no shortage of excellence on the 2004 team, but the best player on the team that year was Scott Rolen.
Scott Rolen was in many ways the perfect baseball player. For all of the attention lavished upon Nolan Arenado over the 2020-21 off-season, what is generally being described is a lesser version of Scott Rolen. Which isn’t even a slight of Arenado–Scott Rolen is, and FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement agrees, one of the ten best full-time third basemen in the history of Major League Baseball. Of course, not all of this came in a Cardinals uniform, but the absolute peak of his performance did. For perspective, in Nolan Arenado’s best offensive and defensive years (2018 and 2013, respectively), he had a 133 wRC+ and was worth 16.5 Defensive Runs Above Average. In 2004, Scott Rolen had a wRC+ of 159 with 23.4 Defensive Runs Above Average.
Defensively, Scott Rolen was the Cardinals’ best defensive player since Ozzie Smith, and certainly the most awe-inspiring. He had incredible instincts, possessing what at times seemed like limitless range at the hot corner, he rarely mishandled a ball hit in his general direction, and his right arm was a high-powered superweapon. Rolen arrived in St. Louis as a three-time Gold Glove winner, he won his fourth in a season split between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cardinals, and he compiled three more with the Cardinals. By Defensive Runs Above Average, an imperfect metric but one which can be applied across baseball history and not limited to the twenty-first century statistical revolution, Scott Rolen is the fifth best defensive third baseman in the history of the sport. And by either wRC+ or Offensive Runs Above Average, none of the four ahead of him could hit as well as he did.
Although Scott Rolen was just 27 when the Cardinals acquired him, he had already established himself as one of the sport’s top talents. A second-round draft pick out of high school in 1993, Rolen won National League Rookie of the Year as a 22 year-old in 1997 and was annually a reliable source of power and defensive prowess. Over the five years which preceeded his acquisition by the Cardinals, Rolen was in the conversation with Chipper Jones as the best third baseman in the sport, and Chipper Jones was about to spend two seasons playing left field.
But Rolen never played in a postseason game for the Phillies, and he was critical of the team for a perceived lack of effort and/or ability to put a competitive team on the field. He clashed with manager Larry Bowa. Although generally well-liked at the time by Phillies fans, he was expected to be the next Mike Schmidt, and as great as Rolen was, he wasn’t quite that. The Phillies offered Scott Rolen an extension prior to his post-2002 free agency, but he was disinterested in continuing his Phillies career. So rather than lose him a few months later for nothing, the Phillies traded Rolen and pitcher Doug Nickle to the St. Louis Cardinals for infielder Placido Polanco and pitchers Bud Smith and Mike Timlin.
The Phillies didn’t have a choice, really, and while Bud Smith’s lack of MLB appearances for the Phillies meant the trade didn’t work out quite the way they might have hoped, they did get a decent placeholder before Chase Utley’s arrival in Polanco (who later returned as a third baseman in the early 2010s) and a decent reliever in Timlin. But the Cardinals were very happy with their return in the trade. Although the team was only assured two months of Rolen, he paid dividends during that time, experiencing a leap forward offensively with 14 home runs in 229 plate appearances while his defense remained superb as always.
The Cardinals won the NL Central by thirteen games, so in theory they didn’t need Rolen to take a division crown, but this also meant they got him for a postseason run during which Rolen hit a two-run home run off Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks in his second career postseason at-bat. While an injury in Game 2 of the NLDS kept Rolen out of commission for the remainder of the playoffs, in late September, the Cardinals and Rolen had agreed to an eight-year, $90 million extension which was far below the ten-year, $140 million extension the Phillies had offered him. This was arguably the last time the Cardinals could credibly claim that trading for a rental player allowed them to entice him to sign a below-market extension before he could reach free agency thanks to how much he enjoyed playing in St. Louis. And for Rolen, a southern Indiana native who grew up a Cardinals fan, this made all the sense in the world.
In 2003, Rolen was worth every penny that his new contract paid him–he was yet again an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner, and while the Cardinals’ inconsistent pitching landed them in third place in the division, the offense was a well-oiled machine. But when Rolen took yet another step forward in 2004, he carried the team as a whole with him. By FanGraphs WAR, only eight third basemen in the history of baseball had a more valuable season than Rolen had in 2004. Of course, in keeping with what was a common theme in his career, Rolen’s greatness was overlooked.
Adrián Beltré was better than Scott Rolen in 2004 by any reasonable measure–it wasn’t a blowout, but Beltré had the edge by both traditional metrics (he led Rolen by batting average and home runs and his three-RBI deficit could easily by explained by “he wasn’t batting behind Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds”) and advanced ones (Beltré had a slight wRC+ lead and slightly better defensive metrics). By the same token, even though Scott Rolen is probably one of the ten greatest third basemen ever, one of the very few players who were quantifiably his superior, Chipper Jones, ran an almost parallel career to Rolen, usually in the same league and for several years in the same division. And even in 2004, Rolen’s magnum opus, he was third on his own team in home runs, OPS, and several other offensive categories; it was Albert Pujols who came closest on the team to a National League MVP award that went (correctly) to Barry Bonds.
But where Scott Rolen was truly a second banana was in the postseason. In the 2004 NLCS, he was the team’s second-best hitter by OPS; the best, Pujols, took home the NLCS MVP award. And while Rolen was plagued with injuries in 2005, he returned to not-2004-but-still-very-good form in 2006. And in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, Rolen was one spectacular Endy Chávez home run robbery away from being the game’s greatest offensive hero; instead, it went down in the box score as Rolen hitting into a double play. In the World Series, Rolen was easily the team’s best hitter, with a team-leading 1.213 OPS thanks to a 5-for-19 stretch which included three doubles and a home run. But it was David Eckstein, the team’s fourth-best hitter by OPS, recognized as the team’s MVP.
In 2007, Rolen struggled with injuries and a lack of power when playing that caused him to have the worst mostly-full season of his career. He wasn’t horrible, but at 32 and as part of a team that was relying on increasingly post-prime players, there was reasonable concern. More concerning, however, was the increasing tension between Rolen and manager Tony LaRussa. LaRussa openly criticized Rolen’s demeanor, while Rolen was unhappy with LaRussa’s tendency to pull him out of the lineup based on injury concerns. Following the 2007 season, the tensions had boiled over to such an extent that Rolen requested a trade, and on January 14, 2008, the Cardinals obliged by sending the third baseman to the Toronto Blue Jays in a straight-up, third baseman for third baseman trade for Troy Glaus.
In 2008, the Cardinals got the better of the deal, as Rolen continued to struggle with his power and Glaus was a revelation in St. Louis, but the following season, it was Glaus who was bit by the injury bug while Rolen excelled, eventually garnering a three-player package which included future Blue Jays star Edwin Encarnación from the Cincinnati Reds for a trade deadline deal. Rolen had a nice, if not Phillies or Cardinals level, career conclusion with the Reds–in 2010, he was once again part of a three-headed offensive monster alongside an MVP candidate first baseman (Joey Votto) and a terrific outfielder (Jay Bruce) on an NL Central champion. Rolen remained a Red until 2012, when the rise of Todd Frazier made him redundant at third base.
Scott Rolen remains relevant because, every year, he comes up in Hall of Fame discussions. In 2018, his first year of eligibility, Rolen got a lackluster 10.2%, but by 2021, he was all the way up to 52.9%. And it looks increasingly likely that he will eventually make it to Cooperstown. That his candidacy would be a slow burn rather than a hands-down, no-question one is a perfect metaphor given that Rolen spent his prime years being compared unfavorably to players who were first-ballot Hall of Famers. Rolen may have ultimately been a second banana, but he was one of the great second bananas in baseball history.