Why the Cardinals can't trade Colby Rasmus

As Larry mentioned, I'll be writing on Fridays (capital letters and all).  I'm not here to make this my weekly talk about the minors and I'm still going to be writing about them at Future Redbirds but VeB offers me the chance to broaden my discussion. . .which I'll do next week.  This week, I want to focus on one specific minor leaguer and their importance to the Cardinals.

There's a sentiment out there that if the Cardinals could acquire some marquee young player already established in the major leagues (say Miguel Cabrera) that they should do so, whatever the cost. Most knowledgeable baseball fans realize that the team needs to get younger (and better) in a hurry. And while it's not impossible to land a young marquee player, here are three reasons why the Cardinals should sit tight:

  1. $$$
  2. The farm system can't support that kind of trade
  3. Trading Rasmus is losing a (potential) all-star player on the right end of the defensive spectrum
The Cardinals need to save money by paying some players league minimum. The payroll ceiling isn't the problem and people who complain about DeWitt being cheap don't realize the changing structure of ball clubs. The Yankees aren't scooping up massive contracts anymore just because someone wants to dump them; the Red Sox are thriving on their prospects combined with free agents. Those two teams illustrate quite well that just dumping money into the system isn't the way things operate in 21st century baseball as they go through their own transition to merge prospects with veterans. It's the confluence of both talented (and even bit part) prospects coming up to make league minimum for a few years and a few core veteran players that allows a club to be successful over a sustained period of time. More salary is the simple answer but it isn't the right one and it's not a model that the Cardinals can follow given their market. We're watching right now what happens when our club is hamstrung by long term deals to multiple aging players without a decent farm system; it's not something I want to be in the habit of watching.

The second point is that our farm system is pretty bad. Outside of Colby Rasmus there is no truly elite prospect. There are a couple that could turn out to be elite prospects but none that I'd want to wager money on yet. To get the kind of player that I often hear discussed (Cabrera, Erik Bedard, Tim Lincecum) would require not only Colby Rasmus but a collection of our second tier prospects as well. That is not something our system can support. Trading of two of our top 5 prospects would probably put the Cardinals in the bottom 5-10 farm systems in the league. It's not that we don't have interesting prospects or prospects that won't ever contribute in the majors but that so many of our prospects have large question marks attached to them.

Is it possible that our top prospect is underrated within the Cardinal community? I think so. This idea that he's a prospect and hence a massive question mark is misleading. Rasmus plays an average defensive centerfield at worst. He was named the best defensive CF in the Texas League this year by Baseball America and I'm firmly of the opinion that he can be worth about 5-10 runs a year with his glove. He's shown good discretion and speed on the basepaths with a stolen base success rate that makes his speed an actual asset rather than the mirage of one. He's well regarded by scouts and statheads alike -- and I'm certainly extremely high on him, for whatever that's worth. He's hit for average, power and done everything else with the bat you could ask for. One American League scout said that "Of all the high school outfielders from the 2005 draft, it seems like he's the guy that gets the least amount of attention [...] and [he] might be better than them all when it's all said and done." (That 2005 draft included notable high school outfielders Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen and Jay Bruce.)

Some will argue that "prospects falter all the time -- he could wind up turning into nothing". Two responses to that: a) he's a blue chip prospect that has an extremely good chance of making the majors and b) if you can't count on your top prospect for two years running in your farm system to pan out then your name might be Ned Colletti (or Brian Sabean). Colby may turn into a pumpkin next year but you're flat out wrong if you think that's the most likely scenario. By the same token any superstar could get seriously injured and be a shell of them former selves (cough Scott Rolen cough). You can't be so gun-shy by anecdotal cases of premier prospects failing that you trade off your best prospect from a weak farm system.

Let's briefly look at some numbers that Colby has put up in the minors. His BB/PA% in Palm Beach in 2006 and last year was above 12%. I've commented a few times about Jarrett Hoffpauir and how his walk rate is what differentiates him from other contact hitters -- well, Rasmus has excellent walk rates as well. He struck out in just shy of 20% of his plate appearances this past year and while that's a number that I suspect will be high throughout his career, as a power hitter, it certainly doesn't seem to be a hindrance thus far. Rick Ankiel posted a .301 isolated power (SLG - AVG) in Memphis and got rave reviews for his power; Colby posted a .276 mark in Springfield (which is, admittedly, more of a hitter's park) as he displays that power we'd expect to see develop between ages 20-25 for a lot of prospects. It's worth noting that his numbers aren't really luck driven either as his BABIP rates have been consistent with the number of line drives and level of power he displays.

For those of you more interested in traditional rate stats, this past year at Springfield, Colby put up a .274/.380/.550 in 2007. That's good for a .930 OPS. Pujols and Duncan appear to be the only players capable of putting up +900 OPS marks in the majors. Colby may not be that good of an offensive player once he reaches the majors but I can count on one hand the number of prospects who put up .900 OPS marks in the Cardinal's system this past year. If we look at some minor league equivalencies (MLEs explained here) from Baseball Prospectus, Rasmus's Springfield line is roughly the equivalent of a .240/.331/.474 major league line. Meaning RIGHT NOW, he's capable -- not that he will; just capable -- of putting up around a .275 EqA (.260 is average). Add in his plus defense at a premium position and his speed and it's entirely possible that he could be an above average player right now in the majors. Given how young he is, that's remarkable. If you apply aging curves to those Springfield numbers, BP projects that Rasmus could peak at .273/.380/.538 given his skillset. Now you may doubt the validity of MLEs, and I'm not arguing against a dose of skepticism there, but even if Rasmus is in the general vicinity of those numbers he's an everyday player if not an All-Star.

This kid is for real and it would behoove the Cardinals to hold on to him -- regardless of the bounty that they could get for him now.

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