Will the Phillies Regret the Jimmy Rollins Contract?

The Philadelphia Phillies should be grateful for the New York Yankees and Derek Jeter because the contract Jeter got from the Yankees after last season is one of the few things that can make Jimmy Rollins’s new contract with the Phillies look good, or at least reasonable. Rollins is younger and a better defender than Jeter so having him for his 33-35 year old seasons will not be quite as much of a concern for the Phillies as having Jeter for his 36-38 year old seasons will be for the Yankees, but the Phillies could still regret this contract.

2011 was Rollins best year since 2008. In 2011 he hit a decent .268/.338/.399 with good defense, but in 2009 and 2010 he combined to hit a disappointing .248/.304/.406. If Rollins puts up numbers like that in 2012-14, he will be of little value to the Phillies. The Yankees resigned Jeter after an off year in 2010 where he posted an OPS+ of 90 and hit .270/.340/.370. These were pretty weak numbers for Jeter, who has been a better hitter than Rollins throughout his career, but still no worse than Rollins in 2009 and 2010. However, in 2010, when the Yankees resigned him, Jeter was, unlike Rollins today, only one year removed from formidable numbers and strong finish in the MVP voting.

Jeter’s contract, which could cost the Yankees about $56 million is significantly bigger than what the Phillies will pay Rollins over the next four years. Rollins contract, if it is extended, will be for only about $41 million over the next four years. The precise amount of money, however, is not the most important part of the contract. Both players will earn enough money in each year of their contract that, between their contracts and their stature with their respective teams, they will be very difficult to trade or even to bench. Additionally, both will probably have to be moved out of the leadoff spot during the course of their current contract. Rollins probably, due to his inability to draw walks, should not be batting leadoff now; and Jeter is no longer the premier leadoff hitter he once was. Viewed exclusively through the prism of cost, Jeter’s contract is worse than Rollins, but $14 million more over four years is not a big difference for the Yankees. Both contracts will be difficult to move; and both players will be greatly overpaid for their services for much, if not all, of the duration of these contracts.

Thus, while Jeter’s contract may be worse than Rollins’s, it is a difference of degree not of kind. There are other similarities between the contracts as well. Both players are beloved by the fans of their teams and have spent their entire careers with one team. Additionally, neither player received much interest from any other team before resigning. Jeter’s contract demands were sufficient to make it extremely unlikely that he would sign with anybody other than the Yankees, while there were very few reports of Rollins being seriously courted by any team other than the Phillies.

The decision to sign Rollins is defendable because the Phillies need a shortstop and have no obvious choices other than Rollins. Nonetheless, they are an aging team that despite excellent pitching in 2010 and even better pitching in 2011, have lost in the playoffs in recent years to teams they were expected to beat. Much of this has been due to an offense that is led by stars like Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard who are neither as healthy nor as productive as they once were. Signing Rollins does little to address this and by committing more money to a popular, but past his prime player, may create real problems for the Phillies over the next few years.

It is striking that while after Jeter resigned last year, the baseball blogosphere was teeming with criticism of the Yankees, the Phillies have not been targeted in this way for the Rollins signing. This is not surprising given the role the Yankees play in the collective baseball consciousness, but the Phillies are also a big market team which has now been forced into another big market mistake.