Rolen’s play has critics red in the face

I didn’t like the Scott Rolen trade. I couldn’t fathom why the Cincinnati Reds, completing a ninth straight losing season in 2009, were so eager to hitch their future to an injury-prone, 35-year-old third baseman.

I wrote as much last August, on this very website. I believe the headline was “Makes No Cincy.”


“Well,” sighed Walt Jocketty, the Reds general manager, “you weren’t the only one.”

Thanks. I feel a little better.

But with Cincinnati on the verge of its first playoff berth since 1995 – and Rolen enjoying a career renaissance – I feel obliged to credit the Reds for a trade whose wisdom many of us missed.

First, let’s revisit the circumstances as they were July 31, 2009, when the Reds acquired Rolen from Toronto for third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and pitchers Zach Stewart and Josh Roenicke.

The Reds were 10 games back in the National League Central and unremarkable in nearly every way. Core players Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce had apparently regressed. Willy Taveras was an awful leadoff hitter. The pitching? Pretty ordinary.

Hopes of contention had faded long before. The mid-market playbook – utilized in places such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh – would prescribe immediate payroll-paring maneuvers. But if Jocketty had a copy, he lost it. He wanted Rolen, a player he knew and appreciated from their time together in St. Louis.

Rolen was a former All-Star and Gold Glove winner – emphasis on former. Because of injuries, Rolen had enjoyed just one star-level season since 2004.

Yes, he was a winner. Yes, he was a veteran. But the surgical rap sheet made Rolen a risk – especially at a cost of $11 million for 2010.

Then the Reds doubled down on their illogical bet – tearing up Rolen’s contract and replacing it with a brand-new, $24 million deal through 2012.

What, exactly, were the Reds thinking? Was Jocketty looking at old scouting reports? Had owner Bob Castellini become obsessed with creating St. Louis East?

Turns out, they had simply done their homework. The Reds scouted him extensively, and Jocketty was confident that Rolen would sign an extension.

Now, the Rolen trade looks like one of the most important acquisitions – by any team – over the past 14 months.

He has remained healthy – for the most part – and is batting close to .300. He is enjoying only his second 20-homer, 80-RBI season since 2004. His steady play at third has tightened the Reds’ infield defense.

And not to be overlooked: Rolen has improved the team’s overall competitiveness and work ethic.

“I knew what he would bring to this club – his character, his presence in the clubhouse and on the field,” Jocketty said. “He’s been everything we hoped he would be.”

Even in a game that didn’t count in the standings: One of Rolen’s signature moments this year was the game-changing, first-to-third sprint that sparked the NL’s winning rally in the All-Star Game.

“He’s a presence, no question,” Brewers infielder Craig Counsell said earlier this season. “He’s clearly healthy again. He impacts the game in every way – offensively, defensively, base running. He is one of those players that can change the vibe of a team.”

Leadership is difficult to measure, and I’m usually skeptical when I hear that a player was acquired because he’s “good in the clubhouse.” Hitters are hired to hit. I wouldn’t be writing this column if Rolen were batting .220.

But there are teams, seasons and moments that demand players of Rolen’s ilk. Jocketty recognized that need. And now he has a player who has raised the play of Phillips, Bruce and others.

Don’t believe that’s possible? Consider what Dodgers GM Ned Colletti told Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke the other day: “Do we have one player in there who stands up and says, ‘Follow me?’ No.”

Rolen is that player for the Reds. That’s why his team is going to the postseason, and the Dodgers are not.

Rolen isn’t going to win the National League MVP award – although his teammate, Joey Votto, might. Rolen doesn’t have the sensational numbers of Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki or Albert Pujols.

But he might be the MTP – Most Transformative Player. He changed the culture of a franchise, even though some of us wondered whether he belonged in Cincinnati at all.

“I’m still getting it today,” Rolen said, smiling, when asked about the criticism. “It’s still talked about. I’m happy to be here. I think I’m in the right place.”

When the champagne spills – probably later this week – that will be apparent to all.