IN 2005, THE Phillies gave Jimmy Rollins a 5-year contract extension worth $40 million.
It was a brilliant business move for the Phillies. Including an option, they had the National League's premier shortstop locked up through 2011.
On the cheap . . . OK, relative cheap. We are, after all, talking baseball salaries here at a time when the Los Angeles Angels of Disneyland still will be paying Albert Pujols $25.4 million guaranteed when he is 41 years old. Of course, the way baseball salaries have escalated despite a dismal economy, $25.4 million might be a bargain-basement figure by the year 2022.
When Rollins signed that contract, the game's best shortstop, Derek Jeter, then 31, was in the fifth year of his 10-year, $189 million Yankees deal.
In 2007, Rollins' MVP year, the National League's best shortstop was 4 years younger than the American League's best and earned about $11 million less than Jeter.
Nobody is going to argue that the iconic, first-ballot Hall of Famer is not a better all-around player than J-Roll. But Rollins was not worth nearly three times less than Jeter, which is what the numbers suggested.
Fast forward to 2009, when Rollins had turned 30. His average slumped to .250 a year after he helped lead the Phillies to their second World Series title. But it was a productive .250. He led the league with 725 plate appearances and 672 at-bats, despite missing seven games. He scored 100 runs, the leadoff hitter's benchmark, drove in 77 and stole 31 bases. He had 69 extra-base hits and a .719 OPS.
They were fairly amazing numbers considering Rollins had an OBP of just .296, a red flag for any big-league position player and unacceptable for a leadoff hitter. It was 53 points under his 2008 OBP number and marked a sea change in the way he was regarded by a sometimes unforgiving fandom. He already was carrying the baggage of being yanked from a game by Charlie Manuel for failing to hustle on a play and his benching for showing up late before a Mets game in New York.
But in the 20/20 clarity of hindsight, 2009 would have been the ideal time to give Rollins a 5-year extension with a club option for 2014 at a figure equivalent to the $11 million a year the Phillies will pay him during his new, 3-year-plus-option, free-agent contract.
Once again, they have him below the market for a premier shortstop. But there are hard reasons for the reluctance of any ballclub to give him the 5-year deal he sought on the open market.
When Jeter was 33, he was in the middle of a 7-year stretch where he never played fewer than 150 games. He hit .322 and lashed 206 hits that season.
Given his recent track record - Rollins missed a total of 94 games in 2010-11- Jimmy represents a significant down-time risk.
But the same can be said of Jose Reyes, the new gold standard for NL shortstops and leadoff men. The Miami Marlins, perhaps blinded by a fool's gold assumption their 37,000-seat sardine can will be filled nightly by the same fan base that avoided them like the plague in northern Dade County's Sun Lite Mausoleum, dropped $102 million on Reyes. The contract is severely back-loaded. Jose will make $1 million less than Rollins in 2012-13. Then his deal bumps to $16 million in 2014, followed by 3 more years at $22 million.
Reyes' injury track record makes Rollins look like Cal Ripken. The snowflake-brittle blazer missed 191 games his final three Mets seasons, one reason to be sure that general manager Sandy Alderson was not eager to bid for his best player's services.
The eagerness of J-Roll's Oakland pal Dontrelle Willis to sign here as a lefthanded specialist was the only thing you needed to know about the "mystery club" that suddenly was tossed out there after the Cardinals re-signed veteran shortstop Rafe Furcal.
The Rollins signing is the best possible bottom line for GM Ruben Amaro Jr.'s offseason priorities. Anybody who was eager to start the clock on Freddy Galvis next season is out of touch with the reality of a light-hitting athlete with scant Triple A experience replacing the best shortstop in Phillies history. Most scouts see Galvis as more of a Wilson Valdez-type down the road than as the next Jimmy Rollins. Be careful what you wish for.
This was all good. You can sleep soundly until pitchers and catchers report in February.