Commentary

Jimmy Rollins' happy holiday return

Spurned by the market, the Phillies' free-agent shortstop will be welcomed back

Originally Published: December 19, 2011
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Jimmy Rollins didn't break the bank when he signed a three-year deal to stay with the Philadelphia Phillies. But he did buck a trend.

When Rollins and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. shake hands at a news conference Monday, it will mark the first feel-good moment of the offseason between a prominent free agent and a longtime employer. With Albert Pujols, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson, Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer and Heath Bell changing teams, the winter has been longer on bittersweet goodbyes than renewal vows. And that list doesn't even include Prince Fielder, who has less chance to resurface in Milwaukee than Laverne De Fazio and Shirley Feeney do resurrecting their Shotz Brewery shtick in prime time.

The Phillies are committed to keeping Rollins around through 2014 for $33 million, with a vesting option that could extend the deal through 2015, when Rollins will be 37 years old. That seems like a fair price for goodwill, organizational continuity and a late-career push for the Hall of Fame. In the end, the two sides found a way to make it work because they go well together, and this winter they learned that they really needed each other.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Rollins
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesWith so few suitors, free agent Jimmy Rollins was left standing around.

Rollins' free-agent adventure was always destined to be bigger news in Philadelphia than the rest of the country, in part because of the widespread perception that talks were destined to lead him back to Citizens Bank Park no matter how many detours the process took. It's only fitting that news of Rollins' deal broke Saturday just as the Cincinnati Reds acquired pitcher Mat Latos from San Diego in a five-player trade. The Latos news was stunning. But when the Rollins deal came down, most Phillies fans must have thought, "It's about time."

In hindsight, Rollins scared away some suitors when he went public in late September with his desire for a five-year contract. A general manager for one team that dabbled in the shortstop market this winter shared his opinion on where Rollins fits in the contract spectrum, and the words "five years" never came up in the conversation.

"To me, shortstops are like running backs in the NFL. When they're 31 or 32, you don't know what you're going to get," said the GM, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He can ask for five years and premium dollars, but the reality is, it's not out there. He's not an MVP anymore. Guys like him are $7 million or $8 million players for two or three years."

This is also the wrong winter to go to the mat if you're a shortstop or a closer. Rollins' longtime teammate Ryan Madson is in free-agent limbo after talks between the Phillies and his agent, Scott Boras, unraveled under mysterious circumstances in November. The Phillies signed Papelbon to a $50 million contract, and Bell, Nathan, Frank Francisco, Huston Street and Sergio Santos have since found new homes through free agency or trades. Meanwhile, teams continue to leaf idly through Boras' umpteen-page binder on Madson -- and take a pass.

Rollins' value similarly was undercut by a glut of alternatives on the market. Reyes was the top-end play at six years and $106 million. Rafael Furcal, Clint Barmes and Jamey Carroll all signed two-year contracts, and Alex Gonzalez went to the Brewers for one year with a vesting option. The non-Reyes choices on the market simply weren't as good as Rollins, but you can argue that they are 60 or 70 percent as good, and that's enough when they cost a fraction as much.

The Brewers made a sincere offer, but it was going to take a boatload to sway Rollins to leave Philadelphia for Milwaukee. San Francisco had a distinct appeal, given Rollins' Northern California roots, but the Giants are marshaling their resources to pay co-aces Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. The Red Sox and Dodgers, ready-to-win teams that might have been attractive to Rollins, weren't looking for shortstop help. The Rollins-to-Detroit rumors lasted about as long as a sneeze, and the St. Louis people said privately that Rollins was too expensive for their tastes.

Of course, because of Rollins' niche in franchise history, his value to the Phillies is greater than it was to other clubs. With 1,866 career hits, he needs 369 to pass Ed Delahanty, Richie Ashburn and Mike Schmidt and become the team's all-time leader. What kind of price tag do you put on that? Rollins has three All-Star Game appearances, three Gold Gloves, 373 career stolen bases, five 100-run seasons and that 2007 MVP Award. Barring a sudden collapse, he's going to merit Cooperstown consideration when his name appears on the ballot. Like Derek Jeter in New York, he provides some residual value for the Phillies' brand.

True, Rollins has not been the same player since his MVP season. But since 2008, he still ranks second among shortstops in stolen bases (125), fourth in runs (311) and doubles (119), ninth in hits (559) and 12th in OPS (.737).

"I don't think he's near what he was when he won the MVP,'' an AL scout said. "It's hard to put your finger on it. He's just not as explosive or live, and the ball doesn't carry as much. He's losing a step. But he's still very solid. His defense is above-average. He can hit at the top of the order, and he's a guy you like at the plate when the game is on the line. I still like him. I thought it was the right dollars."

Hard-core Phillies watchers recognize the difference between "Jimmy" and his alter ego, "J-Roll." Jimmy has leadership qualities, plays the game with passion and busts it out of the batter's box on his way to stretching a double into a triple. In contrast, J-Roll is the guy who was benched twice by manager Charlie Manuel for assorted transgressions in 2008. He strolls into the clubhouse a half-hour before stretching and makes beat writers wait an eternity before emerging from the showers for postgame interviews. He usually has something insightful to say, so he makes it worth their while.

Beyond those distinctions, Rollins is a solid organizational and community presence. He lives in the Philadelphia area year-round, hosts an annual charity bowling tournament and talks to school kids about volunteering and the importance of reading. When the Phillies want a familiar face to appear at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony or to lend a hand for Manuel's favorite cause, Rollins is available. And when an authoritative voice is needed to referee the team's postseason share meeting, serve as a conduit to the Players Association during labor negotiations or sort through the scheduling mess after Hurricane Irene, Rollins is the guy.

After nine seasons together, Rollins and Chase Utley have forged a nice complementary dynamic. Utley burns with a quiet intensity that can make him seem standoffish or oblivious to the outside world, but his hard-core mindset forces teammates to raise their games to meet his exacting standards. Rollins, in contrast, provides humor or perspective when needed, and adds a touch of swagger with his brash predictions.

If Rollins feels slighted over the amount of money he's making compared to Reyes, he's not the type to dwell on it. Through the years, he's had lots of people tell him he was too small to be an All-Star player, but there's not an ounce of "I told you so" in that 5-foot-8, 170-pound frame -- at least for public consumption. Larry Bowa played 16 seasons with a chip on his shoulder. From all indications, Rollins derives his motivation strictly from within.

In the end, the timing simply wasn't right for this marriage to end. The Phillies are built to win now and they already have more than $160 million invested in the 2012 roster and they didn't have the luxury of heaping all that pressure on rookie Freddy Galvis. They need a shortstop who is going to pick up a routine ground ball with a runner on third base and two outs in the ninth inning of a 3-3 game and fire it to first without flinching.

Despite some internal drama here and there, Amaro, Rollins and agent Dan Lozano reached the same conclusion and fashioned a compromise. With Rollins, Papelbon, Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix and Dontrelle Willis in the fold, Philadelphia's general manager can exhale and enjoy Christmas. And the team's longtime shortstop can celebrate the holidays secure in the knowledge he is going to be around for the long haul.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer