Relaford was a top prospect with the Mariners. He was replaced by an even higher regarded prospect in Rollins.
We continue our series of exploring the careers of the guys who were replaced by our favorites by taking a look at Desi Relaford, who was replaced by Jimmy Rollins.
Sitting fourth all-time in franchise history in hits (only 210 behind first place Mike Schmidt), third in runs, second in doubles (just 21 behind Ed Delahanty), fourth in triples, third in steals, and 11th in HRs, Rollins is perhaps the most underrated player in Phillies history. He has compiled offensive stats at a rate that is good enough to quietly sneak him in the conversation of Best Shortstop of His Era, but not win: from 2000 to 2012, Rollins has accumulated more fWAR than any player to play shortstop not named Derek Jeter.
While his offense has been very good, .270/.328/.432, his defense and his base-running truly put him in the elite class of all-times Phillies players. His 403 steals from 2000-2012 rank second among shortstops and the 79.2 runs he created on the base paths are tops among shortstops in that time period. And while Gold Glove awards have turned into awards based on reputation, Rollins has four of them, and has saved the Phillies 40.8 runs with his glove in his time here.
What I, and many others, remember Rollins for, however, was 2007. Rollins famously declared preseason that the Phillies were the team to beat in the NL East and not the New York Mets, who were a ninth inning Yadier Molina homer and a run of their own away from reaching the World Series just the year before. The Phillies finished just three games behind the Dodgers after a late charge led by 2006 MVP Ryan Howard. Rollins moxy, or swag as the kids call it now, seemed a little shortsighted at the time. The Mets had pitching, hitting, a bullpen, and defense. The Phillies were banking on Rollins, Howard, Chase Utley, who most fans could take or leave, a few promising arms, and not much else.
Rollins hit .335/.371/.589 with six doubles, five triples, and eight home runs in the last 34 games of 2007 to lead the Phillies to a 23-11 mark, erase a 7.5 game Mets division lead, and got the Phils to their first playoff appearance and division title since 1993. Rollins whirlwind stretch-run helped him overtake Matt Holiday and David Wright for the 2007 NL MVP award and earned him a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and MVP award, the first and only Phillie ever to do so. While the Phillies were bounced in three in Colorado, J-Rol and the Fightins rebounded in 2008 and brought home the second championship in Phillies history.
Relaford came to the Phillies midway through the 1996 season in a trade for Terry Mulholland, a deal that was half-salary dump, half first stages of rebuild. The Mariners paid a steep price for Mulholland, who was a solid, dependable starter who was paid appropriately. Relaford was number 89 and 92 in Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects in 1995 and 1996 respectively, and had already earned a spot in Triple-A Tacoma by his age 22 season. Despite a less-than-impressive run there, followed by a less-than-impressive run in Scranton, Relaford was called up when rosters expanded in September and hit .175/.233/.225 for the Phils in 44 PA.
Relaford would again receive a September call-up in 1997 before winning the starting shortstop job outright in Spring Training 1998. Relaford’s acquisition made Kevin Stocker expendable, who was turned into Bobby Abreu in a trade with the Devil Rays. Relaford played parts of five seasons with the Phillies, putting up an unimpressive .234/.315/.328 with below average defense and baserunning. Relaford was worth -1.5 WAR in 320 games for the Phillies.
Much like yesterday’s Schmidt-for-Don Money trade off, this one paid off pretty well. The Phillies swapped out an underachieving prospect who still had enough value to be traded for a warm body (David Newhan) and gave a player who succeeded in the high minors with a better pedigree a shot to play. Rollins was an All-Star in his rookie season, and in three out of his first five, and the Phillies never had to look back.
How Hard Was the Decision to Replace the Incumbent?
This one may surprise you. While yesterday’s subject, Money, was beginning a pretty decent career, and ended up racking up a few All-Star nods of his own, Relaford did not, but he came to Philadelphia in a pretty shrewd trade with an impressive pedigree. Relaford ranked 89 and 92 in the 1995 and 1996 Baseball America Top 100 rankings and had shot up all the way to Triple-A by age 21. At 22, he struggled at Seattle’s Triple-A Tacoma and was then traded to Philadelphia for Mulholland, who was the highest paid pitcher not named Curt Schilling on the club. In a half-salary dump, half-talent acquisition maneuver, the Phillies got rid of payroll as they prepared to rebuild and acquired a player who could make Kevin Stocker expendable.
Relaford had three years of team control left when the Phillies traded him 2000 and let Alex Arias briefly take over before calling up J-Rol. While Relaford never shocked the world on defense, he never failed the eye test either, and, at age 26, there was always hope that his numbers would one day match his low minors numbers. With the benefit of seeing what the Phillies got for Relaford, Newhan (.176/.263/.176 in 19 PA for the Phils in 2000), he likely was more valuable to the Phillies than he was to other teams, trade-wise.
In part time roles, Relaford would post 2.3 and 1.9 WAR in 2001 and 2002 for the Mets and Mariners respectively, hitting .284/.351/.421 over 710 PA. Thankfully, Rollins, in his age 22 and 23 seasons, put up 2.0 WAR and 2.6 WAR and a .260/.315/.400 line of his own across 1425 PA and made trading Relaford a non-issue. Rollins had a pedigree of his own, ranking 95 in 2000 and 31 in 2001 in Baseball America’s Top 100 – had he not succeeded right away and Relaford had the same success he did, there may have been a messy situation among Phillies’ fans. While this one looks cut and dry with the benefit of hindsight, Rollins’ superior play out of the gate overshadowed Relaford’s immediate successes once he changed addresses and made a tough decision look not only easy, but like the right decision.