CINCINNATI -- During the 2009 season, the Reds already had a players’ manager in Dusty Baker. What the club of younger players lacked was a players’ player, a respected veteran leader who could set a good example.
The general manager at the time, Walt Jocketty, felt there was a solution, and it was third baseman Scott Rolen. However, Cincinnati was 11 games under .500, in fourth place and 9 1/2 games back from first at the Trade Deadline on July 31. When teams in similar situations were looking to sell, the Reds were surprise buyers.
Jocketty made the deal to acquire the 34-year-old Rolen from the Blue Jays after the All-Star waived his no-trade rights. Going to Toronto was third baseman Edwin Encarnación, reliever Josh Roenicke and starting pitching prospect Zach Stewart.
“If I had to do it again, I would definitely do it again. Guys like that are hard to find,” Jocketty told MLB.com on Friday from his home in Arizona.
The immediate effect
Initially, the trade was lauded for the Reds. They landed a proven five-time All-Star with six Gold Glove Awards and someone who had won the 2006 World Series with the Cardinals while Jocketty was that club’s GM.
“He was a guy that I knew his work ethic, his will and drive to win and be a good ballplayer was something that was important to instill in our young players,” Jocketty said. “That’s exactly what he did.”
In his second game with the Reds, Rolen suffered a concussion from a beaning and went on the injured list. After his activation, Cincinnati went 27-13 over the final 40 games and finished 78-84. Overall for the season, Rolen slashed .305/.368/.455 with 11 home runs.
“Guys started watching him take ground balls during batting practice and work as hard as he did every day getting ready for the games,” Jocketty said. “I remember Brandon Phillips remarking to me, ‘Man, look at that guy. He’s working all the time.’”
Reds first baseman Joey Votto was already known for having a strong work ethic, but he also benefited from Rolen’s presence. Votto remembered the Reds playing Toronto in 2008 and seeing Rolen in action.
“You watch a great player with a fantastic track record perform in front of your own eyes, you think, ‘Whoa, this guy is really darn good.’ Then you get to play with him and watch how he works and his demeanor and all of a sudden, it changes your perspective,” Votto said on Tuesday. “You say, ‘Wow, I want to be more like that.’ Playing with Scott was perfectly timed for a lot of our team.”
The long-term impact
Jocketty didn’t make the Rolen trade to finish 2009 strong. The eye was firmly fixed on '10, and the two sides agreed to a three-year, $24 million extension. The Reds won the National League Central division that season, their first playoff berth in 15 years.
While Rolen made his on- and off-field contributions while batting .285/.358/.497 with 20 homers, his nucleus of teammates thrived. Votto won the National League Most Valuable Player Award while Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, Ryan Hanigan and Phillips also delivered.
The Reds fell back in 2011 and returned in ’12 to win 97 games and another division title. Jocketty credited Rolen for changing the culture of the club.
“He had that dry wit,” Jocketty said. “He got on people in a good way, but it made them think about what they were doing. I knew his leadership was something we really needed.”
The favored Reds fell to the Giants in the best-of-five NL Division Series after having a 2-0 advantage. Rolen did not have a good series, committing a critical error in the 10th inning of Game 3, which scored the go-ahead run for San Francisco. In the final at-bat of the series, Rolen struck out against Sergio Romo in Game 5.
It would be the final at-bat of Rolen’s career. Injuries, primarily to his right shoulder, limited him to 157 games combined over 2011-12. The Reds reached the playoffs once more without him, in '13, but faded down the stretch and lost the NL Wild Card Game to Pittsburgh. Baker was dismissed after the season, bringing the era to a close.
“I think it’s important for every young player to have -- whether it’s a manager, coach or a teammate -- someone set an example and mold the work habits of young baseball athletes. Scott was that,” Votto said.
Revisionist trade history
As the Reds came up empty on reaching the World Series and Rolen retired at 37, something unexpected happened -- Encarnación became a superstar.
In 2008, Encarnación slugged 26 homers and posted an .807 OPS, but he regressed in ’09 while batting .209 with five homers and .707 OPS. He also lost his regular spot as the Reds’ third baseman, a position he had long struggled at defensively. He committed 26 errors in ’06 and 23 in ’08 -- mostly from bad throws.
“At the time, Encarnación wasn’t really a factor for us,” Jocketty said. "I think what most people were upset about was Zach Stewart and, to some extent, Josh Roenicke. We thought Stewart was going to be a great pitcher. Sometimes you just have to take risks to get the reward that you want.”
Stewart had parts of two seasons in the Majors -- 33 games total -- with three clubs and was out of the Majors after 2012. Roenicke pitched for three teams after the Reds and hasn’t been in the big leagues since ’13.
On the other hand, Encarnación thrived in Toronto as a first baseman and designated hitter -- including career highs of 42 homers hit in 2012 and ’16. He also had a career-high 127 RBIs in ’16 and was a three-time All-Star. In 11 seasons with Toronto, Cleveland, Seattle and the Yankees since his Reds days, he’s hit 343 of his 414 career homers.
Many fault Jocketty for making a bad trade, something he disputes. The Reds weren’t the only club that didn’t see Encarnación as a budding talent at the time. After the 2010 season, Toronto let him get away on waivers to Oakland. The A’s non-tendered him a month later and with no other interested clubs, the Blue Jays brought him back on a one-year, $2.5 million deal.
“If you look at his record, he’s had a great career. But he’s bounced around a lot, too. It took him a couple of years,” said Jocketty, who is now executive advisor to Reds CEO Bob Castellini. “He was a late bloomer and he’s had a great career. But he was also a DH. We obviously don’t have a DH in the National League and we had Votto playing first base. Encarnación wasn’t a very good third baseman or outfielder.”
Votto lauded Encarnación and viewed him as one of his favorite people in the game. He didn’t feel comparing the main players in the trade after the fact was fair to either Rolen or Encarnación.
“We caught Scott at the right time, and he had a fantastic impact on our team,” Votto said. “With Edwin as an example, sometimes careers don’t follow a straight line and he was such an impactful player for the Toronto Blue Jays. Not every time is there a huge winner or huge loser in trades. Sometimes it’s neutral or complicated.”