The Philadelphia Phillies are having a rough time. Two years after winning 102 games en route to a fifth-consecutive National League East division title, the Phillies limped to a 73-89 finish in 2013. Only the Dodgers had an older lineup. Baseball Prospectus ranked their farm system 25th in MLB and their under-25 talent (including major leaguers) 29th, ahead of only the Brewers.
The malaise of the 2013 club has followed the Phillies to spring training, apparently. When shortstop Jimmy Rollins failed demonstrate the proper amount of chagrin over the Phillies' poor spring training results -- "Who cares?" were the exact words he used -- Ryne Sandberg sent a message and benched Rollins for three days. Sandberg proceeded to praise fellow Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis in the media for his "energy and positive influence." Within the week, out come an anonymously sourced story from ESPN's Buster Olney indicating "some influential in the organization" were unhappy with Rollins' leadership, with some even expressing the sentiment that the Phillies would be best off trading the 35-year-old shortstop.
One problem: as a 14-year veteran who has spent his entire career with the Phillies, Rollins has the right to veto any trade. As Rollins told MLB.com's Todd Zolecki:
"Because I can't be traded, It doesn't matter. I don't care which way it is tried to be twisted or said, or if it is exactly how it was said, or even if it was said, I can't be traded. It doesn't matter. If I was tradable it may have weight because that means I could be moving soon. But I am not tradable and so it doesn't matter."
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is doing his best to diffuse the talks. He referred to Rollins trade talk as "silliness," an apt descriptor. Amaro's Phillies are ostensibly trying to compete in 2014. In the offseason, the club brought in veterans Marlon Byrd (36 years old) and A.J. Burnett (37), moves clearly aimed at competing in the short term. While their actual chances of competing may be slim, thanks to an aging roster, they have no chance without Rollins.
Rollins hit just .252/.318/.348 in 2013, the worst season of his career, but he still showed strong plate discipline and made contact at a well above-average rate. Over the last three years, he has hit .256/.323/.392 -- above-average for a shortstop -- with 82 stolen bases and 45 home runs. Even on the decline, Rollins is clearly a better option at shortstop than Galvis, who owns a .230/.269/.375 career batting line (and similarly poor projected stats in 2014, according to most public systems).
Even if trading Rollins made sense for the team as constructed, the Phillies have worked hard over the past week or so to destroy any leverage they could have had in trade talks, thanks to the past week's circus act. Good luck convincing any opposing club to sacrifice anything of value in exchange for somebody whose hustle your team has been knocking in the media all spring.
Most importantly, though, this episode shows why the MLB Players Association collectively bargained for 10-and-5 rights, the rights that allow Rollins to nix any trade in which the Phillies would try and jettison him. Any player with 10 years of service time, and five years of service time with their current club, effectively has a no-trade clause until he leaves -- and Rollins easily satisfies both criteria.
Rollins has a family. His first child will turn two years old in June. He has spent the majority of his adult life living in Philadelphia. It seems fair to say he has set down roots in the city. Without these rights won by the MLBPA, players like Rollins could be used as scapegoats and tossed around the country with no regards for the lives they've created in their cities.
This, we should recall, was the real issue when Curt Flood challenged MLB's reserve clause in 1969. Flood had spent 14 years in the St. Louis Cardinals organization before he was traded to the Phillies, where he refused to report due to the belligerent and often racist nature of the fans there. These were the same fans who had effectively chased Dick Allen -- a black star player who went to St. Louis in the same trade -- out of town in the years prior. Flood merely wanted the right to decide where he plied his craft, an issue outside observers often ignore when it comes to professional athletes.
Rollins's response sounds terse, perhaps even hostile. But try and put yourself in his shoes. Rollins has given the Phillies three All-Star seasons, a National League MVP season, four Gold Gloves, and was a primary member of the 2008 World Series champions. He has earned the right to show up at spring training without team officials anonymously planting toothless trade rumors in the press.
Rollins has a vesting option in his contract for the 2015 season. Should Rollins take 434 plate appearances this season (for a total of 1,100 over the past two seasons), the option vests, and the Phillies will owe him $11 million next year. Should the option fail to vest -- seemingly impossible should Rollins stay healthy, considering he is clearly the best shortstop on the roster -- the club will have an $8 million option for next year, while Rollins will own a $5 million player option. And if Rollins stays healthy but finds himself on the end of more benchings like the one Sandberg threw on him last week, it will look awfully suspicious, especially if Rollins ends the season just short of those 434 plate appearances.
It's unfortunate that a player like Rollins who has given so much to the Phillies over the past decade-and-a-half has to see the twilight of his career tarnished by such silliness. Phillies management has chosen to address their problems by loudly shifting blame rather than finding a solution with substance; Rollins has addressed the situation by simply exercising his rights as a veteran player.