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Friday, September 27
Cardinals lock up a gem in Rolen

By Jayson Stark

Eight years, $90 million.

That's what the Cardinals decided Friday that a 27-year-old, 30-homer, 100-RBI, Gold Glove third baseman was worth.

Eight years, $90 million.

Including a $5-million signing bonus, a full no-trade for the life of the deal and enough deferred money to allow the Cardinals the financial flexibility to stay competitive in the always-winnable NL Central.

Scott Rolen
Scott Rolen is tied for fifth in the National League with 108 RBI.

Eight years, $90 million.

Here's our first question: Will any free agent this winter get a package as lucrative as the contract Scott Rolen signed Friday?

And the likely answer: Not happening.

The biggest names on the market will be Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Pudge Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Edgar Martinez, Cliff Floyd and Jeff Kent. Not one will be under 30 by the time next season rolls around. And except for Thome and Floyd, the most attractive of the bunch -- Glavine, Maddux, Clemens and Kent -- will be anywhere from 35 to 40 next Opening Day.

So what team is going to give any of those men an eight-year contract? Answer: Zero.

Thome (still only 32) might command a deal close to that if he chooses to open the bidding, instead of trying to find a way to stay in Cleveland at a hometown discount. But every indication is that Cleveland is where he wants to be. And like Rolen, where he plays is more important to him than how much he plays for, assuming the Indians' offer isn't too embarrassing to accept.

Glavine? Maddux? Clemens? Conceivably, they could wind up with more dollars per year, but not for eight years -- or even half of that. And many agents also suspect that the age of the pitching zillionaires might be over.

"I think we're going to see more money going to position players than pitchers in this market," said one agent Friday. "I think (Mike) Hampton, (Kevin) Brown and (Darren) Dreifort have scared people away. Teams realize that if you tie up this much of your payroll in a guy who only goes out there every five days, and then that guy is unproductive or injured, you're really tying up your dollars in players who don't give you the productivity for the buck."

Still, the markets for the other top position players -- Kent and Floyd -- are hard to read. But given the age of Kent (35) and the health history of Floyd (who turns 30 this winter), it's hard to imagine they'll get Rolen's years and Rolen's dollars.

The funny thing is, though, that Rolen might well have gotten more had he made it onto the market. But that brings us to our second question:

Any time the Phillies tried to negotiate with him, his consistent answer was: I want to become a free agent. I've earned that right. I want to see what's out there. Then, when he was only days away from his shot at free agency, he signed a contract that forfeited that right for eight years. What's up with that?

Well, the fact is, Rolen isn't your average baseball animal. And his agents -- Seth Levinson, Sam Levinson and Keith Miller -- understand that.

They told Rolen he could make more money by letting the market take its course. He'd already been offered more money (seven guaranteed years, $90 million) by the Phillies, in fact.

So some agents we know would have refused to negotiate this deal -- not when free agency was as close as the season premiere of "24." But by this week, it was clear that St. Louis was where Rolen wanted to be, where he always wanted to be.

He'd long been reasonably sure of that from afar. But once he was there -- wearing that Cardinals cap, playing in front of those full houses every night, waving to those people who loved him at first sight, heading for his team's third straight playoff visit -- he saw no reason to explore any more.

Rolen was always uncomfortable with the edginess of Philadelphia -- its fans, its talk shows, its tough-love ambiance. He had no interest in courting those people with anything more than his ferocious approach to playing baseball between innings one and nine. Ultimately, that soured Philadelphia -- and the men who run the Phillies -- on him, just as he clearly soured on them.

So it's obvious now that by the end, it didn't matter what the Phillies offered him. It wasn't going to be enough to buy off all that other stuff. And it was equally obvious Friday that, by exactly the same token, it didn't matter how much more Rolen could have made as a Cub or a Red. St. Louis was his kind of place.

To convince him of that, the Cardinals were able to do what they always do -- with Mark McGwire, with Jim Edmonds, with everybody: They let the town and the team sell themselves, naturally and easily and persuasively. Never fails.

But there's one more question people will be asking now: Is he worth it?

In Philadelphia, from the moment the Phillies' offer was made public, there was nonstop debate about that. Did he hit enough? Did he get to the ballpark early enough? Etc. Etc. Etc.

Well, here are the facts: A teammate of Brooks Robinson told us recently that Rolen is a better defensive third baseman than Robinson was. Mike Schmidt told us himself that Rolen is a better defensive third baseman than he was. And those two own the most Gold Gloves of any third basemen in history.

Offensively, even Rolen would acknowledge he hasn't been all that he could be. And still, he's fifth in the league in RBI. And he leads all National League third baseman in home runs, RBI, runs scored, walks and slugging.

He's one of only two third basemen in history with three seasons of at least 25 homers, 100 RBI and one Gold Glove. The other was Schmidt.

After the first five full seasons of Rolen's career -- not even counting this year -- he had 102 more hits, 55 more doubles, nine more runs scored and 19 more RBI than Schmidt had at the same stage. And 14 more homers and 82 more RBI than George Brett. And 30 more RBI than Alex Rodriguez. And as many Gold Gloves (three) as Brooks Robinson.

And he's only 27.

So is he worth eight years, $90 million?

Well, he is now.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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