How Scott Rolen's Blue Jays tenure strengthened his Hall of Fame case

Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Scott Rolen dives for a throwing error during AL action against the Tampa Bay Rays in Toronto on Monday, June 28, 2008. (CP/file)

Because of his inclusion in the trade that brought the Toronto Blue Jays Edwin Encarnacion, Scott Rolen will always be an important figure in the franchise's history.

While his tenure with the Blue Jays was short, it’s a vital part of his career as well – a career that could be recognized by a Hall of Fame induction on Tuesday.

Despite a lack of gaudy offensive numbers, Rolen has the makings of a straightforward case. He is an eight-time Gold Glover who made seven All-Star Game appearances. He’s also a Rookie of the Year and World Series Champion. For the more analytically inclined, he has 70.1 WAR to his name and clears Jay Jaffe’s JAWS mark for the average Hall of Fame third baseman.

Although the strength of that case is built largely on his work with the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals, Rolen’s time with the Blue Jays is an underrated part of his legacy.

The most obvious way Rolen’s Hall of Fame credentials were bolstered by his time in Toronto is his raw production. In 203 games with the Blue Jays, he piled up 7.4 WAR – just about 10 per cent of his career total in just about a tenth of his MLB games. The fact, he produced at his career clip for a year-and-a-half seems like the opposite of noteworthy, but context is important.

When the Blue Jays traded Troy Glaus for Rolen before the 2008 season, it looked like they might be catching a falling knife. Rolen was about to turn 33, he’d just had a season where he hit .265/.331/.398 (good for a below-average 89 OPS+), and he’d missed out on a Gold Glove for the first time since 1999. Worse yet, he’d suffered significant shoulder injuries in two of his last three seasons. In both of his injury-marred years, he was below-average offensively, and he played just 103 games played per season over that three-year span. Rolen’s injuries didn’t seem entirely fluky either, as he played extremely hard on the bases and in the field.

If you were drawing up a profile of a guy likely to face a steep decline in his 30s, this was the guy. And yet, Rolen bounced back.

His 2008 included lost time due to both finger and shoulder injuries, but he hit a respectable .262/349/.431 with a 109 OPS+. It was far from a world-beating performance, but along with his exceptional defence, it was a stabilizing effort worth 3.4 WAR.

The next year, Rolen didn’t merely show he wasn’t done, he demonstrated that he could still be one of the best players in the league. The then-34-year-old hit .320/.370/.476 with the Blue Jays while continuing to play dazzling defence. That performance was worth 3.9 WAR in just 88 games before he was shipped to the Cincinnati Reds. Put another way, his WAR/100 plate appearances during that time (1.05) was better than the number (0.97) that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. put up during his breakout 2021 season.

That half season wasn’t a fleeting last gasp of brilliance, either. The next season, he put together an outstanding campaign with the Reds that resulted in an All-Star appearance and MVP votes. He even added to his collection of Gold Gloves at the age of 35. He managed 7.6 WAR in his Reds tenure that helped put the cherry on a Hall of Fame case based more in all-around contributions than traditional milestones. His final years helped in that regard too, as he was able to become only the fourth third baseman in MLB history with 2,000 hits, 500 doubles, 300 home runs and 1,200 RB, joining Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones and George Brett.

When Rolen reached the Blue Jays, his career had been downright extraordinary, but its direction was in peril. Recent history is littered with talented all-around stars at the hot corner whose 30s derailed their Hall of Fame potential, such as David Wright, Eric Chavez and Evan Longoria. Rolen could’ve been the modern prototype for that career path.

Instead, he found his footing in Toronto and showed he could be an elite player at an advanced age. That enabled him to mold his career from outstanding and likely underappreciated one to a 17-year saga that will likely be recognized in Cooperstown — even if that doesn’t happen this year.

It’s safe to say that none of Rolen’s most significant highlights came in the much (and rightly) maligned Blue Jays’ black, but without his time in Toronto, he might not be a topic of conversation in 2022.

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