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The Curious Case of Colby Rasmus

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I first saw Colby Rasmus play a baseball game when he was a Redbird, a Future Redbird on the Memphis squad. It was an experience not all that different from my first time seeing Skip Schumaker, Chris Duncan, Chris Perez, or Adam Wainwright. Well, there was one difference. The hype. 

Rasmus was unquestionably the most-praised St. Louis prospect since JD Drew and Rick Ankiel, two players to whom the center fielder has become inextricably linked over the course of his young career. And I would know. Born and raised in a AAA town, one inevitably becomes attuned to the rumblings from scouts throughout the minors about up-and-comers. While baseball cards may no longer have "Rated Rookies" and I may no longer buy Traded Series to secure a ballplayer's true rookie card for my card collection, it is still fun to see a player pass through town en route to The Show, where they use white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are cathedrals, and the pitchers throw ungodly breaking stuff.

I have seen a lot of soon-to-be Cardinals pass through town in three- and four-game chunks. Because I want to know who I should be paying particular attention to--that is, which players have a shot at being big-leaguers and which are mere roster filler--I pay attention to the minor leagues. Not too much attention, but enough to have some chalk on my slate when the first pitch of a series is thrown. I made it to the park early for games featuring Ankiel The Pitcher, JD Drew, and then no one for years, then Ankiel The Outfielder, and Adam Wainwright (who I followed through the system after the Drew trade). I've seen Chris Duncan, Anthony Reyes, Tyler Johnson, and Josh Kinney. I used to joke that I had seen Skip Schumaker play more minor-league innings than big-league innings. For better or worse, a fact that is no longer true.

In recent years, I have happily been treated to a collection of players that those who know more about baseball than I project to be big-leaguers. Jess Todd, Chris Perez, Lance Lynn, Tyler Greene, Allen Craig, David Freese, Brian Anderson, Jon Jay, and Colby Rasmus. I confess to developing an attachment to some of them. Todd because he threw me a ball he warmed up with, Perez because I wound up witnessing his big-league debut against Tampa, Jay because of his swing and speed, and Craig because he blisters baseballs (but you don't need me to tell you that). Another player I developed an attachment to was Rasmus, a player scouts projected to be an All-Star center fielder.

Looking back at my scorecard from the May 27, 2008, I-Cubs-Redbirds game, I see the Memphis starting lineup featured Joe Mather, Nick Stavinoha, Freese, Brian Anderson, Rasmus, and Blake Hawksworth. Mark Worrell closed out the Memhpis win. The I-Cubs lineup featured future Japanese League hit champion Matt Murton, former next big thing Felix Pie, and future Brewer Casey McGehee. Out of them all, Rasmus stuck out, both because he went 2 for 4 with a walk and because of his silky smooth outfield movements. In that game, Rasmus was the player Joe DiMaggio has been immortalized as by god-making scribes. Rasmus represented the renaissance of the fabled five-tool center fielder. He hit for power (a double), singled, worked a walk, and played superbly in center. Visions of a new MV3 danced in my head like sugarplums on the night before Christmas.

Watching Rasmus on that day was a bit like a child secretly peeling back the wrapping paper on Christmas Eve and catching a glimpse of a much-desired present. 2009 was supposed to be Christmas morning for Colby Rasmus. As with the peeling back of the wrapping paper in Memphis, Rasmus's rookie campaign offered mere glimpses of his potential, putting up a .714 OPS and .311 wOBA along with excellent defense. His sophomore year was even revelatory with Edmondsian peaks and Schumakiavellian valleys. The evened-out end result was an .859 OPS and .366 wOBA. A season that should have been heralded as a breaking out was marred by late-season drama.

The dog days of a pennant race's fade gave way to the revelation that the center fielder of Cardinals present and future had requested a trade, perhaps twice.* It was a revelation that cast a shadow for some over the promising sophomore--by and large those who know not of WAR, wOBA, or perhaps even OPS, but also some who do. It was the type of drama fans dislike as much as once-in-a-generation stars.  Albert Pujols chimed in, too, and forcefully.

*That weekend, I was actually in the Quad Cities with Azruavatar for a River Bandits series.

Against this backdrop of streakiness and drama, Rasmus bolted out of the gates this season. Along with Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, Rasmus set an otherworldly pace for the offense, a pace that has proven unsustainable. His 2010 was marked by valleys and peaks. After a skyscraping early season, Rasmus has fallen into one craterous canyon of a slump. As his average has slipped lower and lower, rumblings of trading the skilled youngster have grown into a full-throated topic of discussion in some corners of Cardinal Nation. Never one to pass on adding to drama, Rasmus's father, Tony, took to the blogosphere to say that the Cardinals trading Rasmus would be best.

Rasmus is "cursed with the gift of grace," a description Joe Posanski applied to Carlos Beltran the Royal last week. Unlike Beltran, however, Rasmus's smoothness, his grace, has a flip-side to it. This was on full display yesterday when Rasmus uncorked a silky smooth swing and laced a liner into the right field corner at Miller Park and then hit maximum speed en route to his seventh triple on the year. But, it was not to be. Rasmus tripped on the second base bag when rounding it on his way to third and was retired by the diving tag of Yuniesky Bentancourt. Poetry in motion became a baserunning calamity in an eye's blink.

Occurrences in this vein, such as frequent strikeouts and misplayed dives, seem to have driven the wedge regarding Rasmus in Cardinal Nation. There is a section that firmly believes Rasmus must go and it is a section that seems to focus on batting average and how Rasmus plays the game. Meanwhile, those more attuned to sabermetrics scoff at the notion of trading a player so young, so cheap, and so productive. It is representative of a gulf touched on last week by Eric Freeman in a column focusing on Bryce Harper that also mentions Rasmus:

One side effect of the sabermetric revolution has been that most baseball stars are talked about almost exclusively in terms of their production (and rightfully so, because, well, they’re awesome at the sport). That trend has been compounded by the fact that a lot of today’s best hitters are stylistic vaccuums (see: Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, and Ryan Braun, to name three) incapable of being described in terms other than "steady" and "really good." The upshot of these factors is that discussion of the sport tends to shy away from treating baseball like a spectator sport and instead turns it into a confluence of events. That’s not to say that people don’t like watching baseball anymore; it’s just that we discuss what happened without spending much energy on describing how it happened.

The voices* in support of keeping Rasmus focus on his production, in particular his 2.2 fWAR so far this still-young season. WAR is a statistic that does not take into account the fan's reaction to a misplayed flyball or a trip on second base. It does not remember such plays any more than it does the triples, the homers, or the walks. WAR is not affected by a single fan's memory of a certain event, one that sticks out like a sore thumb. It is sterile in its all-encompassing nature, reflecting those numbers that are plugged into its formula. One might say it lacks the "human element."

*Bernie Miklasz had a good "Bernie Bytes" column crunching the numbers on why trading Rasmus was "silly."

The way Rasmus carries himself (or doesn't) also seems to fuel his detractors. Like the skilled and productive JD Drew before him, Rasmus plays the game with an even keel--never noticeably up and never noticeably down, he goes about his business, accruing WAR along the way. Lacking the flair of an Edmonds, the grittiness of an Eckstein, a .300-level skill for making contact, or a knack for dirtying up his uniform, Rasmus can appear to lack those traits which so often inspire sportwriter puffery about "knowing how to win," "doing the little things," "being a team players," and "making things happen." 

This is a reality that I have come to accept. Rasmus is not Willie McGee. There will never be a "Retire 28" movement. He isn't Edmonds. We'll never be calling him "Colby Baseball." In fact, Rasmus may never become the Rasmus that the scouts and prospect experts projected him to be, that five-tool empty vessel who could do it all and with consistency. For now, he is an incredibly cheap player that could very well be one of the top 25 players in the league. Even if he is a streaky hitter whose defensive misplays can be frustrating, that's a player I would take on my club any day.