Scott Rolen’s short yet pivotal stay in Toronto marks chapter in Hall of Fame career

Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Scott Rolen tags home plate as he slides in to score during fourth inning AL action against the Baltimore Orioles in Toronto on Friday May 1, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO – By the end of a highly successful 5½-year run with the St. Louis Cardinals, after he and manager Tony LaRussa had “decided to headbutt each other a little bit,” Scott Rolen felt like he needed a reset.

A Jan. 14, 2008 trade to the Toronto Blue Jays gave him one and over 203 games during the 2008-09 seasons, Rolen started to re-establish himself after three injury-plagued years and eventually added a couple more all-star campaigns to a newly minted Hall of Fame career.

“We were banging around a little bit and I ended up getting traded to Toronto and I think it was needed for us and my family and for the organization at that time,” said Rolen, named on 297 of 389 ballots to surpass the 75 per cent threshold needed for election at 76.3 per cent in voting by eligible members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

“Certainly no hard feelings, St. Louis is a fantastic place, the organization has been absolutely phenomenal. But I went to a whole different situation and different group of people kind of scratching my head and not knowing where my career was at the time. I’d been injured. I had lost a little traction ability-wise or where I was swinging the bat. J.P. (Ricciardi) traded for me, he wanted me in the clubhouse as a veteran who had some time in the game to try to pull some things together … and it worked out great. I met so many incredible people that I’m still in contact with and it really refocused me, like, ‘This is baseball. Just go play baseball, get away from it, try to hit the ball up the middle and see what happens.’”

What happened was Rolen produced 3.4 bWAR in 115 games during that initial year in Toronto and then 3.9 bWAR in just 88 games in 2009 before he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, where he enjoyed all-star campaigns in 2010 and 2011 and made two post-season trips.

During his time in Toronto, the eight-time Gold Glove winner played third base with a grace unrivalled on the Blue Jays until Matt Chapman’s arrival last season, while impacting several of his teammates with his professionalism and determination.

Still, his lasting mark on the franchise is in the moves his presence begat, indirectly leading to the acquisition of Jose Bautista on Aug. 21, 2008 and directly to the addition of Edwin Encarnacion at the trade deadline in 2009. In that way, the spiral of moves that eventually led to the post-season runs of 2015 and ’16 trace back to him.

Additionally, Rolen also provided Ricciardi with a pathway to solve a problem with Troy Glaus, who in the winter of 2007 was coming off surgery to ease the plantar fasciitis in his left foot exacerbated by the dome’s artificial playing surface.

A one-for-one with the Cardinals brought Rolen to the Blue Jays, who in August were looking to backfill for the third baseman while he was on the injured list. That’s when the Pittsburgh Pirates happened to put Bautista on revocable waivers, Ricciardi gave then assistant GM Alex Anthopoulos permission to put in a claim and eventually catcher Robinzon Diaz was shipped out to complete the deal.

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The next summer, the Blue Jays’ competitive window began to collapse and though Rolen was in the midst of a resurgence at the plate, hitting .320/.370/.476, the turf was wearing him down and he had hoped to get closer to home.

Walt Jocketty, who had traded for Rolen from the Philadelphia Phillies as Cardinals GM in 2002, had moved on to Cincinnati and was the perfect fit. The Blue Jays zeroed in on a pitching prospect, Zach Stewart, along with an intriguing bullpen arm in Josh Roenicke, but to make the money work, had to take on Encarnacion, struggling at the time under a bad contract.

The deal went down on July 31, 2009.

“My contract was ending. I wasn’t sure where I was and it was kind of a short-term idea, I think, for J.P. at the time,” said Rolen. “Walt Jocketty was looking for a similar thing that J.P. was and it was an opportunity for me to get back home. My kids were young at the time and it was the closest major-league team to where I live and where my kids were going to school, so it was pretty interesting to me. That worked out well.”

Very much so.

The two players Rolen in essence left behind, Bautista and Encarnacion, eventually carried the Blue Jays back to the post-season.

And Rolen proceeded to put the finishing touches on a 17-year career that led him to a July 23 induction alongside another former Blue Jays star, Fred McGriff, selected by the contemporary era committee back in the fall.

Not bad for a short but eventful stay in Toronto.

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