Scott Rolen might someday trace an unjust Hall of Fame snub to his 2005 collision with Dodgers' 1B Hee Sop-Choi - an incident that resulted in a labrum tear and ultimately required surgery. The following season, without the help of even one stem cell, he played 147 games and slashed .296/.369/.518. Rolen's shoulder began nagging him toward the end of 2007, requiring surgery for scar tissue removal. The next season, he injured his finger at the beginning of the season and experienced more shoulder troubles toward the end, but pieced together 108 OPS+ season as a Blue Jay.
He increased his production at the plate and attendance record in each of the next two seasons, appearing in 133 games with the 2010 Reds and helping lead the team to a division championship. Then Rolen went under the knife for his shoulder again late last July, after wearing down late in 2010 and seeming lost at the plate throughout 2011.
Depending on how you count them, Rolen will be mounting his third comeback from a major injury this season. This time he'll be doing it as a 37-year old. Anecdotally and statistically, Rolen is still a very good defender at third. His left shoulder injury doesn't affect his throwing arm and doesn't seem to significantly limit his ability to put his glove in the right place.
Slate called the labrum tear "baseball's most fearsome injury." While it's painful, nagging and career-threatening, most of the sensationalism is about pitchers and their throwing arms. Where I see Rolen's injury mattering most is in his swing and, consequently, his plate approach. He's already altered his batting stance at least once to accommodate his shoulder issue, likely sacrificing some power (though it's hard both to explain 2010 and to figure out how much to chalk up to normal aging). Last season, Rolen didn't have trouble making contact, but he did walk at a lower rate than he ever has while swinging at more balls out of the strike zone.
He only appeared in 65 games in 2011, so I don't know how much to read into his performance. Rolen's plate vision, an attribute that actually improves in many veterans, is likely still there. His walk rate dipped permanently below 10% after 2005, but he's been good for around 9% since then and was at 9.3% in 2010 (after altering his batting stance).
The body just might not be willing. If his bat speed and torque remain diminished, he may compensate by reaching for pitches he ordinarily would have taken for a ball. The extent to which his strength and confidence returns will determine his success this year and ability to avoid a bizarre, Star Wars surgery.
Though he's had a very distinctive career arc, I wondered if there were any comparable players for Rolen: third basemen with long, productive careers who battled through injury and played into their late 30s. Rolen is a very unique player and there aren't very many good comps for third basemen with a long injury history who have also stayed at the position for their entire careers and produced at his level.
Chipper Jones, who had knee surgery in 2010 and has struggled to play in more than 130 games since 2005, springs to mind. His ability to play at an elite level at age 37 (in 2009) is encouraging, but he's a much different player from Rolen, hitting for higher average (and reaching base more as a result), more power and getting much less value out of his glove. Jones maintained his high walk rate through the end of his thirties, where Rolen has stayed below 10% in 2006.
Wade Boggs, 1995
Boggs was a legendary "pure hitter," (whatever that means), with prodigious on-base skills, but his overall offensive output was similar to Rolen's over his career (ignoring era slightly). His age 37 season, marked by injury, was his last stand before his decline. Boggs suffered a hamstring injury late into his third season with the Yankees in 1995. That year was arguably his last All-Star caliber season. His bat lost a little pop, his defense likely suffered and he declined to merely average for the next three seasons. Boggs remained valuable at that level, until his final season in Tampa Bay (and baseball).
Rolen isn't going to reach base at an over .400 rate, but setting the floor at league average would be perfectly acceptable.There's reason to believe his defense could float him more than it did Boggs. Defensive metrics still like Scott and helped to lift him above replacement level last season, despite his worst season ever at the plate (269 PAs). Just as Boggs' on-base skills were pretty durable (he reached base at a .377 clip at age 41), Rolen wouldn't have to hit for the power he did in 2010 to have a Late Boggs-ian season at age 37. One last flash of former greatness would be all the Reds require.