Gutentag, mon freres. That's right. I stand by it.
I'm filling in this morning to give our esteemed host a much deserved day off from the holiday season whirlwind. It does, however, put me in a bit of an odd position, given that I used up all of my year end review material last week. (Thanks for all of the feedback, by the way. I wasn't expecting anyone to actually enjoy discussing any of that stuff, but it turned out really great.) So, if you didn't like what I had to say last week, then good news, everyone! This week, I'm actually going to talk a bit about baseball! I know it's a little unorthodox for a baseball blog, but I think we can all make it work if we pull together.
Specifically, I wanted to talk a little bit about the Cardinal's center fielder of the future, Mr. Colby Rasmus. Over there on the Rotoworld sidebar, (just to the left of this) Mozeliak's declaration that Rasmus will be given the chance to win the starting job in Spring Training is featured. My own feelings on the subject were mixed to begin with. At first, with Jimmy gone, I felt very excited; a sense of, "the future is now" sort of situation. I thought it was great that we might get a chance to see a future superstar patrolling center right out of the Spring. That was coupled with a bit of trepidation, though. While I feel immensely confident in the ability of Rasmus to come up, learn on the fly, and, with time, become a true impact player, I still worry about him being rushed. He is still only 21 years old; that's awfully young to be in the big leagues at all, much less in a starting role. Again, I think he should be able to handle it, but you don't want him to come up, struggle, and have his confidence shaken.
As time goes on, though, I'm coming down more and more on the side of hoping that Colby doesn't make the team out of ST. And in the end, it comes down, not to concerns about his development, nor to trying to avoid starting his service clock running early, (I fall firmly in line with the school of thought that, if Colby is approaching the service time to become a FA and you haven't locked him up on a five year, or longer, deal, then he hasn't worked out at all the way we thought he would) nor even to thoughts of trying to alleviate the pressure by making him an in season call up, with the somewhat tempered expectations that would come along with it. No, the reason I hope that Rasmus starts his year in Triple A is summed up in two mathematical formulas. Don't worry if you're not the sabermetric type; these aren't nearly as complex as the equations that are usually thrown around here. They are:
That's it. No more, no less.
The way I see it, the Cardinals currently have six outfielders vying for five spots. They are:
I've divided them into two groups like this because I think the first three are pretty much locks to be on the 25 man roster next season in the OF. The next three are essentially competing for the remaining two spots worth of playing time; hence, the second, (and, really, more important) of the two formulae above. I'm not concerned with starting and backup roles; we've seen that bench players on a Tony LaRussa team get plenty of ABs, indeed, they often get far more than they should.
Now, ordinarily, one would look at a situation like this and say that, out of those six, you simply hold a competition in Spring and take the five best. In such a competition, you would probably also side with the player who appears to be a big part of the future of the franchise, i.e. Colby Rasmus, over guys who look like future bit players, or have significant unknowns at this point. However, in this particular case this season, the situation is a little more complicated than that.
As I said before, the first three on that list, (Duncan, Ankiel, and Ludwick) I feel have virtually no chance of not being on the roster to start the year. There are pretty obvious reason for all of them, so I would go into them at any great length. The second group, though, will only get two of the three on to the roster. And therein lies the rub. Of those three, two of them really, really need to be on the roster. And the one who looks to be the biggest part of the team in the long term is the one who really doesn't.
Skip Schumaker is out of options. If he doesn't make the team, in order to be sent down to the minors, he would have to clear waivers and all that sort of thing, and I really don't think he would make it through. Skip, with his definite limitations, is still quite a useful player to have around, and some team would pick him up. As much as I hate to use BA for anything, he did hit .333 last year. He doesn't have a whole lot of power, and his plate discipline is just decent, but he has very nice speed and plays vsolid defense. He's not a star by any means, but he is a nice option as an extra outfielder, and maybe he could be a little better than that if given the chance, hitting at the top of a lineup and playing center. If the Cardinals hold on to him and give him adequate playing time early in the season, he either plays well, establishing some value for himself, either as a slightly more permanent part of this Cards team, or as a solid piece of a trade package. I don't see him being the principle piece of any deal, but as a secondary player, I think he could be very valuable. Again, though, if he is lost to the waiver wire, the Cardinals get absolutely nothing for him.
Brian Barton is the other piece of this equation. As a Rule 5 draft pick, Barton has to stay on the 25 man roster all year, or else be lost, either back to his original team, (and believe me, the Indians would take him back) or to the waiver wire. Now, I'm sure a lot of people's thought process here is something along the lines of, "hey, we got the guy for absolutely nothing, who cares if we lose him? Colby's gonna be better anyway!" While there is some validity to that argument, Barton has the potential to be a very good player. He has tremendous plate discipline, decent pop in his bat, and well above average speed. Now, there is an injury concern with him, as he had offseason knee surgery, (the only reason he was available for the Cards to grab, by the way) so you can debate how close to his true potential he's going to be. However, again, this is a player who's situation makes it important, to my way of thinking, that you hold on to him. He has the potential to be a great leadoff hitter, and he can play anywhere in the outfield. Barton is too good of a talent for a team in transition to give up on him, without getting a really solid look at what he can do. (Yes, I know there are some creative things you can do, with the DL and things like that, to hold on to a Rule 5 guy if he's not on the 25 man, but I'm not taking into account any odd rule bending that could be attempted.)
On the other hand, we have Colby Rasmus. Colby has a whole lot of things going for him. He's the consensus best prospect in the Cardinal organisation. He's anywhere from about the third to the seventh best prospect in baseball, according to which scouting service you pay attention to. In the long run, he's as safe a bet as you can imagine to be the very best of any outfielder in the group of six up above. There's one other thing that Mr. Rasmus has, that none of the other players have. Colby has options. If you want to assign Colby to a minor league club, (in this case, Memphis) there are absolutely no repurcussions. You don't risk losing him, you don't have to offer him to anyone, nothing. You say, "Hey, kid, you're going to Memphis." Then he goes, "Man, that sucks." You tell him he'll be back before long, that it's best for the team, and probably him, if he starts out in AAA, and that's it. In this particular case, in spite of Rasmus being, in all likelihood, the best player, and the most important part of the franchise, of any of these guys in the long run, there's much less of an impetus to have him on the roster straight out of spring training than either of the other two guys he will basically be competing against.
If Rasmus comes out and just absolutely destroys ST, hitting .370 with seven home runs or something, then there's really almost no way you can keep him out of the lineup. But if he comes out and has a good but not great spring, then I think it would behoove the Cardinals to start him out in Triple A. Give plenty of at bats to the other players on the list. By the June rolls around, and Colby is tearing it up in Memphis, hopefully some of the other five players have established some solid value, and a team with a need will be looking to the Cards' outfield surplus to bolster their own woes.
To me, the optimal situation would be along the lines of Rasmus starting in AAA. Around June, or so, Scott Rolen, Chris Duncan, and Skip Schumaker have all performed well. At that point, you move Duncan, preferably to an AL team that needs lineup pop, and receive a solid young pitcher in return. You then try to move Rolen to a team like the Dodgers, who will, in my estimation, be trying to bolster their team with some veteran talent to stay in the race against the DBacks and the Padres. You try to pry away Andy LaRoche and Scott Elbert; Schumaker can be included if the parameters of the deal need to be expanded. Rasmus slides in to the hole in the outfield left by Duncan's departure and takes over starting duties in center. By that point in time, you have a solid idea of exactly how your outfield is going to be configured going forward. Rasmus is your center fielder, the Ricker is probably in right, and, personally, I hope Barton proves he can be a starter in left, hitting atop the lineup. Ludwick continues to take at bats, rotating all over the OF, and, if Skip was moved as well, your next outfielder on the depth chart, (probably a guy like Joe Mather) slides up to take over extra outfield duties. Note that I'm using Duncan as a trade example, not because I don't like him, but because I think he's the best candidate to be moved to a different situation, and also because he's the most one dimensional of the players we're discussing here. I'm rooting for Barton for a really similar reason; he's a potential impact talent in several different areas at once, and I'm a sucker for really super athletic players.
It may seem counterintuitive to hold back your franchise's highest watt position prospect in favour of other players who have very little chance of ever being as good as he will be, but that's what I'm advocating here. This team has so many needs to improve that, to my mind, wasting any small drop of talent or value that you possibly have on hand would be a huge mistake. Impatience, in my opinion, would be one of the biggest mistakes that Mozeliak and the Cardinals could make right now. I know that it's tough to suffer through this, watching as other teams get immediately better, and our own hometown nine sputter along in neutral, but building a perennial contender takes time. To me, sending Rasmus to Triple A will allow him additional time to grow, away from the spotlight, and allow the organisation to work out the situation in the outfield before he gets here. More value can be squeezed out of these players if you can move one or two of them to improve the team, rather than getting nothing back, just to create the illusion that the Cardinal team of the future is going to get here faster. Patience, everyone. Patience.
Also, I want to apologise for the late post. I agreed to do this on Monday, then woke up this morning and didn't realise that it was Monday until about 10:15 or so. Sorry.
Everyone have a very Happy New Year, and please be careful. You can't read Viva El Birdos if you're locked up for whatever reason, and you'll miss the whole rebuild, not to mention the future championships, if you're dead. So please, take care of yourselves. I'll see you all in the new year.