While Phillie faithful were prone to accept the fact that Rolen would never re-sign with the Phils and would leave after the '02 season as a free agent, most felt that Wade painted himself into a corner by waiting so long to approve a deal for the unhappy third sacker.
For those of us who followed the entire story, it became clear after the '01 season that Rolen was unhappy playing for firebrand manager Larry Bowa and would probably leave when his contract expired after 2002. To his credit, Wade remained ever the optimist, and even offered Rolen a huge contract extension in spring training.
When Rolen rejected the offer [rumored to be at or near $100 million] the countdown began. History now makes it clear that Wade should have begun fielding offers for Rolen in the spring, but waited until mid-July to field offers. Ultimately, the choice came down to an offer of pitcher Scott Williamson and third baseman Brandon Larson from Cincinnati or a Cardinal offer of Polanco, Smith and a top rated pitching prospect named Jim Journell.
As the days dwindled down to a precious few, Wade agreed to the deal with Cincinnati. Red's GM Jim Bowden agreed to the swap, with the caveat that he would need approval from his owner. To the chagrin of Wade, the Reds owner feared that Rolen might not re-sign with the team and vetoed the deal.
An embarrassed Wade was forced to contact Card's GM Walt Jocketty and attempt to rekindle the deal with the Redbirds. No fool, Jocketty understood that he now had the trump card with Wade and used it to his advantage. Not only did he pull Journell from the deal, but forced the Phils to take Timlin and his contract as part of the deal.
Phillie fans will never forget the sight of Wade at the podium to announce the trade. It was quite clear that he understood the ramifications of this deal and how, if Rolen signed a long term deal with St. Louis, the deal could look very one-sided. In truth, he had no idea of how badly this trade would eventually look to a disbelieving fan base.
Not only did Rolen sign a long term deal and continue on his path towards Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame, but Timlin left in a huff at the end of the season, with nothing but vindictive things to say about his stay in Philadelphia.
To make matters worse, Smith came to the Phils as damaged goods and never recovered the form that saw him toss a no-hitter at the still tender age of 21. In fairness to Wade, Smith was the key to this trade and had he performed as hoped, the Phils might have considered the deal as an even swap.
However, with Timlin jettisoned and Smith incapacitated, it was left for Polanco to help justify the deal. And for nearly two and one half seasons he has performed admirably, both as a third baseman and at second base. Always dependable, and one of the more fundamentally sound members of the club, Polanco at least made the trade somewhat palatable for Phillie fanatics.
In fact, he seems to just now be coming into his own as a middle infielder with power and pop to his bat, and gold glove instincts with the glove. This leads us to today and Wade's win-win situation. While the Phils can never completely recover from the loss of Rolen and his mega talent skills, having Polanco in tow is certainly a step in the right direction.
Wade's record as a poker player is checkered but he has displayed an occasional ability to come up aces when it appeared he might have to fold. One need look no further than last December when he waited until the last minute to offer arbitration to pitcher Kevin Millwood, again figuring he was in a win-win situation. The fact that Millwood had an injury marred season in no way should take away the credit due Wade for this move.
It not only was the correct one, but a wise one at that. It sent a message to players that unlike some major league teams, when Wade offers arbitration, he often hopes that the player will accept. Apparently this was the message sent to Polanco, and his acceptance of the arbitration process merely confirms this.
Make no mistake; Polanco had other offers, firm or otherwise. Certainly one would have been forthcoming from those very same Cardinals, managed by Tony Larussa. It is well known of the high regard that Larussa has for Polanco, and with the loss of Edgar Renteria via free agency, the Cards are at least one infielder short.
A quick glance at the landscape also shows such clubs as the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs in varying needs of a middle infielder with the grace and skill of Polanco. Yes, the offers were either already there, or would have been coming in soon, much like the Christmas present given a few days after the holiday.
This is where the win-win situation comes into focus. Had Polanco, a Type A free agent, turned down the Phils arbitration offer and signed with another club, the Phils would have received two high amateur draft picks as payment, one probably a first round pick. The other one would have been no lower than a second round selection, and no team has made better use of second round picks than our very own Phillies.
No less than skilled stars like Rolen and lefty Randy Wolf were chosen by the Phils in the second round. As has been mentioned many times in this column, the Phils greatest strength lies in their ability to pluck talent from the amateur ranks. They don't always sign or develop that talent, but draft day is always a highlight for Phillie faithful. Most Phillie draftniks know that this team rarely makes draft mistakes.
If, however, Polanco scanned the landscape and decided "Philadelphia Freedom" was the song he most wished to sing, then the Phillies would once again have a near all-star infielder on their roster. This is no minor matter, as having Polanco as an option is one that may come quite in handy during those long hot dog days of August.
Not only does Polanco offer the Phils a steady right handed bat on the days that lefty Chase Utley sits against a tough southpaw, but he offers competent relief for whatever may ail David Bell and his often balky back. Truth be told, more than one Phillie insider doubts that Bell can repeat his largely unimpeded season of 2004 next year.
More likely is the scenario that Bell either needs an occasional breather to rest his back, or may need an extended vacation of a week or more to insure that it doesn't go out altogether. Either way, Polanco offers great protection for Bell, Utley and the Phillies. He even can apprentice as a shortstop if Jimmy Rollins needs a breather, though that seems better suited to the talents of Tomas Perez.
One more scenario could well take place at the trading deadline in July of 2005. Of course, this will not show up in print, nor be uttered for public consumption by anyone in the Phillie organization. However, it certainly will be debated privately, especially if the Phils find themselves in need of reinforcements come the trade deadline.
David Bell's contract becomes more appealing with every passing day, and by July of 2005 he will have merely a year and a half left on the original 4 year deal. The debate over the wisdom of the deal is long since past, but what can not be debated that if healthy, David Bell might look very attractive to a team like the Twins or Dodgers if they find themselves one third baseman short of a playoff birth.
This is probably not the case now, but it would not be a total surprise to hear inquiries starting in the spring about Bell's availability. It behooves Wade to learn from his mistakes with Rolen and cast at least a willing ear to any interested suitor. In the irony of ironies, the incumbent third baseman could well bring the Phils what they never received when the last third baseman left.
To add to this irony, this is only possible because the player acquired for Rolen has chosen to stay in Philadelphia. In a most optimistic Phillie world, one could hope that Wade had played all these possibilities in his head before deciding to cast his lot Polanco's way. Yet the skeptic in me whispers that a more likely scenario is that Wade feared a public relations nightmare if he merely allowed Polanco to leave without even an offer.
Like it or not, Wade will forever be judged on his trades of former Phillie greats Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen. At this present time, the checklist is not favorable. Travis Lee, gone. Omar Daal, gone, Nelson Figueroa, gone, Timlin and Smith, likewise are gone. Only pitcher Vicente Padilla and Polanco remain from those two ill-ventured treks into the trading market.
With rumors of an impending departure of Padilla if the price is right, Wade could ill afford the loss of Polanco without at least the semblance of a whimper. Wade did more than whimper. He stepped up the plate and made the correct and wise choice.
He studied the opposition, weighed the options, glanced at his cards….and bet the house he would not lose. From here, it appears he made not only the right decision, but the only decision. After all, how can you lose when placed in a win-win situation?
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Columnist's Note: Please send your comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast