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rapid risers

per yesterday's paper, colby rasmus has a clean shot at claiming the starting job in centerfield. mozeliak was careful to issue a qualifier --- "The club doesn't need him to be in the opening day lineup" --- but he acknowledged that "some time this year he's going to be a contributing member of this club." i.e., if he does go to triple A the stay might be a short one. this is hardly a radical idea --- a number of cardinal hitters of recent note either bypassed triple A altogether or spent just a few weeks there. so i thought i'd compare their minor-league performance to rasmus's, and then check how those players fared as big-league rookies.

none of them, by the way, had a resume as impressive as rasmus's. colby hit .275 / .381 / .551 last year in 472 at-bats, leading led all double A players in homers (29) and ranking 3d in ops (.932). not bad for a 20-year-old. he heads into this season as a consensus top-10 prospect; baseball america hasn't released its top 100 yet, but everybody else has him ranked in the #5 to #8 range. with that, let's head to the list of precedents (which is in no way meant to be comprehensive):

yadier molina, 2004. age: 21 AAA: 129 ab, .302 / .384 / .372 AA: 364 ab, .275 / .321 / .332 BA rank: nr
yadi got called up on june 3, a few weeks shy of his 22d birthday, when mike matheny hit the 15-day dl; he made most of the starts during matheny's absence, impressed with his defense and hit enough singles (.229 / .349 / .257) to stick as the backup when mike returned. his final rookie line: .267 / .329 / .356 in 135 at-bats.

hector luna, 2004. age: 24 AAA: n/a AA: 462 ab, .297 / .363 / .359 BA rank: nr
luna was a rule V draftee, much older than rasmus and not really comparable; his experience is more applicable to brian barton's. but he's listed here because he leapfrogged triple A and lasted a season in the big leagues (on a 105-win team no less), hitting .249 / .304 / .364 in 173 at-bats.

albert pujols, 2001. age: 21 AAA: 14 ab AA: n/a BA rank: 42
in essence, he went directly from low A to the majors. conveniently enough, he was 20 years old (same age as rasmus last year) for his only season in the minors; compare the two:

pujols 00 490 74 154 41 7 19 96 .314 .373 .543
rasmus 07 472 93 130 37 3 29 72 .275 .381 .551

again, albert's line was mostly compiled in low A, two levels below colby's line from last year. don't get me wrong here; there's only one pujols. but if pujols could jump directly from A ball to the all-star team, then surely rasmus has a chance to be an above-average big-league centerfielder in 2008.

jd drew, 1999. age: 23 AAA: 79 at-bats, .316 / .465 / .519 AA: 67 at-bats, .328 / .438 / .627 BA rank: 1
drew went straight to double A after signing in 1998 and was in the majors by the end of that year; he was already 22 years old at the time and had spent 3 years at florida state and parts of 2 seasons in the unaffiliated northern league. drew opened the 1999 season in st louis but got sent down on may 15 despite a perfectly respectable .230 / .337 / .459 line. he got in another 87 at-bats at triple A, returned to st louis on june 30, and hit .245 / .340 / .415 the rest of the way.

willie mcgee, 1982. age: 23 AAA: 55 at-bats, .291 / .316 / .455; AA: 611 at-bats, .308 / .356 / .419 BA rank: n/a
blocked in the yankee farm system, mcgee spent two full seasons at double A and was 23 years old when the cards called him up in early may 1982. his first big-league at-bat was an embarrassment, but mcgee settled in and batted .296 for the cardinals in a season that culminated with a world championship.

now, those are just some guys who skipped (or glossed over) triple A and broke in with the cardinals. a number of other prominent st louis players followed the same path while breaking in other organizations. to wit:

edgar renteria, 1996. age: 20 AAA: 132 ab, .280 / .326 / .386 AA: 508 ab, .289 / .331 / .388 BA rank: 33
edgar got a chance just a month into the season when the marlins' incumbent ss, kurt abbott, went onto the dl; he hit .248 in 32 games and got sent back down. recalled after the all-star break, he batted .334 with 16 steals in the 2d half and ended up second in the rookie-of-the-year voting.

scott rolen, 1996. age: 21 AAA: 168 ab, .274 / .378 / .411 AA: 306 ab, .343 / .421 / .556 BA rank: 27
scottie spent all of 1994 and most of 1995 in class A; he got to double A in late 1995, stayed there for half of 1996, played 45 games at triple A and spent september with the phillies. he won the rookie of the year award in 1997.

ron gant, 1988. age: 23 AAA: 45 ab AA: 527 ab, .247 / .321 / .389
gant came up as a second baseman; after a moderately successful trial with the braves in september 1987, he opened the 1988 season at triple A but got recalled after a dozen games and spent the rest of the year in atlanta, hitting .259 / .317 / .439 with 19 homers. he finished 4th in the rookie of the year polling.

ozzie smith, 1978. age: 23. A: 287 ab, .303 / .392 / .362
ozzie signed out of cal poly in 1977 and spent the rest of that summer at walla walla, washington. the next spring he so impressed with the glove that the padres decided to shift ss bill almon to 3b. ozzie held his own at the plate, hitting .258 with 40 steals, and finished second in the roy voting as the padres enjoyed their first season above .500.

let's take a little stock here. for most of two years (2002-03), four of the cardinal starters (pujols, rolen, renteria, drew) had just a handful of triple A at-bats apiece; three of the current starters (pujols, rolen, molina) fall into that category. so rasmus would hardly be breaking new ground if he should join the lineup on opening day or shortly thereafter. another observation: the common thread that seems to unite all these examples is defense. aside from gant, every one of these guys could play his position. yesterday's article in the post alludes to that element; indeed, more than one scout believes rasmus' glove is more fully evolved than his bat.

to avoid any misunderstanding: i'm not advocating here. i'm not citing these examples to make a case that rasmus should skip triple A and jump straight to the big leagues. i undertook the exercise out of curiosity, to see what type of track record the organization has with hitters who possess little or no triple A experience. these examples are fairly mixed and don't prove anything; many of the guys on the above list struggled early (e.g., drew and renteria) or got their feet wet in very limited roles (e.g., molina and luna). but some of them did succeed right away; there's ample precedent for it. check back in a year and we'll see whether, and where, rasmus belongs on this list.