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The Case For Pursuing Jimmy Rollins

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I know this is more of an "off-season post" but let's face it -- many to most of us are looking ahead to 2012 with more interest than we can muster watching the dog days of August unfold.

First off, there are plenty of good reasons not to make Jimmy Rollins a primary target and so I am going to begin with a rebuttal. A "prebuttal" if you will. Will you?

Let's start with the two words that strike fear into anyone who contemplates shelling out significant money on a multi-year deal for an infielder in his 30s who relies on speed as part of his game: Chone Figgins. The last thing the A's need is to find themselves saddled with a Figgins-like disaster. Rollins will turn 33 on November 27th.

Rollins is also what the A's can't ever sign anyway: A high profile free agent position player -- this one at a premium position, no less, where many teams around both leagues will be looking to improve.

So now that I've talked you out of pursuing Rollins, and thoroughly convinced you that it's a bad idea the A's won't have the opportunity to fail at anyway, here's why I have my eye on Rollins as a possible off-season target...

The first thing to note is that the A's may have an opening with Rollins they don't often have with good position players who are looking as free agents. Rollins hails from Alameda, and grew up an A's fan. Given a competitive offer, Rollins might specifically like Oakland where most hitters will specifically shy away. So while the A's presumably will have, as usual, no shot at the "most coveted free agents" (Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder), in this weak free agent pool Rollins could represent the rare hybrid of a player who might actually consider coming to Oakland and a player who might actually provide the A's with a real upgrade.

Rollins also has a hitting profile that is less likely to suffer for playing home games at the Coliseum. He is a "singles/doubles all fields" switch hitter with a pretty good eye and occasional HR pop. In a lot of ways, his hitting style is similar to that of Jemile Weeks and we've seen that Weeks' style can play fine at home in contrast to the suppression that, for example, RH power hitters often experience.

Is Rollins showing signs of decline due to age? This is a matter of interpretation but I tend to think that at least as of now, Rollins still has the skills of a strong defensive SS and pretty dynamic hitter.

Rollins is having a solid offensive season (.267/.341/.401 with 13 HRs and 27 SBs in 33 tries) but it is well known that he plays half his games in a very good hitter's park. Here's an interesting note, though, about Rollins' 2011 season: his success is certainly not coming simply because Chase Field (er, Citizen's Bank Park) is a good place to hit. In fact, Rollins is hitting relatively poorly at home (.243/.333/.358, 6 HRs) and much better on the road (.290/.341/.441, 7 HRs).

Overall, if you browse his career stats, you'll see that Rollins is not the hitter he was at his peak in 2007, but following a down year in 2010 he has bounced back nicely and does not appear to be over the hill yet. Of course the question is, when will he be? In a SS, you'll probably see signs of decline first on defense as it is such a demanding defensive position.

Defensively, Rollins shows a possibly slight, or perhaps no real, decline in range factor (UZR/150s from 2008-11: 15.2, 5.0, 12.3, 6.0, meaning his averages from 2008-09, and 2010-11, are very comparable), and if there's a drop it's from great to solid.

Meanwhile, errors may not be the best measure of defensive prowess overall but they are certainly one good measure of unforced mistakes that hand opportunities to the other team. And Rollins doesn't make many errors at all. While I was typing this, Cliff Pennington made his 16th error of the season; he was charged with 25 errors last season. Here are Rollins' error totals since 2001, during which time he has averaged 148 games: 14, 14, 14, 9, 12, 11, 11, 7, 6, 6, and 5 so far this season.

My thinking is that if the A's were to give Rollins a 4-year deal (which might be needed to sign him), they would be getting someone who currently has above average range at SS with a very low error total, who can offer you a solid #2 hitter behind Weeks in the batting order. Going forward you would expect to see some decline in range, so you might settle for average range in the middle of the contract and perhaps even a move to 3B by the very end of the deal -- which, at the moment, looks valuable too, even if not ideal.

Remember that the A's made a real pursuit of Rafael Furcal on a 4-year deal when Furcal was 30 and coming off of a serious surgery (microdiscectomy in his back). I would characterize the risk with Rollins as being less, in that Rollins is healthy as well as historically durable (he has played in 137+ games 9 of his last 10 years, 154 or more in 8 of them), and his natural decline due to aging can probably be somewhat projected while it was unsure whether or how much Furcal would bounce back from back surgery.

Now I don't know what the A's will do with their 3 free agent OFers, but let's consider a scenario where the A's sign Josh Willingham to a 3-year deal and let Coco Crisp and David DeJesus walk. I love Crisp but his health scares me and I'm getting increasingly comfortable with Ryan Sweeney as a CFer, especially if the A's can find a platoon partner for him.

In fact, as unpopular as it would be with some on AN, I'd love the A's to reacquire Rajai Davis to platoon with Sweeney. Sweeney's career line against RHP is .303/.356/.410. Davis' career line against LHPs is .292/.351/.412. I wouldn't mind having a CF who could hit around .295/.350/.410 with decent defense.

If not Davis, perhaps a similar player who can hit LHPs well enough, and play CF well enough, to platoon with Sweeney. Heck, maybe Jermaine Mitchell could even fulfill that task. I also really wouldn't mind having Willingham's bat in the middle of the lineup, primarily as a DH, even if the A's had to pay more than you'd like for a DH in order to keep Willingham's bat in the lineup and his glove mostly on the bench.

I'll let others estimate what it would cost for the A's to secure Willingham on a 3-year deal and Rollins on a 4-year deal. If you let Crisp go, you subtract a $5.75M contract, and if you sign Rollins you have the flexibility to move Pennington to a team for whom Pennington would be an upgrade -- and there are teams worse off at SS than the A's are now.

And check out the lineup you wind up with for 2012 going forward:

Weeks - 2B
Rollins - SS
Allen - LF
Willingham - DH
Sweeney/"Davis" - CF
Taylor - RF
Barton - 1B
Sizemore - 3B
Suzuki - C

If Taylor busts, you can move Willingham to the OF and bring up Carter to DH, and if Barton busts, you can move Allen to 1B, so there are some safeguards in place, along with Grant Green and Michael Choice knocking at the door in the near future.

Meanwhile, you haven't dealt any of your core pitching and if you re-sign Harden the starting rotation is pretty solid (though granted not spectacular before Brett Anderson returns):

Gio Gonzalez
Trevor Cahill
Rich Harden
Brandon McCarthy
Tyson Ross/Josh Outman

and bullpen looks good, with Moscoso where he belongs in long relief:

Bailey
Balfour
De Los Santos
Devine
Breslow
Fuentes
Moscoso

I don't know that this is a team which would cause fans to forget about the 1927 Yankees, or even the 2011 Phillies. But if that were our team going into 2012, I'd be excited for the season and for the A's near future (especially 2013), and I think it's both plausible and within the A's budget. Your thoughts?